Talking Movies

June 10, 2011

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

It may seem obvious, as it’s an endlessly cited term, but I’d like to examine it because I’ve been musing for a few years now about a brace of BBC documentaries which seemed to imply there were two styles of acting filed under the one term…

Method Acting was invented by Constantin Stanislavsky who directed the first productions of Chekhov’s four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) from 1898 to 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre. So far, so good – you couldn’t hope for a better provenance, and sure enough Stanislavsky wrote numerous books on the more realistic style of acting and staging that he had developed, which focused on emotional authenticity and hyper-detailed/intrusive sound design to suggest the surrounding world offstage respectively. Best to gloss over the fact that Chekhov thought him incredibly ponderous in his staging, and given to destroying comedic scripts by weighing them down with psychological realism. The Method made the leap from Russian into English and from Russia to America and, as taught by Lee Strasberg in the Group Theatre in New York, became a vogue in Hollywood in the 1950s. But what exactly is the Method? The late great Dennis Hopper, in a detailed BBC interview a few years ago spoke extensively of the Method as a way of imbuing acting with felt emotions thru the use of a magic box of memories. In short the actor playing a role mined his own experiences for emotional equivalents and thought of them to achieve the desired emotion rather than trying to imagine out of nowhere an authentic emotional response to a fictitious event.

So if Hopper was told onscreen that his father had died, Hopper the actor wouldn’t start crying because he had intellectually thought about the troubled father-son relationship of his character and conjured an appropriate level of sorrow, he would start crying because he would have thought of the death of a beloved relative and hammered into that memory until real tears started to flow – and the audience would never know that these real tears were being shed for a real person and had nothing to do with the character’s father. Hopper then clarified this point, saying that it was crucial for Method Actors to continually renew their magic box of memories with new emotional triggers because otherwise memories would cease to be vivid and fresh and the resultant acting wouldn’t be authentic but would simply be ‘just acting’.

Fine, that’s good Method Acting, and Brando, James Dean and Hopper all gave great performances in the 1950s, and seemed to redefine the lexicon of screen acting. Except…Marlon Brando wasn’t really a Method actor. Sure he mumbled onscreen like Dean, but not to somehow be in the moment in character, but because of a hilarious inability/refusal to learn his lines. In theatre other actors on Broadway spoke in awe of how he could use tiny details of stage-craft to convey sucker-punches of emotion, how Brando hunched over a counter with his legs wrapping around a bar-stool could convey a helplessness and a weak despair that could reduce an audience to tears. In other words he wasn’t Method acting, he was merely ‘just acting’ exceptionally well. Indeed Brando only spoke of using the Method for one film, Last Tango in Paris, and felt violated as a result of how much of his own life Bertolucci had tricked him (as he saw it) into revealing to millions of people by talking about his own parents when his character spoke about his troubled relationships with his parents. Brando vowed never to make himself that emotionally vulnerable again, and to never dig deep into his own soul for roles in that fashion ever again, before triumphantly boasting that in future he’d ‘just act’, and no one would be able to see that he wasn’t engaging on the Method level – purely because he knew he was that good at regular acting.

Where then does that leave Brando’s performances in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather? Physically changing his appearance to more closely resemble the role as written shows great commitment but it’s not strictly speaking Method acting in the Dennis Hopper magic box of memories sense. Brando’s dismay at his one use of the Method technique of using real emotional traumas mirrors Stanislavsky’s alarm at the hysterical reactions this technique was producing in some of his actors. Ironically Brando’s vow to merely ‘just act’ really well seems, in its emphasis on improvisation and physicality, to actually replicate Stanislavsky’s later emphasis on physical actions and improvisation rather than the magic box of memories to achieve subconscious authenticity. So, as Brendan Behan said of every Irish Republican endeavour thru history, the first agenda on the item was the split – another type of Method.

A type of Method exemplified by those 1970s show-offs Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and their more recent confreres, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. The fact that Al Pacino is the one member of the 1970s generation of Method actors who does the most theatre work, associated with Lee Strasberg, and can still be found at the Actors’ Studio even now, should give the answer to the question of where the dividing line between the two Methods lies. What Hoffman, De Niro, Day-Lewis, and Bale do is not Method acting as Stanislavsky originally understood it; certainly it’s hard to think of Chekhov doing anything but throwing his hands up in even more than usual horror/despair at their antics. Hoffman’s continual improvisations would destroy any Chekhov play, or indeed any play, hence his great difficulty in performing Macbeth on Broadway until another actor menaced him into just finding truth in the words Shakespeare had written for him… Indeed if you watch the extras on Marathon Man you can see Hoffman’s insistence on endless improvisation damn near destroying that film as it leads to endless deleted scenes where the other actors get so rattled by his in-character ramblings that their minds go visibly blank, because they can’t improvise, and they start nervously babbling but all they have to babble as dialogue are the screenplay’s plot points; whose premature disclosure is not advisable in a suspense thriller, and is the reason those scenes were unusable.

Pacino never worked the same way that De Niro and Hoffman did in their hey-day, and that Day-Lewis and Bale still do. What this quartet does can only work for film, it is utterly unsuited to theatre, and given that Stanislavsky was a theatre director perhaps we need a new term for this quasi-hysterical evolution of his later conception of the Method. I’d like to propose ‘Immersive Acting’ as a more accurate term, because that is what they do. They don’t bring their own experiences to the role as Dennis Hopper propounded with his magic box of memories, instead they take the role and bend their own life for a certain period of time to make it the same as the role; think of De Niro driving a taxi, Hoffman long-distance running, Day-Lewis learning the craft of butchery, and Bale losing a terrifying amount of weight; and then they play that, interpreting Stanislavsky’s emphasis on physicality as meaning the actor gaining subconscious authenticity in the role almost thru sheer muscle memory.

Immersive acting produces terrific performances, but I think it needs its own term to emphasise its peculiarity, its curiously self-promoting showiness, as if acting somehow consisted of weight-loss and skills-training. Colin Firth’s reaction to a phone call in A Single Man has nothing to do with physically immersing himself in his role, but it will break your heart. Not bad for ‘just acting’.

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3 Comments »

  1. There is definitely something to be said for redefining and reterming the “Method” given so many people get confused in its usage.

    There are merits to all form of acting that seems in character; method, traditional, etc. What has bothered me in the past in a few confrontations are those who speak so strongly for the method that they will simply not tolerate non-method acting, referring to it as inferior in all cases.

    Comment by dave — June 10, 2011 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for the comment Dave 🙂

    I think though there’s a definite antagonism that flows both ways between method and traditional acting traditions.

    Bill Nighy in his appearance at the L&H in UCD said “Sean Penn’s a miserable sod. I mean he’s a great actor but Jesus, calm down”.

    If you’re focused on stage-craft as Nighy is then the Method can appear to be just taking things far too seriously, like Brenda Fricker initially agreeing to feed Day-Lewis in character on My Left Foot and then suddenly coming to herself and going “Ah, here, come on…”

    Comment by Fergal Casey — June 30, 2011 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  3. […] What the Hell is … Method Acting? […]

    Pingback by Six Years, what a surprise | Talking Movies — September 1, 2015 @ 10:07 pm | Reply


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