Method Acting: a rant

I started drafting this post ages ago (in January 2008 to be exact *grin*, this was still on my previous blog). I suddenly felt a desire to get back to it a couple of days ago upon reading an annoying “Pattinson can’t act and his fans have brains the size of peas” kind of article. My “hearthrobs and action heroes are underrated” rant would have probably been more appropriate for the occasion (I think a few of my friends have heard parts of that one in person, I’m sure I’ll write it up someday ;)), but hey - I’m lazy and this one was like 2/3 written already ;) Besides, my only purpose in writing this is to vent about how intellectual kind of people seem to view acting and how they are so totally wrong ;), so even though Method Acting has little to do with the post that triggered me off, it’s still kind of satisfying to write about right now ;)

Anyway, so back in January 2008 I came across an article which talks about the state of Method Acting today. It has a lot of interesting quotes from various actors, but there’s one from Viggo Mortensen which is a good starting point for this post:

People talk about Method actors, meaning someone that’s prepared very well, or whatever they mean when they talk about it, but the right method is whatever works for you.

What caught my eye there (though it’s obviously not the main point Viggo was trying to make) was that he clearly thinks there’s a lot of confusion about what the term Method Acting means.
A lot of the people I’m venting against right now use the term Method Acting meaning stuff like “good acting”, “realistic acting”, “acting that needs a lot of preparation time” etc. If an actor is reported to be a Method actor then for many people it seems to mean they have more artistic integrity or whatever.
I rather think that’s bollocks. I mean, I can’t say I know exactly what Method Acting means either, but I’m determined to prove it’s not what all those heartthrob and action hero bashers think it is ;) So here goes…

The foundations of modern acting
The story that I’m going to try to tell starts in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century with a man called Constantin Stanislavski (or rather that was his stage name, but lets not get hung up on the details ;) ). Stanislavski was from a very wealthy and cultured family and he developed a strong interest in theatre from an early age. He started partaking in amateur theatre, as performer and director. Eventually, he got very dissatisfied with the state of Russian theatre because he felt it was all too fake. So he started experimenting.
One of the first things he did that shocked people was getting the actors to do the opening scene of a play with their backs to the audience. Nobody had ever done that before. Through his experiments Stanislavski was trying to find truth, honesty and realism in the theatre. He made good progress with the “mise en scene”, but the biggest challenge for Stanislavski was how to get the performances he wanted from his actors (and from himself for that matter). It took him a very long time and many mistakes before he arrived at any conclusions, but he did eventually get there.
Stanislavski’s experiments lead him to build a sort of acting system and he wrote it all down in three books. Even now, almost 100 years later, those three books are (to my knowledge) still the most comprehensive source of acting theory available.

Lee Strasberg and the Actor’s Studio
One of the many people that Stanislavski inspired was a man called Lee Strasberg (and I’ll admit straight away that I know a lot less about him than I do about Stanislavski ;-P). Strasberg got obsessed with some of Stanislavski’s ideas and he also started experimenting. Something that not many people realize is that the ideas that Strasberg was most interested in were actually ones that Stanislavski had abandoned.
In the 1950s Strasberg started teaching acting in New York, in a place called The Actor’s Studio and what he taught eventually became known as Method Acting. Some of Strasberg’s first students included Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Contrary to what most people think, Marlon Brando was taught by Stella Adler (another of the teachers in the Actor’s Studio), not Strasberg. Adler had vastly different views to Strasberg (she’s supposed to have said that Strasberg set back acting by 100 years!) and apparently Marlon Brando never considered himself a Method actor (or at least that’s what I’m told he wrote in his autobiography).

Stanislavski versus Strasberg
I think it was Stella Adler who first brought up that what Strasberg taught was far off from Stanislavski (she was the only of the teachers in the Actor’s Studio who had actually studied under Stanislavski). But to this day many people seem to be under the impression that Stanislavski’s and Strasberg’s approaches were the same.
I can’t say for sure what the differences are, but I’m certainly going to try to present my understanding of it *grin*
There’s a fragment in Stanislavski’s first book (the three books describe fictional situations in an acting class) where an aspiring actress has to play a scene in which she discovers her baby is dead. The thing is, the actress really has lost her baby in real life and knows the pain of it. She tries to take from those experiences and the first time she plays it, it takes a huge amount emotionally from her, but it’s amazing - very moving. But when she’s asked to repeat the performance, she can’t do it - the second time it doesn’t work at all. So basically Stanislavski is telling the reader that yes, this approach can work, but it’s unreliable. For an actor, who needs to be able to perform the play well every night, it’s just not a practical option. And then, of course, it’s extremely straining emotionally. As Stella Adler put it (or so says wikipedia):

Drawing on the emotions I experienced for example when my Mother died, to create a role, is sick and schizophrenic. If that is Acting, I don’t want to do it

I know less about Strasberg’s methods than I do about Stanislavski’s, but as far as I understand, Strasberg embraced this - it was one of the key points of his system. In fact Strasberg’s method is what Stella Adler is supposed to have been referring to in the quote above.
Of course Stanislavski dealt primarily with theatre acting whereas Strasberg’s best pupils made their careers in cinema. In a film if a shot doesn’t come off you can usually repeat it, but in the theatre the same is not true, so perhaps that was a significant reason for the difference of opinion.
Another controversial element of The Method was its reliance on sensory means (as in the actor should make himself physically feel what the character does because that will lead him to the emotional state of the character). I’m not sure what Stanislavski thought of this exactly, but no where have I read of him supporting or using this.
The technique is perhaps best described with a story. There’s a very famous anecdote involving Laurence Olivier (supposedly a fierce critic of The Method) and Dustin Hoffman. During the shooting of Marathon Man Dustin Hoffman is said to have stayed up all night to play a scene in which his character stayed up all night. Upon seeing this, Laurence Olivier is supposed to have said “Why don’t you try acting? It’s easier.” According to Hoffman this never actually happened (in fact many sources claim that Olivier and Hoffman got along very well despite their very different training). But you have to admit, the anecdote explains the concept beautifully *grin* And for the record, apparently whenever Dustin Hoffman is out of breath in the film it’s for real. He would run before any shot that required the character to be out of breath.

So Stanislavski didn’t believe in using real feelings in a performance?
Er… well he did… So did Stella Adler. And I think (though I may be wrong) that this is what differentiated them from the acting theory that came before them. Perhaps it’s also why Method Acting and the Stanislavski system get lumped together so often. But the way feelings and memories get used in the Stanislavski system is different to what happens in The Method.
To illustrate this, lets get back to Laurence Olivier. Although he was a classically trained actor, in his autobiography he writes that he was greatly influenced by Stanislavski’s writing. In fact there’s a passage in Olivier’s autobiography about a technique he used which seems very Stanislavski-like to me. He writes that one of the most vivid memories from his youth was seeing animals caught in traps in the forest, writhing in pain. Whenever he had to portray pain as an actor those were the memories he would call upon.
There is, I think, a significant difference between using a memory like that and what Strasberg encouraged. Olivier’s memory is vivid and personal, but comparing that to remembering how you felt the day your baby died… the difference is obvious, right? Of course you could say that seeing animals caught in traps and having somebody in your family die are such different situations that to use one to play the other is fake and dishonest. And as far as I understand that was exactly Strasberg’s issue. The Method was an attempt to make the whole process of acting as “real” as possible. Stanislavski was looking for a result which would look “real”, but whether the tools the actor used were realistic or not was not of much concern to him. In fact Stanislavski encouraged a much broader variety of tools than Strasberg did.

The Method and realism
So far I think I’ve been staying pretty close to the facts, but this is where I start venting in a less closeted manner *grin*
I personally feel that while Method Acting uses very realistic tools, it doesn’t necessarily lead to realistic portrayals. I’ve never thought of Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino as people who do realistic acting well. They have presence and charisma for sure, but if I was looking for somebody to portray an alcoholic naturalistically or for someone who could do a realistic portrayal of a working class man in London with the cockney accent and everything, I’d look elsewhere.
Method Acting is far from unknown in Bollywood by the way and Bollywood is not exactly known for realism and naturalism ;)
The Bollywood star that gets mentioned most often in this context is Aamir Khan. Apparently, he took out 18 months to grow his hair and moustache for Mangal Pandey - he felt that wearing a wig and make up would not be the same. But what I think beautifully proves that Method Acting doesn’t have to bring realistic results is that Shahrukh Khan experimented with The Method in Devdas. I think that’s one of his most exaggerated performances (the whole film is a bit like an opera - in fact the director went on to successfully direct an opera in Paris). This is an audio interview in which Shahrukh talks about that. Apparently, he really did get drunk for the role, which is a typical application of Strasberg’s teachings. I think he was practical enough to be sober in the drinking dance sequence though (the reason I think so is that in all his other drinking scenes his eyes are glazed and in that one they’re clear ;)).
The argument for a lack of correlation between employing The Method and realism in the resulting performance can be made from the opposite side as well. What techniques are used by the actors who do well in realistic styles of film and theatre? For me, when I think about well known actors who do this well, British actors come to mind first and very few of them employ The Method. In fact when The Method first came into use many British actors spoke against it. The criticism is less common nowadays, but a bit of that vibe is still there. In this Guardian interview Bob Hoskins (who I think is a very fine realistic actor) makes some hilarious comments on The Method:

“There’s two things I love about this business. One’s acting and the other one’s getting paid for it. The rest of it is a mystery to me. But I ain’t got the faintest idea what the fuck is goin’ on, you know. I’ve read Stanislavsky, and I thought, well, this is obvious.”

Ignorant sod that I am, I ask if he means the Method, as thesps like to call it. “Nah! Nah, that’s Lee Strasberg, that’s bollocks! Like how to look busy. It’s just looking busy, impressing the boss. That’s bollocks, going through all this cobblers. Living it out and all that. Bollocks. Total cobblers!”

I think I know what you mean, I tell him - for example, with The Long Good Friday it’s pointless killing a few people just to get into character. “Exactly!” he says.

Some final thoughts (and ranting ;))
I’m not against Method Acting per se, I just feel the whole glory and respect it receives from people who don’t even understand the term is a bit ridiculous. I liked the article I started this post with precisely because its conclusion is that acting should be about whatever works for the actor in question. There is nothing inherently better about “living the part” in true Method style versus any other approach. As Daniel Day-Lewis (who is one of very few remaining hardcore Method Actors today) was quoted:

Stranger from my point of view is to have the capacity to jump in and out, which some people undeniably have. I’m kind of in awe of those people.

Which just proves my point ;) Every technique can be exciting and in any case, it’s the result that counts.
I guess in a way Method Acting is one of the most extreme techniques used in acting and maybe that’s partly why it has so many people in awe of it. It can be downright dangerous. There’s a passage in Shahrukh Khan’s biography which says his friends and family feared he would become an alcoholic - he was drunk almost every day for months while shooting Devdas.
Something I can’t find a relevant quote for, but I’m pretty sure I heard, is that Tony Curtis named Method Acting as a contributing factor to Marilyn Monroe’s depression and destruction. We’ll never know the truth of that, but it’s not difficult to believe considering where Method Acting can take people.
I guess I can understand the fascination with the extremity of it (it fascinates me too up to a point), but then if that’s really what it is then why isn’t Sacha Baron Cohen getting laurels from the people who champion all the “living the part” stuff? I mean, seriously, I don’t think we’ve had many people in the history of acting who have taken The Method as far as he has. But then, of course, his work is vulgar and populist, so the crowd that admire this sort of thing just aren’t interested in him *rolls eyes*
It annoys me also how I’ve seen the integrity of various actors questioned just because they’ve spoken against The Method. Going back to Tony Curtis - he’s never been particularly favourable when speaking about it and when those quotes make it to message boards, you suddenly get people saying he’s a hypocrite because he himself uses The Method, which is a completely ridiculous assumption. He was already in films in the late 40s, so he was trained in the mid-40s or so. Strasberg didn’t start teaching until the 50s. It’s fair to say that he was probably influenced by Stanislavski as that was a time when Stanislavski’s influence was particularly strong, but Strasberg seems very unlikely.
Laurence Olivier is another one I’ve seen bashed for this. But in reality, if people actually cared to hear him out, he was extremely modern in how he thought about acting. In fact, I tend to think that what acting has become today is exactly what he appreciated best. It seems that Laurence Olivier’s main problem with The Method was not so much all the sensory stuff, living the part and so on, but that it was too systemized. His IMDb bio page has him quoted as saying:

All this talk about the Method, the Method! WHAT method? I thought each of us had our OWN method!

So I guess his biggest issues with it have now been resolved *grin* There are hardly any actors who use The Method exclusively nowadays. But there are many who use elements of it.
There’s a fun anecdote about Johnny Depp and how he prepared to play Jack Sparrow. Apparently, he decided that Jack Sparrow’s whole body language and behaviour would have been influenced by being in the blazing sun for very long periods of time. He had no experience of this, so he spent way too much time in the sauna just to get a feeling for what it’s like to get dizzy and ill from the heat. That, apparently, was one of the inspirations for Jack Sparrow’s crazy walk.
A much less extreme and common use case for The Method is accents. This one’s common sense really - it’s easier to get an accent right if you’re not slipping in and out of it between takes. A famous case of this is Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones. She basically kept her British accent for the whole shoot. And in the interest of starting and ending the post with the same person, Robert Pattinson developed his American accent in Twilight in a similar way too *grin*

Ok, now own up - how many people actually read this post until the end? ;) I think this one might be even longer than my last Harry Potter review ;-P

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