Clockwise, from left: Dustin Hoffman (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images), Robert De Niro (Photo: United Artists/Getty Images), Marlon Brandon (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

If you read the widely shared New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong published in December, you may have burst out laughing—with most of Twitter– at the extremes Succession the actor makes every effort to transform himself into the character he plays, Kendall Roy. True to Kendall’s black sheep persona, Strong isolates himself from his comrades. He borrows items from the wardrobe department to inspire after-hours motivation, and wears his shoelaces tied tight, just like one of Rupert Murdoch’s media scion sons. When Kendall frequently falls off the wagon, Strong also arrives on set tipsy but ready to work.

On the set of The Chicago 7 Trial, Strong, playing activist Jerry Rubin, begged to be sprayed with real tear gas while filming a re-enactment riot. His manager refused. American moviegoers characterize Strong as a method actor, an entertainer with a capital “A” who fully immerses himself in a role to obtain, and therefore interpret, authentic, psychological and emotional truth with a capital “T.”

This earnest dedication to directing was dreamed up almost a century and a half ago by Konstantin Stanislavski, an amateur Russian actor who would make Jeremy Strong proud (Strong, it should be mentioned, eschews the Method label for what he calls “diffusion of identity”). Believing that the state of late 19th century Russian drama was obsolete, Stanislavsky prepared for the role of the titular Miserly Knight in a production of Alexander Pushkin’s opera with full commitment and, some might say, crazy, locking himself in a cellar infested with rats. , where he finally talked about wanting to play the role the way he wanted, as well as a miserable cold.

Stanislavski’s story is expertly and accurately told in Isaac Butler. The method: how the 20th century learned to act, a cultural history of the Russian acting master, the many teachers who proselytized his message, and the acting sidekicks in search of method—Brando, Hoffman, Pacino, and De Niro, among them—who dominated stage and screen throughout. throughout the mid-20th century.

Before the acting ethos that became known as Method, there was perezhivanie, Stanislavski’s term for simultaneously experiencing or embodying a fictional role and the real self. Perezhivanie relied on unconventional line-readings, erratic pauses, and what Butler calls an “accumulation of daily microdramas”—a prepared cough or sniffle, a deliberately fumbled piece of paper—to give the audience the impression to witness reality.

Stanislavski saw a “sacred task” in perezhivanie, a way for actors to “witness purity and truth”. Actors flocked to his revolutionary Moscow Art Theater, founded in the same year 1898 as the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, the forerunner of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Dissatisfied with the limits of perezhivanie, Stanislavski piled theory upon theory, creating a dizzying acting lexicon—the creative mood, the superconscious, the affective memory, the motivation, ya yesm, the Magic If—eventually subsumed under a system that he simply called the “system,” written in quotes and lowercase to emphasize its ever-changing nature. He forced his actors to live together, to do monotonous table reads (see recent drive my car), and overwhelming repetitive repetitions. “I’ve had all kinds of experiments with [the actors]“, he admitted in his autobiography. “I tortured them.”

War and revolution dispersed the MAT troupe to Europe and, more importantly, to the United States, where Polish theater director and defender of the “system” Richard Boleslavsky found an audience of actors eager for lectures derived from Stanislavski and what he called “actors’ laboratories”. Auditions often revolved around the weird. One student, Lee Strasberg, had to recite a Shakespearean monologue of his choice before walking through the audition room claiming the floor was full of poisonous snakes.

Strasberg became the star student of the American “system”, eventually adopting and Americanizing Stanislavski’s methods in a practice he called the Method. In 1931, Strasberg co-founded, with directors Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, the Group Theatre, an artistic collective which enjoyed early but brief success, and which is best known today for launching the careers of playwright Clifford Odets and by director Elia Kazan, who would go on to define directing and cinema in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Group Theater succumbed to schisms at the end of the decade, and Butler clearly analyzes the murky divisions that continue to define the method then and now. Strasberg’s callback to improvisation and emotion is exemplified by Dustin Hoffman, who brought up his embarrassing teenage sexual encounters to play the awkwardly turned on Benjamin Braddock in The graduation. Strasberg’s main rival, Stella Adler, preached the use of external imagination, research and transformation. Imagine the windy swagger of Marlon Brando in A tram called Désir or Robert De Niro’s extreme bodily metamorphosis in angry bull (The actor gained so much weight to play late-career boxer Jake LaMotta that he struggled to tie his shoelaces). The Method’s third teacher, Sanford Meisner, instructed his students not to focus on themselves, but simply to exist on stage, in a practice he called “honestly living in imaginary circumstances.”

By the 1970s, the cast of Method were racking up both Oscars and detractors. Wannabe Brandos was being taught by “a friend of a friend of a former student of someone who was kicked out of an early 1930s summer course by [some long-forgotten Russian master]one reviewer quipped. When Hoffman explained how much he went to portray a runaway racer in marathon runner, his co-star, Laurence Olivier, asked, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”

In the late 1970s, the original teacher pioneers began to die off just as the Hollywood blockbuster began dominating box offices. There was no need to act Method aboard the orca Where Death Star. A new wave of actors, some who came just to act, found the Method masochistic and overflowing with machismo. Meryl Streep called the technique “a lot of bullshit”.

Yet the method is “still taught, misunderstood, defended, and maligned,” writes Butler. Movie buffs might not know how to pronounce perezhivanie, but they know it when they see it on screen. This book will deepen your understanding of how and why we watch cinema. No need for tear gas.

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