During the second half of the 20th century, the method—an acting technique codified by Lee Strasberg that draws on the individual actor’s idiosyncrasies, psychology, and emotion to help bring their roles to life— has gone from an insurgent movement to a dominant establishment to an oft-mocked movement. and long twilight misunderstood in popular consciousness.
Along the way, he revolutionized acting, writing, and directing, and became almost synonymous with American performance. Strasberg, who ran the Actors Studio and taught both privately and at various schools, was not alone in leading this revolution. He had several rivals in Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Robert Lewis, Uta Hagen and others, and all traced the roots of their teaching to Russian director and actor Konstantin Stanislavski, who was arguably the first person to create a technique that approached the inner life, creative spirit and psychology of the actress alongside her voice and body.
We are now living in the aftermath of this revolution, and with the taste it helped create. Here are five films with excellent method (or method-style) performances, showing how it has evolved over time:
Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (1964)
Rod Steiger was one of the most important Method actors of his generation. In his supporting roles in movies like At the water’s edge and his work in the live-action television drama (including the original Martin), Steiger defined a highly emotional, fully engaged and risk-taking form of action. But it also got a bad rap for being emotionally over the top or, like Sidney Lumet, who directed The Pawnbroker to put it, making “tasteless choices”. However, great art often risks bad taste and The Pawnbroker just lives on this line. In it, Steiger plays Sol Nazerman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who runs a pawn shop in Harlem that’s a front for a mobster named Rodriguez. When Nazerman learns that Rodriguez’s business concerns include sex work, he refuses to work for him because, as we just learned, his wife died in a camp brothel during the Holocaust. In his confrontation scene with Rodriguez, Steiger does things that are almost inhuman in their emotional end. The tremor that invades his face and his body seems quite involuntary, his cries perhaps on the outside are controlled, his every physical gesture is filled with an intensity that should be unbearable. It’s hard to watch but feels closer to the truth of trauma than most cinematic portrayals.
Sidney Poitier and Lee Grant in In the heat of the Night (1967)
By the late 1960s, method was the dominant force in American cinema. Even people who didn’t study with Lee Strasberg usually studied with Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner or another of his Stanislavski-based rivals in the teaching world. The graduation starred Method actors Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, was directed by Mike Nichols, who had studied with Strasberg, and was co-written by Calder Willingham, who had risen to fame through his book’s adaptation by Actors Studio. Finish as a man. Bonnie and Clyde Starred Actors Studio member Estelle Parsons, Method actors Gene Hackman and Faye Dunaway and Stella Adler student Warren Beatty. Director Arthur Penn was also a mover and shaker at the Actors Studio and would eventually become its president. But even more mainstream movies like In the heat of the Night relied on the talents of Method from Sydney Poitier, Lee Grant and Rod Steiger, who ultimately won an Oscar for his performance. All three bring incredible nuance and a sense of presence and life in the moment to their performances that give the film a rich, detailed and nuanced quality that helps it transcend its origins as a liberal message picture. Just watch the scene where Poitier tells Grant her husband was murdered. Watch how their bodies navigate all the little details of their relationship and how race shapes this stranger encounter. Watch how Poitier uses her body to keep Grant from leaving the room without threatening her, while Grant decides whether she, a true Southern lady, will take a black man’s hand and let him comfort her. The movie is filled with little details like these that give it a power it would otherwise lack.
Al Pacino in The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather was Al Pacino’s third film, and his performance as Michael Corleone was so restrained, so focused on subtext, that he was nearly fired from the film. “What I thought was to do it quietly at first,” he explained, “hoping that a character would emerge that would surprise you,” but studio executives were confused at first by his performance, by the way he leaned into the mystery of Michael. Of course, that mystery is key to the film’s power, and nowhere is that clearer than in the scene where his wife Kay (played by Meisner student Diane Keaton) confronts him about whether he’s done kill his brother-in-law or not. Pacino and Keaton challenge each other to new heights in the scene, and it’s the only time we get a glimpse of the titanic rage that would be such a huge part of Pacino’s game going forward. When he slams his hand on his desk and firmly shouts “No!”, Kay and the audience finally realize how dangerous Michael is, how he holds himself back and maintains control. As always, Pacino’s eyes are key to the scene and the role. Look how they seem enlightened from within, almost supernatural and predatory, expressive beyond what normal humans can do.
Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979)
The real territory of the Method is that of the unsaid – the inexpressible desire, the buried subtext, the emotion that yearns to burst. Martin Landau, Oscar-winning actor and teacher of the method, said the key to the method’s approach to emotion is to “find the emotion, then find a way to let it out, then hold it like the character would, and if things leak, that’s what’s supposed to happen.This deletion creates a wonderfully compelling tension that also allows the actor to go big when the cathartic moment of release finally arrives. scenes illustrate this better than the famous elevation of the sign reading “UNION” by Sally Field in Norma Rae. The film has many links with the Method. Director Martin Ritt was a major force at the Actors Studio and co-stars Sally Field and Ron Liebman were both members, as were several of the film’s other actors. In this scene, Field’s Norma Rae is about to be expelled from the textile factory where she works because she organizes a union there. The scene begins on a high emotional level, as Norma Rae screams that it will take the sheriff and the fire department to get her out of there, but it somehow reaches a new emotional peak as the scene becomes sans. words. Field scribbled the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and stood on a table, both imploring his colleagues and challenging the powers that be with a simple, deeply felt physical expression.
Olivia Colman in The lost girl (2022)
Olivia Colman is not a Method actress. She studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School, whose approach is rooted in classic English technique, and she began her screen career in sketch comedy. But his performance in The lost girl wouldn’t be possible without the method revolution and the way it totally transformed our ideas of what it means to be a good actor. For much of the method’s history, the media contrasted it with the classic English technique represented by Lawrence Olivier, but Colman’s performance in The lost girl is much closer to that of an American method actor like Ellen Burstyn than to that of older generations of British actors like Helen Mirren or Gielgud. Colman’s performance as Leda is extraordinary and built on the very things the method values most: naturalism, subtext, neuroticism, hidden secrets, suppressed emotions, and a wild, anarchic quality that cannot be overstated. never be quite contained. It’s an amazing piece of work from one of our greatest living actors, but if you showed it to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1950s, they probably wouldn’t care.
Isaac Butler is a theater critic and author whose new book, The method: how the 20th century learned to act (Bloomsbury), is the first exploration of the cultural history of method play.