When an actor is criticized for particularly excessive preparation for a role, or an inability to break character off-camera, an ill-defined notion of acting “Method” (note the capital “M”) is rarely far away.
Living rough on the streets to prepare for a role. Abusing other performers to elicit an “authentic” response. Or never breaking with character throughout a shoot – like Daniel Day-Lewis, who allegedly insisted of being called “Mr. President” throughout the three months of filming Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
But while it’s easy to ridicule or parody, The Method – which casts a shadow over European and (especially) American acting – is complex and varied.
What is the acting method?
As detailed in Isaac Butler’s The method: how the 20th century learned to actthe method was developed in Russia in the latter part of the 19th century.
Its creators, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislawski, transformed Russian theater with their new approach to acting, writing and theatrical production. Their system encouraged more subjective, interior approaches to performance and more realistic, naturalistic approaches to staging.
The game had been largely outsourced and focused on action, often understood in terms of preconceived gestures. The method helped transform it into a dynamic process that opened up deep recesses of personal experience and “memory of emotions”, which could then be channeled into a performance.
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It’s hard to imagine modern acting without this evolution.
Falling Star Collateral Damage
The method is strongly linked to the new realism that emerged in the New York theater of the 1930s and 1940s and in Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.
It is also linked to the performance styles of many key actors and stars of mid-century American theater and film: Marlon Brando, Kim Stanley, Montgomery Clift, Anne Bancroft, Rod Steiger, Paul Newman and many others.
Its excesses and dangers are deployed as damning evidence to help explain the tragic fates of characters like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Shooting stars caught in the orbit of abusive teachers of the method, they seemed to suffer the collateral damage of having delved too deeply into their traumatic past.
The Method is often brought into debates about the distinction between playing and being, acting and reacting. But such dichotomies fail to understand the complex inner, outer, and collaborative processes at play in any great performance.
This is especially true for film, a mode of performance that requires actors to record tiny changes in expression, small actions and gestures – which are then magnified into microscopic detail.
Like James Harvey claimedthe art of acting in front of the camera in the 20th century consists largely of the viewer “watching them being”.
In some ways, the Method, which at its core foregrounds individual action and psychology, is brilliantly suited to egocentric notions of society and art. And to the curious alchemy that merges actor, celebrity and character in star-centric theater and cinema.
Not surprisingly, this often mannered style reached its peak in the 1950s, a time of rising individualism. It soared alongside abstract expressionism in American painting, stream of consciousness in various forms of writing (such as the work of the Beats) and in the modes of jazz improvisation favored by artists like Miles DavisCharlie Parker and Ornette Coleman.
Revolution, individualism and Freud
Isaac Butler’s book is a riveting, detailed, brilliantly readable and often gripping account of the Method’s hundred-year journey from pre-revolutionary Russia to the New York stages – and the rise of New Hollywood and actors like Al Pacino, robert de niro and Ellen Burstyn.
He doesn’t shy away from exploring the complexities of this journey and the many ramifications and variations produced along the way. Butler examines the social, cultural, and political implications of the evolution and breakdown of the Method system, and how it responded to various forces.
These include: proletarian demands, Russian Revolutionthe rise of left-wing politics in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, Freudian psychology, the heightened individualism of postwar America, and the anti-Communist blacklist. And, of course, there was the Method’s ultimate canonization and popular recognition in plays and movies like A tram called Désir, At the water’s edgeand Martin.
Butler also meticulously introduces and describes the leading New Hollywood actors and directors of the late 1960s and 1970s who proclaimed (and in some cases denied) the direct influence and legacy of the Method.
For a significant period in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rising stardom of prominent Method drama teachers like Lee Strasberg (from the Actors Studio) and Stella Adler, the various offshoots of the Method could claim true cultural dominance. The influence and fiery disagreements of these teachers are central to Butler’s book.
Butler details Marilyn Monroe’s increasingly close and personal relationship with Strasberg (and her relationship with his second wife Paul, Monroe’s acting coach) and the influential patronage of actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Rod Steiger. It also describes some truly terrifying lessons and feedback sessions conducted by Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
In contrast, Adler insisted on an approach to acting that stuck more closely to Stanislawski’s original concept of “memory of emotions” and recommended extensive processes of research and preparation in the creation of any performance. Among his most important students were Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch and Warren Beatty.
A particular strength of Butler’s cultural story is the way it carefully charts this ascent, while giving equal space to every step of the journey. His book is nevertheless a little too focused on the impact of the ideas of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky on the stages and screens of Russia and then the United States.
The impact of these ideas is felt little elsewhere in Europe, and the British game is mainly used as a counterbalance, put forward as a refuge for a more external game, embodied by the work of Laurence Olivier (who famous despised acting method).
Butler also provides reviews from writers important to the method. Anton Chekhov, central to the initial work of the Moscow Open Art Theater, is a key source throughout.
And it traces the contributions of Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin and Paddy Chayefsky, who were also integral to the various stages of the Method’s development, dissemination and devolution.
The book gives space to the competing approaches of writers and directors like Bertold Brecht and Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as the more varied approaches of actors like Meryl Streep. Its compelling chronological narrative, however, ends up focusing on a careful selection of key figures in the United States and Russia.
As Butler documents, the results of this shift – though he’s also careful to note the seeds of this style even earlier and elsewhere – could be truly astonishing or monumentally disastrous.
Triumphs, failures and major players
Among the delights of Butler’s book is the way it documents these triumphs and failures – sometimes in the context of one company’s performance of the same play, as in the case of the staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters by the Actors Studio. It also provides evocative portraits of many key figures like Elia Kazan, Maria Ouspenskaya, Howard Clurman, Richard Boleslavsky and John Garfield.
It focuses on people who have played a particularly important role in the management of entities such as the American Laboratory Theater, the Actors Studio, the Group Theater and the Moscow Art Theater, making groundbreaking films and plays (the deceitful Kazan seems like a titan in this respect), writing reports on how the “system” works or the introduction of new styles of play.
As in many books of this genre, such a focus and approach is also a limitation. It’s a cultural history less concerned with the workings of theater and film production – though it’s often incisive in that department and clearly written by someone familiar with those processes – only through collaborations and conflicts between figures that adapt and transform. Stanislavski’s initial “system”.
This, of course, also makes this very well-written and carefully organized book a real pleasure to read.
Butler gives a convincing account of the importance of the Method in the history of ideas. He is not shy about advocating for the decline in topicality of many of his techniques and lessons, but claims his continued influence alongside a range of other approaches and methods.
It provides a complex account of the various forms and variations of the Method over nearly 150 years. It also provides important cultural and social context to help understand why the shift to a more “realistic” or personal and egocentric form of action was both difficult and inevitable.
Even a simple thing like improved lighting in late 19th century theaters had a profound impact on what was possible in terms of more interior and subtle forms of staging and performance.
This was of course amplified by the rise of sound cinema in the late 1920s and its more subdued forms of screen acting which led to the minimalist styles of stars like Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Juliette Binoche.
Popular accounts of the method’s legacy tend to lean towards insignificant excesses, as Jared Leto allegedly sending his co-stars various “gifts” like used condoms in preparation for his role as the Joker in Suicide Squad. (Which, for the record, Leto now denies.) But Butler’s book makes compelling claims about why we should continue to take this approach and its legacy seriously.
In doing so, he responds to his pointed epigraph of Tom Stoppard Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead“We are actors. We are the opposite of people.
If this masterful book does little else, it certainly convinces the reader that nothing could be further from the truth.
Adrian Danks is a lecturer in film and media studies at RMIT University.