A popular joke made the rounds among Broadway actors in the 1950s. As hordes of their peers committed themselves to the Method — the theory of immersive acting that had emigrated from Russia to the United States — the old guard of show business grew increasingly exasperated.
When the legendary “show doctor” George Abbott instructed an actor to walk across the stage during a rehearsal, the actor leaned on his Method training. “But what’s my motivation?” he asked.
Abbott, who was riding high on the success of “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees,” shot back a pragmatic answer.
“Your job!” he barked.
Acting’s stark split from external expression toward the new soul-searching process is the subject of Isaac Butler’s thoroughly engrossing “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.” Butler, the coauthor (with Dan Kois) of “The World Only Spins Forward,” an oral history of “Angels in America,” handles his material deftly, like a biographer.
“After all,” he writes, “the Method had parents, obscure beginnings, fumblings toward its purpose, a spectacular rise, struggles as it reached the top, and an eventual decline. Some people even claim that it is dead.”
But if modern-day acting exemplars including Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis have distanced themselves from the concept, there’s no denying that Method techniques continue to pervade our sense of what constitutes “good” acting. Butler takes pains to note that the common perception of Method acting — extreme examples of body modification, like Robert De Niro gaining 60 pounds for “Raging Bull,” or weird preparation rituals, like Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly sleeping inside an animal carcass for “The Revenant” — don’t tell half the story.
In fact, the Method’s chief proponents in America didn’t even agree on its, um, methods. Lee Strasberg, the Actors Studio director who was, with his wife, Paula, a confidant and caretaker of Marilyn Monroe, felt that an actor must plumb the depths of her psyche to find the emotional truth of a performance. Stella Adler, who taught Marlon Brando, believed that “everyone acts, all day, all the time,” as Butler puts it. It was the actor’s job to get lost inside his character, not his own experiences and memories.
But to Ellen Burstyn, who has had a leadership role for decades at the Actors Studio, both approaches can be advantageous.
“You use Stella’s imagination to get to Lee’s reality,” she once said. “They are finally talking about the same thing.”
Butler makes an airtight case for the Method as an artistic revolution on par with other mid-century advances, from improvisation in jazz and stream-of-consciousness in fiction to the flourishes of abstract expressionism in painting. In its Russian origins, the “system” defined by Konstantin Stanislavski was designed to nurture the ideal of “perezhivanie,” the state of feeling what a character feels, and thinking what he thinks — ”living the part.”
To Stanislavski, the empathic connection between great acting and its audience had awesome potential “as an engine of human betterment.” A character should be no mere “type”: Stanislavski encouraged his actors to find the good in villains and the bad in heroes.
In Hollywood, such ambiguity came as a shock. It was John Garfield who first brought the idea of the “rebel antihero” from the stages of New York City to big screens across the country, in the 1938 film “Four Daughters.” His cynical, self-loathing character, Mickey, “has no boundaries. Within a minute or two, he’s eating food no one has offered him and smoking [someone else’s] cigarettes.”
The Method, of course, really grabbed America by the lapels some years later, when Brando’s Stanley Kowalski antagonized Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” first on Broadway (with the classically trained Jessica Tandy as Blanche), then on film (Vivien Leigh, 1951). Brando’s genius — he was “too good to be an actor,” said Charles Durning — opened the floodgates for the melodramatic James Dean and his surrogates. It was the “dirty shirt school of acting,” huffed Hedda Hopper.
But Butler’s book revives the memory of plenty of the Method’s most estimable proponents. Kim Stanley, all but forgotten because she did relatively little work in Hollywood, was such a force, he writes, “her bones seemed denser than a normal human’s.” Rod Steiger, who starred with Brando in “On the Waterfront,” helped usher in a heyday for “ugly little guys” with his bravura performance in the 1953 teleplay “Marty”; he reached what Butler calls the apogee of Strasberg’s Method a decade later, in his portrayal of a bitter Holocaust survivor in “The Pawnbroker” (1964).
By the 1970s, the movies were inundated with character studies that owed evident debt to the Method, as various disciples — Sanford Meisner, Bobby Lewis, Uta Hagen — spread their tentacles through the acting pool. The common denominator of movies such as “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “The Last Picture Show” (1971), “Mean Streets” (1973), and “Nashville” (1975) was “a conviction that there was a truth about American life, a protean muck that had previously been buried deep underground.”
According to Butler, however, film acting has more recently become a kind of polyglot pursuit, with the Method just one of many languages. The 1980s introduced the “Juilliard kids,” actors including Kevin Kline and Robin Williams, who sought a third stream beyond classical and Method techniques. At the same time, Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich, among others, began to embrace the anarchy of what Butler calls “American gonzo.”
Since the turn of the current century, good acting has taken any number of forms, he notes. But the Method isn’t dead — “as in ancient Greek myths, it has instead turned into a constellation in our night sky, always watching over us, its ideas of truth and art too powerful to shake.” Its emphases on being present in the moment, on conflict and action — and, yes, on a character’s motivation — are part of our common language.
It’s not just how we think about acting, Butler concludes. It’s how we think about “the truth of being human.”
THE METHOD: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act
By Isaac Butler
Bloomsbury, 512 pages, $30
James Sullivan, author of five books on popular culture and the performing arts, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.