Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Opening with the egregious example of Jared Leto playing The Joker in Suicide Squad, Angelica Jade Bastién takes aim at the ostentatious way Hollywood is using method acting in recent years. She observes:

[M]ethod acting of this sort couldn’t exist without the culture of permissiveness and indulgence Hollywood has fostered over the years. For the last few decades, particularly after Robert De Niro’s infamous body transformation for 1980’s Raging Bull, which netted him an Oscar, method acting has become a critical factor in the campaigns of actors seeking trophies. Actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christian Bale, and particularly Leonardo DiCaprio have spoken about how they lose themselves in roles—gaining weight, whittling themselves down, never breaking character, taking on accents and hobbies that affect their personal life.

I love this observation from a reader:

The hilarious thing is that the more actors talk about their Method acting, the more attention it calls to their acting in the movie, thus breaking the suspension of disbelief. Of course, this assumes that their goal is actually to heighten their art, as opposed to win trophies or gain popularity.

I had a similar feeling about Leto’s overrated and not believable method performance as a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club:

Another reader looks to a difference performance from a long-time method actor:

There’s a great story I heard once that happened on the set of Marathon Man. Upon being asked by Lawrence Olivier how a previous scene had gone, one in which Dustin Hoffman’s character had supposedly stayed up for three days, Hoffman claimed that he too had not slept for 72 hours to achieve emotional verisimilitude. “My dear boy,” replied Olivier, “why don’t you just try acting?”

It didn’t quite go down that way. Here’s a clip of Hoffman’s response to that apocryphal anecdote:

Another reader takes the opportunity to snipe at Hoffman:

Putting aside acting methods, Hoffman is one of the worst actors. It’s a blessing that he rarely works. He is constantly drawing attention to himself, letting you know how hard he is acting. There is no sincerity in Hoffman’s acting; it’s all a front. (Meryl Streep suffers from the same self-absorption; one is always extremely aware that one is watching Meryl Streep act, not a character on the screen.) The English conservatory approach has trained many more exceptional actors than the self-indulgent method, in my opinion.

Another reader quips about Hoffman, “But he did give his all to portray a tomato in Tootsie; he Became that tomato.” This next reader goes into great depth over the English conservatory approach (and I’ve embedded clips throughout):

British actors of Olivier’s generation certainly didn’t use The Method, and it’s true that recorded performances by John Gielgud, Olivier et al appear “hammy” and unnatural, even by theatrical standards.

But as Ian McKellen has remarked: What modern audiences think of Olivier’s acting now is irrelevant. The important thing is that the audiences who saw him live cried when he died, laughed when he did something amusing, and empathised with his characters; they believed him. And that is the actor’s goal.

Of course what audiences want from theatre and film changes over the years and, as a consequence, so do tastes in acting styles. Hence why Olivier’s performances are now unpalatable, even laughable, to many.

Contemporary British actors now receive a comprehensive training (usually over a full-time, three-year study period) in a variety of approaches to acting.

The most reputed drama schools will train their students in Strasberg’s Method, Sanford Meisner’s techniques, Stella Adler’s techniques, Stanislavski’s System (with the most weight being given to Stanislavski, as his system is the most complete, and the root of the works of the other practitioners), with additional training in the work of Le Coq, Michael Chekhov, and Uta Hagen (to name a few).

These approaches to acting are complemented with classes in movement, dance, body conditioning, voice, singing, clowning, and improvisation. British drama schools offer the most comprehensive and in-depth actor training in the Western hemisphere and remain the most in-demand from international students who are serious about pursuing a career in acting.

The problem with restricting yourself to Strasberg’s Method alone is that it’s incomplete. Strasberg’s aim in developing The Method was to take the work of Stanislavski and to adapt it for contemporary performers. The trouble was Strasberg had only ever read Stanislavski’s first book, An Actor Prepares, which details such staples of Strasberg’s Method as emotional memory.

Not long after publishing that book, Stanislavski witnessed first hand the physical, emotional, and mental toll that his system took on a young Michael Chekhov (who would later go on to become a significant theatre practitioner in his own right). This experience led Stanislavski to develop his work to be more holistic, and complete, with a great emphasis on what he called the psychophysical.

He wrote two subsequent books on acting in which he did not precisely disown his earlier writings, but refined them within the context of his new ideas. Strasberg does not appear to have had access to these later writings (at least when he was developing his Method). Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler are two American practitioners who felt that Stanislavski’s later writings were of equal importance, and worked them into their own working practices and teachings, which are far more complete than Strasberg's.

Couple of little corrections to the article …

Daniel Day Lewis has expressed discomfort at being labelled a Method Actor. He’s gained a reputation for being “the actor who stays in character all the time on set,” but as he has said, he only does this as he feels it’s a better use of his time than sitting around having a drink and a chat with the other actors. If he stays in character between takes and scenes he might discover something new about the character that he hadn’t thought of before and that he could bring into the next take or scene.

Here’s a brilliant scene in There Will Be Blood of that actor playing a character who’s acting:

Back to our reader:

Other stories about Daniel Day Lewis’s immersion in the parts he plays tend to be exaggerated, and the truth behind them seems more to do with his personality than any strict adherence to The Method. He’s a naturally curious man, so his research often becomes in-depth (he learnt how to build a canoe for The Last of the Mohicans, for example). But it’s not restricted to his work as an actor; he learnt how to make shoes just because it intrigued him.

Marlon Brando has also always rejected the (what he saw as) accusation that he was a Method Actor. In fact he seemed to take quite a dim view of Strasberg and his work, describing him as “an ambitious, selfish man who exploited the people who attended the Actors Studio and tried to project himself as an acting oracle and guru. Some people worshipped him, but I never knew why.” Brando credits Stella Adler and Elia Kazan as being the people who taught him to act.

Here’s a compelling clip of Brando blurring the lines between professional acting and everyday acting by ordinary people:

On that note, here’s another passage from Angelica Jade Bastién—and an especially adept one in an overall compelling piece—touching on the macho insecurity that compels many actors to go method:

Brando never went to the extremes of those who came after him, but his career and outlook provide the template for those who see themselves as his successors. Beyond his obsessive dedication to the form, Brando was self-deprecating about his choice of career. He saw acting as inferior to the kind of work a “real” man would do.

By going method, a performer can signal that he works for his art; he can make his labor visible. This attitude has lived on today, and comes through in how [Christian] Bale once framed his career for Esquire: “I have a very sissy job, where I go to work and get my hair done, and people do my makeup, and I go and say lines and people spoil me rotten. This is just not something to be quite as proud of as many people would have you believe.”

Bastién goes on to press the case that double standards over method acting are “sidelining the transformative work of actresses.” Do you have any favorite method performances by women, or thoughts about the topic more generally? Drop us a note and we’ll post: hello@theatlantic.com. For my part, here’s Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For a Dream—an Oscar-nominated performance that outshines all her costars, especially Jared Leto: