Does Method Acting Disadvantage Actresses?

Hilary Swank wins her second Oscar for Best Actress, for "Million Dollar Baby." Her first was for "Boys Don't Cry." (Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Angelica Jade Bastién’s popular essay about how Hollywood has ruined method acting culminates in a theory that “the gendered nature of modern method acting has had the unfortunate consequence of sidelining the transformative work of actresses who found authenticity without billing themselves as somehow ‘above’ their art form.” A reader, Kelly, isn’t persuaded:

I’m all for gender equality, but this seems like a stretch. At the very least, it certainly doesn’t get to the root of the problem. (Hint: It has nothing to do with method acting.) If Leo [DiCaprio] wants to eat a bison heart because he thinks it’s going to improve his performance, by all means. I don’t think that necessarily makes this the new standard for acting, as referenced by Jared Leto taking a similar approach and failing.

Another reader disagrees with Kelly and reiterates several points made in the piece:

Yes, but the exaltation of this particular brand of method acting that has so closely been associated with showy, masculine feats of endurance is a part of stigmas around gender differences. Men can engage in this brand of method acting and often be praised whereas women largely cannot, and when they are praised it’s because of the bravery in not being beautiful.

In this way, what we consider to be great acting has benefited one gender disproportionately, and more specifically it helps obscure brilliant performances by actresses (and actors) who either don’t practice this brand of method acting or simply engage in another method.

Kelly’s reply:

I get what you’re saying, but again, I don’t think it gets down to the root of the problem. It’s societal stigma (what’s acceptable for men vs. women) and doesn’t have much to do with method acting specifically. Not to mention, I don’t think many would classify the Joker or what Leto did to get into character [gifting the cast a dead pig, a live rat, used condoms] as “masculine.” The Joker is not a masculine character and neither are his actions. The point is he’s supposed to be crazy and maniacal, not muscular, valiant, strapping, or brave. Quite the opposite actually.

I agree that method acting antics are disproportionately accepted more with male actors than with female actors, but if the end product is the same, is it really a problem?

I guess the best example I can use is the one bright spot of Suicide Squad: Margot Robbie. She’s thus far gained critical acclaim in the role of Harley Quinn.

No, Robbie didn’t use method acting, but she gave a performance that was just as, if not more, eccentric than Leto’s, and people seem to appreciate it despite the fact that she’s not portraying a stereotypical cutesy female character (though she is in a somewhat skimpy outfit).

Bottom line: Gender biases certainly exist in Hollywood, but it’s much farther reaching than the ways in which actors choose to prepare for a role.

The following clip illustrates very well the narcissistic, look-at-me showboating of method actors like Jared Leto, who interrupts Robbie when she’s telling a story of how the movie’s director cut off parts of her hair:

(Side note regarding Kelly’s point about Robbie’s “somewhat skimpy outfit”: In the above clip, a publicity shot of Leto in character is also very skimpy, and it elicits a lot of hollers from women in the audience. Both genders are sexified these days when it comes to superheroes and villains.)

Another reader, Christopher, joins Kelly in skepticism:

The main thesis of the essay is how women and men cannot engage in the same sort of preparation because of gendered expectations, and the male avenue is more highly regarded and so it forms a sort of oppressive force against actresses. It’s an interesting point, because it is very closely connected to the Hollywood appropriation of the life of the actor/actress in the marketing material.

I’m not sure if the thesis as argued holds very well, though. I say this not because I think the central point is incorrect, but because I think “extreme method acting” makes people scoff as much as it makes people interested in seeing it.

For example, if no one knew what Leo did for The Revenant, I don’t think fewer people would have seen it, but even if they did, I think it’s fair to mention how so much of the criticism against that movie and his performance was specifically about how he prepared. (But I guess Hollywood doesn’t necessarily care what people are saying about a movie just as long as they’re talking about it.)

Christopher’s point about scoffing is a strong one, especially in the case of DiCaprio. The conventional wisdom during this past Oscar season was that DiCaprio—with five Oscar nominations but no wins before The Revenant—was so desperate to finally get a gold statue that he sought the role of an emotionally brutalized and physically tortured frontiersman (punctuated by a graphic mauling from a momma grizzly) and then prepared for the role by battling hypothermia, eating raw liver as a vegetarian, and sleeping in animal carcasses. It smelled desperate. And that desperation was widely mocked in memes:

Personally I thought Tom Hardy’s performance in The Revenant was much better than DiCaprio’s, and I suspect the latter was given an Oscar because he had come so close so many times. I genuinely laughed out loud at the film’s final shot, when DiCaprio breaks the fourth wall with a direct-to-camera gaze—as if to say, “Pleeeeease can I have an Oscar now … ” Imagine this scene with a gold statue standing in for the woman:

Back to Christopher, who wonders:

Is it true that an actress would not be praised for engaging in the same faux-method acting as her male counterparts?

I understand why it would be assumed to be the case, as the article points out, but I am legitimately unsure if a movie comes out and touts, say, Jennifer Lawrence, as being so committed to her role that she lived in the woods by herself for three months with nothing but a compass and a blanket to prepare for her character, that there would be a negative reaction. I mean, Charlize Theron did win an Oscar for Monster, and it’s fairly offensive to say it’s just because she chose not to be pretty.

Speaking of method performances from actresses who won critical and popular praise, I asked readers in a previous note for more examples, and many of them delivered.

One reader points to Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance in Million Dollar Baby. Swank is one of the most famous method actors of the past 20 years, and here’s how she prepared—and suffered—for that role:

[G]oing method was the only way for her to truly get to grips with her character. So “acting like a boxer” becomes “actually being a boxer” in this case, which—as you probably guessed—lead poor Miss Swank on the path towards death. As a result of having to “pivot” excessively whilst training for the movie’s now famous boxing scenes, Swank picked up … a Staph infection, which—left untreated—is usually fatal. “I got a blister, the size of my palm, on my right foot, and it was really swollen, and I couldn’t train and walk on it,” she said in an interview afterwards. “So I popped it myself, and it got infected.” What’s more, Swank didn’t bother to tell director Clint Eastwood about her injury as she didn’t want to slow down production ...

But that’s not all from Swank; she also won an Oscar for her emotionally grueling performance in Boys Don’t Cry:

Swank’s early experience in method acting would pay dividends when she was cast in Kimberly Peirce’s devastating drama about Brandon Teena, a real-life transgendered man who was brutally raped and murdered in a Nebraska hate crime. “I walked around trying to pass as a boy for five weeks before filming that movie,” she says. “Seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and losing a bunch of body fat so that my face would be thinner. My neighbors thought that I was my cousin Billy from Iowa.”

Among the other two-time winners for Best Actress are Sally Field and Jane Fonda—two of the most famous method actors of the Boomer generation.

Another reader points to, well, The Reader—specifically Kate Winslet’s Oscar-winning performance. Her suffering for that film was psychological:

Kate Winslet was so focused on accurately portraying her character in THE READER she struggled to return to day-to-day life after filming wrapped. The actress plays a former Nazi concentration camp guard in the post-war drama, and put all her emotions into the intense role. And Winslet … admits it took months for her to bid farewell to the character. She says, “It’s like I’ve escaped from a serious car accident and need to understand what has just happened.”

The next example of method acting comes from a reader who points to Anne Hathaway losing 25 pounds and cutting off all her hair for an Oscar-winning performance in Les Miserables. She masterfully plays Fantine, an ill-fated impoverished mother who is forced into prostitution to provide for her young daughter. The most heartrending scene:

Another reader notes Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan. To prepare for that disturbing role of descending into madness, Portman lost 20 pounds, did a year of intensive ballet training, and performed much of her own dancing. For example:

Yet another reader points to Oscar-winner Halle Berry for being a well-known purveyor of method acting. Here’s a look at some of her roles:

When Berry first came on the scene in her first motion picture, Jungle Fever, she did not bathe for more than a week, in order to bring realness to her character.

In her 2003 film, Gothika, Berry was so dedicated to the role, that she ended up breaking her arm in one of her scenes, with Robert Downey, Jr. Needless to say the production was down for at least eight weeks, while the actress healed.

In The Call, Berry did her own stunts. To prepare for the emotional demands of her character, Berry worked with real life dispatchers, listening to their phone calls and observing their behavior, mannerisms, and protocol.

Here’s Berry in Jungle Fever:

Lastly, one more reader notes Rooney Mara’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a disturbing thriller that includes a horrifying rape scene that Mara had to endure. Here’s how she partly prepared for the role of Lisbeth, a tough and fiercely independent hacker:

[Mara] didn’t even have ear piercings. She felt that to truly inhabit the character, multiple piercings all over her body were necessary. Mara had her lip, brow, nose, nipples and ears pierced. She said, “because of all the tattoos and the makeup and the piercings, and the physical transformations my body has to go through, it would always feel sort of like I was in costume, even if I was naked.

Do you have an example to include? Have any thoughts about this discussion in general? Drop us a note: