Of all the stories surfacing about the new DC Comics film Suicide Squad—from the dismal reviews to the box-office reports—the most disconcerting are the ones that detail how Jared Leto got into his role as the Joker. Leto was reportedly so committed to the part that he gifted the cast and crew with a litany of horrible items: used condoms, a dead pig, a live rat. To get into the character’s twisted mindset, he also watched footage of brutal crimes online. “The Joker is incredibly comfortable with acts of violence,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was watching real violence, consuming that. There’s a lot you can learn from seeing it.”
Watching Leto tell one disturbing tale after another makes one thing abundantly clear: Method acting is over. Not the technique itself, which has fueled many of cinema’s greatest performances and can be a useful way of approaching difficult roles. But Leto’s stories show how going to great lengths to inhabit a character is now as much a marketing tool as it is an actual technique—one used to lend an air of legitimacy, verisimilitude, and importance to a performance no matter its quality. Leto’s Joker is the latest evidence that the prestige of method acting has dimmed—thanks to the technique’s overuse by those seeking award-season glory or a reputation boost, as well as its history of being shaped by destructive ideas of masculinity.
Leto was, of course, following Heath Ledger’s towering, Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in 2007’s The Dark Knight, so he had to differentiate himself not just stylistically and on screen, but also in the press. There’s a lot riding on Suicide Squad, given that this spring’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice met neither critical nor box-office expectations (so far, the new film has succeeded at the latter, if not the former).
So it isn’t surprising that Leto and his castmates used shocking stories to help build a mythology around the movie. The director David Ayer, who went so far as to have his actors punch each other as preparation for their roles, gushed about Leto’s devotion. “He constantly has to give birth to himself, he goes away, he comes back, he shoots, he goes away,” Ayer told Yahoo UK. “The Joker is something you have to be, and you can see how exhausting and painful it is for him to be this character.”
Leto’s approach proved divisive among the cast and crew, and it didn’t exactly translate to a good performance (the Joker plays a surprisingly small role in Suicide Squad). But method 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 for1980’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. The underpinning of this strategy is the belief that to create great art one must suffer. But method acting has also become wrapped up in a brand of identity politics that tries to make the art form resemble more traditional forms of male labor, and by extension limiting the kinds of actors who receive praise.
The approach traces its origins to the early 20th-century teachings of the Russian theatrical realist Konstantin Stanislavski. His work later influenced Lee Strasberg, who’s known as the father of method acting in Hollywood and who trained some of Hollywood’s greatest stars beginning in 1951. Method techniques prompt actors to draw on their own experiences and emotions as a way to strip their performances of artifice. In many cases, actors will replicate the external conditions of their character in order to behave more authentically. Extreme practitioners go so far as to starve themselves, abstain from sleep, and isolate themselves from their loved ones. Actors including Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, and Jack Nicholson were among the many prominent talents of the second half of the 20th century who sharpened their skills in that school of acting.
Of course, you can’t talk about method’s present-day allure without mentioning Marlon Brando. To this day, he’s exalted by actors and critics to such an extent that it’s almost as if film acting wasn’t good until he hit the scene. In 2014, James Franco wrote for The New York Times that “Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be ‘performing,’ in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being.” Brando lives on in Bale’s dogged perseverance, in Day-Lewis’s refusal to break character, in Shia LaBeouf’s decision to pull out his own tooth on the set of Fury, in the quiet swagger of Ryan Gosling in films like Drive. Brando wasn’t the first American film actor to bring method acting to the screen or even the best, but a big part of why he’s so revered is because he helped introduce a different type of masculinity to U.S. cinema. He seemed to live in the realistic, down-and-dirty world of his characters. He was brash, bold, and brimming with machismo.
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 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.”
It isn’t a coincidence that many matinee idols see method acting as a time-honored way of shedding their image as sex symbols. In his post-Titanic career, DiCaprio has been outspoken about wanting to be viewed as a real artist rather than as just an object of female desire. As of late he has embodied, more than anyone else, the idea of acting as an endurance test (as David Sims has written for The Atlantic). This often leads to performances that feel far too studied, in which every choice seems obvious. But it finally got DiCaprio his first Academy Award for Best Actor earlier this year.
The Oscar campaign for The Revenant made a huge deal about DiCaprio’s punishing approach to his role as a hardened frontiersman. He ate wild bison liver despite being vegetarian, put his life on the line wading into freezing rivers, and even slept in an animal carcass. “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” DiCaprio said of his performance. DiCaprio’s career ascension and Oscar win enforces some of the most wrongheaded ideas about modern acting, as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz noted:
[D]uring the last 15 years […] he’s bought into the idea that if you’re not losing or gaining weight, changing your appearance, spending long periods of time in extreme weather conditions and otherwise proving your mettle, then it’s not really acting—or, maybe just as bad, that it’s a sissy version of acting, all about clothes and makeup and hitting your marks.
There’s a reason the word “sissy” comes up repeatedly—method acting, as it’s practiced today, depends on framing less drastic techniques as feminine, and therefore inferior. This can even apply to male performers like Brad Pitt, who is discussed much differently than his method peers. Actors like DiCaprio are about their own performance above all else, sometimes to the detriment of the film itself. Pitt isn’t often praised as a great actor, and it’s not because he doesn’t have the scenes to prove it. Rather, he has an ease and ability to use his personality to inform his work in a way that recalls the greats of classic Hollywood like Cary Grant, who didn’t believe acting needed to be a painfully realistic reflection of the world.
But 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. It’s much harder for most people to name their favorite method actresses off the top of their heads, but it’s not for lack of examples. Marilyn Monroe, Ellyn Burstyn, and Jane Fonda have all notably studied the method technique, and yet they’re not known for outlandish stunts like Leto or DiCaprio are. For a woman in Hollywood, to do so wouldn’t be praiseworthy—it’d be a liability.
More so than their male counterparts, actresses have to make careful calculations to protect their career trajectories. Just look at the career of Davis, who often pushed the studio head Jack Warner for better roles, angered directors for her insistence on improving scripts, and often did her own makeup to the chagrin of everyone involved—even though it added to her performances. She was routinely punished for putting her art first in the way actors like Brando are praised for. She’s not the only one. Modern actresses have to contend with sexist casting-couch horror stories, being paid far less than their male co-stars, and a myriad of other issues, which gives even the most powerful amongst them a precarious foothold in Hollywood. With the odds already stacked against her in so many ways, an actress can wisely assume that sending her castmates dead animals might be the end of her career.
Women have certainly undergone radical physical or cosmetic changes for roles. But when people praise actresses like Nicole Kidman (who donned a prosthetic nose in The Hours) Charlize Theron (who gained weight and shaved her eyebrows in Monster), the focus is less on their talent and dedication and more on how brave they are for deciding not to be beautiful.
If history is any indication, the techniques of men like DiCaprio, Bale, and Gosling aren’t necessarily destined to be the future of critically acclaimed film performances. The prevalence of the Brando-inspired approach obscures the fact that Hollywood’s best method actor is arguably a woman: Gena Rowlands. Perhaps best known for her work in the ’70s and ’80s, Rowlands didn’t abandon her responsibilities as a mother, friend, and wife in order to create great art. She didn’t starve herself, nearly get hypothermia, or send increasingly disconcerting paraphernalia to her co-stars. But she did create some of the most blistering, and honest performances in films like Opening Night and A Woman Under the Influence. Maybe the reason she isn’t exalted like Brando is because of how closely her career is tied to her husband and collaborator John Cassavetes.
Actors like Leto could take a cue from Rowlands. Her work is proof that performers don’t need to suffer so pronouncedly to move audiences, and, ultimately, to be remembered. Fellow modern method actresses like Tilda Swinton, Marisa Tomei, and Scarlett Johansson—along with non-method actors like Pitt—prove that grace and power can be found in acting without torturing their co-stars or themselves. The unimaginative and overly stylized quirks of Leto’s performance as the Joker is a reminder to audiences, performers, and critics just how unrewarding and empty method acting has become with all its excesses. To buy into it is to limit the discussion about what kind of performances are worthwhile. It is to feed into a culture that lets actors get away with dangerous stunts in the name of ego and marketing—not art.