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.