Reporter's Notebook

Debating Diversity in the Entertainment Industry
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Readers discuss representation in Hollywood and other realms of entertainment from the perspective of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and political bent. Share your own thoughts via

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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

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.

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.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

In December, I wrote an Atlantic story about how the Internet led to the decline of female film critics at prominent media outlets. The piece noted a sad irony about women and film media in 2016: At a moment when checking up on the role of women in front of and behind the camera is a popular topic with news organizations and amongst film reviewers, women write just 18 percent of top reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and constitute less than a quarter of membership in the four top national critics’ associations. I called for news and media outlets to make a deliberate effort to hire women writers and editors, because the stakes are high: As one study showed, critics tend to write about films helmed by members of their own sex, and reviews have been shown to influence audience attendance and box-office totals. Even in the Internet age, critics matter.

At the time of my writing, I argued there was reason to hope. That BuzzFeed, Time, and The Village Voice had just hired women for prominent film-critic positions in the past two years seemed, to me, a solid reason to be optimistic that media organizations had made hiring women a top priority. But yesterday, the film blog Women and Hollywood put a damper on my assertion that prominent publications have “doubled down on their commitment to women writers.”

A reader suggests there are limited career opportunities, or at least “perceived” limited opportunities, for certain minorities outside of professional sports:

When reading one of your notes yesterday, the phrase “disproportionate diversity” jumped out at me. It just doesn’t quite make sense to me unless diversity is understood as a simple code for the inclusion of “minorities,” which would be disappointingly revealing of a perspective insufficiently critical and careful in its engagement with race. Diversity may often be used as code for simply including numbers of minorities below and or up to their proportionate demographic levels, but that cheapens the concept.

Can you have a disproportionate representation of minorities in sports? If your only metric is demographic proportions, sure. But if you survey the field of opportunities perceived to be truly open to minorities and the ways in which minorities have been and continue to be systematically shut out of careers by both personal and institutional biases, then I think the disproportionality becomes a reflection of the realities of minorities’ perceptions of the avenues open to them.

Another reader suggests that such a perception could be self-defeating:

Is extreme overrepresentation of black men in pro sports actually the result of underlying social issues?

Responding to Lenika’s piece about the small percentage of Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans in Hollywood, a reader snarks, “Just look at that racist NBA: Whites and Latinos are terribly under-represented”—74.4 percent of the players are Black, 23.3 percent are White, 1.8 percent are Hispanic, and 0.2 percent are Asian. That supposed double standard was echoed in the comments section of Julia Lee’s piece for us today about how Asian Americans are often discouraged by their parents from going into the arts. But this reader makes a key distinction when it comes to professional acting and pro sports:

While there is some subjectivity, who’s hired in the NBA and NFL comes down to beating the clock, scoring, and yardage. Those three things have no opinions nor feelings.

And regarding the hugely disproportionate percentage of Black players in the NBA and NFL, the reader notes, “Those are leagues where the white guys hire all the black guys.” As far as the coaches? Here’s a snapshot of the NFL from The New York Times last year:

A reader responds to Lenika’s essay examining diversity in Hollywood beyond Black and White—namely to Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans:

I appreciate the inclusion of multiple viewpoints within the rubric of diversity. What some of the commenters on this essay seem to disdain is the idea that everyone wants an award, a good part in a movie, fame, and success just for being from a particular background. May I respectfully suggest that what a lot of people actually want is to see stories that reflect their experience, their intelligence, their sense of compassion, and their sense of complexity. It is a difficult issue to see what any of us (myself included) do not experience directly, but rather filtered, if presented at all, through stereotypes or distant stories that reduce people—real people—to convenient parts of a machine that glorifies someone else.

Did you, on the other hand, have any problems with the piece? Drop us an email. A few more readers sound off:

I would like to make a point regarding the quote from Joel Coen.