Rooted in the Konstantin Stanislavski system, method acting may be defined as a dramatic technique in which actors identify as closely as possible to the characters they are depicting by correlating experiences from their personal lives to those characters. At least this was the spin Lee Strasberg placed on Stanislavski’s ideas. Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner were the other two American teachers most often associated with the Russian actor and director, but emphasised aspects to the approach different to the psychological ones crucial to Strasberg. Adler’s stress lay on the sociological side, while for Meisner the behavioural facets were uppermost.
Given this disparity, the method technique may be more accurately termed an elaboration of Stanislavski’s original system. Lee Strasberg taught many prominent American actors in the latter half of the 20th century, among them Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and Jack Nicholson. Two other prominent actors from the same era, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, were students of Stella Adler, whose break with Lee Strasberg occurred after she concluded that his adaptation of Stanislavski was ‘too limited’ and therefore inauthentic. By contrast she taught her students to go beyond personal experiences, to imagine the scene’s ‘given circumstances’.
Meisner thought similarly to Adler, describing acting as ‘living faithfully under imaginary circumstances’. Robert Lewis, another influential teacher who broke with Strasberg, felt that method acting neglected vocal and physical training, deficiencies certainly not apparent in some of Brando’s and De Niro’s tour de force portrayals.
To digress a moment, the case of Jack Nicholson is interesting, this being an artist who has built a career lasting several decades upon hard to ignore performances reliant on his own particular brand of the ‘method’. There have been notable exceptions, such as his David Staebler in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), but he can appear to correlate from his own life to such an extent that one is left with the feeling that it is not an actor playing a character so much as a character playing the movie star Nicholson. Perhaps this type of method actor acts from a conviction that no fictional figure they might be called on to represent could be as inherently interesting as themselves, the movie star.
Such an overriding need for authenticity, for realism, in a medium founded upon deception, the trickery conjured by an interplay of shadows and light. This need has become greater since the coming to the fore of so-called reality television. If fictional output in the audio / visual realm has always had to wage a battle for relevance with the ‘real’, it is a battle increasingly pitched in this day and age, when ‘realism’ is preponderant.
In the form of nightly news bulletins, current affairs analyses, documentaries, et cetera, a type of reality television has been in existence forever, but never before in such quantity. Many practitioners of fiction, perhaps fearful of floundering in the wash-up, have responded by lacing their ostensibly fictional work with actual incident, thus muddying the line between what is real in their product and what is staged.
This has been going on for decades. Clearly, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider’s sexual congress in Last Tango in Paris (1972) is simulated. But what caught a great number of people by surprise many years later was the revelation that Brando and the film’s director Bernardo Bertolucci ‘ganged up’ on the French actress in the moments before the cameras rolled for some of the more notorious scenes, all in the name of enhanced authenticity.
More than four decades after the film was made, rumours continue to abound regarding the possibility that Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie had bona fide sex in a pivotal scene from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). As if such is, or was, a major factor in determining the artistic merit or otherwise of the film. But even if the two leads and the filmmakers dared be so bold in the early seventies it was hardly a step minus precedent.
Years before that, Swedish director Vilgot Sjoman’s films I am Curious – Yellow (1967) and I am Curious – Blue (1968) garnered attention for their unsimulated sex. The Swedes may have indirectly helped usher in a succession of ‘art’ films that traded on the supposed infamy of authentic sex, among them In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Fruits of Passion (1981), and Devil in the Flesh (1986).
By the time Baise-moi (2000) and 9 Songs (2004) were made and released it had all become passé. Why a director of the calibre of Michael Winterbottom, who has made some fine quasi-documentary films, bothered with a fictional veneer in 9 Songs is puzzling. He might have done just as well to call his film a quasi-documentary about two actors who spend most of the film having sex. The quality of the films mentioned above varies widely, but the poorest of them are tedious in the extreme, their unvarnished sex notwithstanding.
Ruggero Deodato’s sleight of hand in Cannibal Holocaust (1980) fooled many, hilariously culminating in his indictment for the murder of his cast. His exoneration would come when his alleged victims made a public appearance, thus proving they had not lost their lives to the cause of film art after all. One can smile at the blackly comic mockumentary Man Bites Dog (1992), which deals with a filmmaking crew who at first passively record the exploits of the serial killer they intend to make a documentary about only to gradually become active participants in the killer’s sprees. As Kenneth Tynan points out, it is ‘a troubling, often funny vision of what the movies have done to our souls … ’
Oh for the days when the movies only had to compete with occasionally graphic (if still heavily censored) news and documentaries! Now it is up against an upstart that goes by the name the World Wide Web, the appearance of which categorically changed the parameters for all time. Those with a yen for it can now with a few clicks access as much real sex and real violence as they can stomach. 24 / 7.
Be that as it may, on present evidence it may be a while yet before those whose province is, in essence, fiction get the picture. Seeking solace for their dilemma in a periodic resort to some grandiose über reality (usually real sex or, less often, real blood), they fail to understand that it is precisely this realm audiences do not wish to inhabit when they turn to works of fiction.
Picture, if you will, a person who makes a living counselling rootless, emotionally fragile, harried people bereft of any genuine vision of what their lives could be. Is such an individual, on heading home after their daily eight hours labour, likely to have the slightest wish to unwind in front of, for example, a John Cassavetes film? I think not. Method actors tend to take like ducks to water to the mundane and easily relatable ground that Cassavetes once upon a time explored and that hundreds of other directors, in true believer style, now plough. But when unrestrained these same actors can emote to a degree so off the meter that it is painful to sit through. Witness Peter Falk’s insufferable displays as Nick Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).
Robert Bresson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were two directors not the least bit interested in mirroring real life. They insisted their actors underplay. Uncannily – is it despite, or because of, this imperative? – their work reveals more about reality, or how things really are, than countless purportedly realist films. If the only thing movie watchers wished for from the product they paid to see was a replica of the sorts of experiences they might encounter every day of their lives they would be done with it and benignly immerse themselves in non-fiction and nothing but non-fiction. This they do not want. Fiction would do well then to maintain its place, stay as separate as it is able from the ho-hum real. The more closely it comes to reality the less it will serve to enlighten, the very purpose for which much of it is made.
To return to the method – an acting method, by the way, that is no longer held sacrosanct. The greatest actors may be those who, appreciating Stella Adler’s broader view of Stanislavsky, look much further than their own selves in creating character. Their adherence to multiple acting techniques equips them to ‘get’ just about any character, to bring off roles with an aplomb divorced of over the top theatrics. In a nutshell, they are character actors. There is never any doubt they are playing a role, but they are often brilliant at what they do. In the words of Charles Laughton: “Method gives you a photograph. Real actors give you an oil painting.”