Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Perils of Method Acting

A few weeks ago, after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death, I suggested that he may have been a casualty of method acting. It was a thought, something to ponder.

I find it more telling that Junod believes that Hoffman died “in character?” Who decided that there is a special virtue for an actor to die “in character?” Who told actors that they had to become the characters they were playing? I think we know the answer to that one. If Junod is right, it means that it's time for the acting profession to take a few steps back from the “method.”

Surely, Hoffman was a great actor, but was it necessary for him to become the characters he was playing? Is there any real virtue in thinking that you are sacrificing yourself for your art?

On Friday, Richard Brody picked up my suggestion in a post on the New Yorker site, and offered some further insights into Method acting. I see no indication that he was specifically responding to my post, but still….

Brody defines the Method:

There’s something about modern-day acting—the style that is famously associated with Lee Strasberg’s Method and that gained currency from his Actors Studio and its offshoots—that inclines toward deformations of character. That modern school, which links emotional moments from a performer’s own life to that of a character, and which conceives characters in terms of complete and filled-out lives that actors imagine and inhabit, asks too much of performers. 

Method acting requires actors to undergo a semi-therapeutic process of introspection. In so doing, they dredge up past experiences-- experiences that would have best remained buried-- in order to access raw their own emotions. Then, they transfer the emotions to the characters they are playing.

Brody explainss:

An actor’s attempted excavation of her own deepest and harshest experiences to lend them to characters adds a dimension of self-revelation (even if only to oneself), of wounds reopened and memories relived, that would make for agony in therapy. On the other hand, the effort to conceive a character as a filled-out person, with a lifetime of backstory and biographical details, becomes a submergence into another (albeit fictitious) life, an abnegation of a nearly monastic stringency. In the effort to make emotions true, to model performance on the plausible actions of life offstage or offscreen, the modern actor is often both too much and too little herself.

As  Brody presents it, the Method pretends that fictional characters are fully human beings. If that is true, an actor must put his humanity into his character. And yet, those who teach the Method do not worry about how this exercise will impact the actors psychologically And no one seems to notice, as I mentioned in my post, that this produces a goodly quantity of bad acting.

My prior remarks:

Even if we ignore the damage it does to the actors themselves, method acting fills our screen with actors who mistake intense emotion for great acting.

There’s a reason why so many of today’s greatest actors hail from the other side of the pond. Can you imagine Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston (or John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier or Vanessa Redgrave) dying on a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm? 

Unfortunately, method acting also produces actors who can only play themselves. If you are the character you are playing you are more likely to take the role home with you, even to the point of playing out your dramas in the tabloids.

In Brody’s words:

Compare Brando with several of his noted predecessors, such as Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum, who seem not to become the roles they play but to turn the characters into versions of themselves. Their roles aren’t put-ons, but they do put them on: they don their roles like costumes while continuing, manifestly and even brazenly, to be—themselves. Not that actors in the early-studio era didn’t live strange or even riotous lives, but the reason was altogether different: it’s precisely because of the way their private lives flowed into their onscreen personae.

Of course, Marlon Brando counts among the most famous method actors. Brody could also have mentioned another exemplary product of method acting: Marilyn Monroe.


Anonymous said...

Not to mention River Phoenix and Heath Ledger. If method acting is based on emotional sincerity, I wonder if it matters that they're all sincerely dead?


Sam L. said...

My understanding is that Cary Grant found one of his characters so satisfactory that he played him the rest of his life.