Method acting as it is now known was first developed by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski at the beginning of the 20th century and was later developed by three teachers: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Stanford Meisner. Method acting is essentially a range of techniques that help actors inhabit the role they are playing. An actor should not just know their lines off by heart, they should comprehend the motivation behind those lines and every detail of their character’s life both onstage and offstage.
Some may look at this approach as pretentious and in recent years, following performances such as Heath Ledger in the The Dark Knight and of Daniel Day-Lewis in well… pretty much everything he’s done, Method Acting has been mystified and has become a source of mockery for many. In fact Laurence Olivier once told Dustin Hoffman, a well-known method actor: “Why don’t you just try acting my child?” Olivier said this to Hoffman after the latter chose to stay awake for three days to be more convincing for the torture scenes in the film The Marathon Man (1976) in which they both starred.
Undoubtedly, this hard technique has helped create some of the greatest cinematic performances of all time. De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Daniel-Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), or Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Godfather (1972) are only a few superb examples. If you aren’t very familiar with these ones then what about Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) and Christian Bale in The Machinist (2005)?
‘Very little mention of female method actors’ you say? Well yes, dear reader, but before we get trapped into thinking that it is a boys-club kind of thing, only being associated with showy, masculine feats of endurance, let us consider women in cinema. Female roles are unfortunately mostly limited to secondary, ornamental characters rather than main, meaty ones that require much physicality. When female actors are praised for their (method) acting it is usually because they were brave enough to not appear beautiful on screen. One example is Hilary Swank in Boys don’t Cry where she played a young transgender man. Swank prepared for her role by dressing and living as a man for a month, wrapping her chest in bandages and putting socks down the front of her trousers. It would be wrong to use Method Acting as an example of gender bias in cinema because Method Acting is simply a way that some actors choose to prepare for their role.
What is the case, however, is that it is a technique now used and marketed to create a sense of importance, legitimacy and provocation around a performance and, as a result, around a film. In an era of award-centred rather than purpose-centred film-making, it is difficult to draw the line between the pretentiousness and the honesty of a performance.
Actors may use different techniques to inhabit their role, be it Method Acting or ‘Alexander Technique’ among many others. Different roles require different types of preparation by actors and in some cases they use a combination of many techniques simultaneously to achieve their goal. As for Method Acting, the most celebrated actors of all time, like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and the great Marlon Brando were trained to be Method actors. If you still think that it is pompous and overblown, I will leave you with a quote from the New York Times: “Simply put, in film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando.And they are like different worlds.”