What IS method acting exactly?

Who started it all off and why is it so popular amongst serious (and talented/good) actors?

Why is it so relatively successful? I know about the Lee Strasberg acting institute and stuff but what exactly did he pioneer?

It’s about representational (as opposed to presentational) acting. The Actor’s Studio in the 50s started turning out actors who tried to reflect real life with mumbling, stammering, and “sense memory” exercises. These actors included Brando, Shelley Winters and Karl Malden, and they were not afraid to look piss-ugly in front of a camera to reflect frank reality.

They were kind of a reaction against the last gasp of Old Hollywood presentational actors who enunciated every syllable and never had a hair out of place, like Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth, people who were promoting a glamorous image that resembled nobody’s real life.

Not sure who started it, but the names Lee Strasburg and Uta Hagen come up a lot.

Hmmm, I have a problem with that . . . At their best (good script and director), Douglas, Turner, Lancaster and Hayworth were every bit as good as Brando and company.

“The Method” actually started with Stanislavski in the late 19th-century, it was nothing new when Strasberg began adapting it in his classes. Much of it is just common sense: using your personal experiences and feelings to create a role. Sadly, it sometimes became a parody of itself, with self-indulgent, unprofessional performers twitching and stammering and muttering to show how much they felt their parts. No matter that you couldn’t see their faces or understand a word they were saying.

Reminds me of the story of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. Hoffman turned up on the set one day looking like death warmed over. “My character hasn’t slept in days, so neither have I,” he told Olivier, who replied, “My dear boy, it would be so much easier if you just tried ‘acting.’”

For a good example of non-Method Acting, rent a Humphry Bogart film. Bogey rarely shows any emotion, and most his lines are delivered at an unrealistically rapid pace (comparable to the legal disclamers at the end of commercials). And there is *a lot * of dialogue, way more than any real person would use. It’s not that Bogart was a bad actor, it’s just that movie acting back then was basically the same type of acting you find in live theatre.

That’s about right. Often, instead of “pretending” to feel the emotion - and doing what people with that emotion seem to do - an actor will dredge up some old memory and then “feel” the emotion.

E.g./ Crayons needs to act betrayed. Crayons thinks “hey, when I was four a puppy followed me home… but my parents wouldn’t let me keep it! Bastards!” Crayons presents genuine emotions of betrayal to the audience. bows

David Mamet is one outspoken critic of The Method. This article sums it up pretty well:
Playwright David Mamet wrote “True and False, Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor” (Vintage Books, 1997), a book that created a big dust-up among acting teachers and acting schools. In it, he asserts that most acting teachers are charlatans and frauds, that most acting training is a waste of time and that most of the principles espoused by Constantin Stanslavski – and popularized by Lee Strasberg (Method Acting) – are without merit. It is his opinion that most acting schools are self-serving, motivated by a financial desire to keep tuition-paying students in a subservient position. Having seen more than my share of badly trained, self-indulgent aspiring actors, I would tend to agree with him on that score.

Acting begins with the actor - audience “contract”, not with being able to cry or express anger. As Mamet points out, much of what passes for respectable acting training today is really a form of emotional self involvement, and it doesn’t even have much to do with acting. It’s closer to psychotherapy. Some actors spend years in classes where they dredge up this emotion and that one, “freeing” themselves. And after they’ve done all of that, they still can’t act.

It is worth remembering that acting training such as we know it is a recent development. Before the late 1800’s, actors learned their craft by apprenticing themselves to acting companies. A new actor would carry spears, do the small roles, and watch the masters at work. They got up in front of the audience right away. Stanislavski was influenced by Freud and Pavlov, and he began experimenting with the development of emotional triggers. It was this focus that Strasberg later picked up and translated into Method Acting. But, as time went by, Stanislavski himself changed his mind, focusing more on physical action and imagination than on emotional stimulation. Strasberg rejected the change in focus and stuck with the emotional work. It is from Strasberg that most contemporary American acting training descended. Sanford Meisner broke away from Strasberg and put his own spin on things, but in my opinion, the Meisner Technique also tends to puts too much stress on emotional stimulation and not enough on the actor-audience contract.

Peter Brook, one of the few true geniuses when it comes to acting theory, points out that an actor needs to maintain three tension lines – one between the himself and himself (that’s the emotional line), one between himself and his scene partner and one between himself and the audience. If any one of those lines goes slack for even a moment, the theatrical transaction (the contract) is broken. Meisner and Strasberg do not generally approach things this way. They focus on only two of those tension lines. (Yes, you should read Peter Brooks’s books. Go to my web site (http://www.edhooks.com) for a list.

An actress I know told me about her early experiences at the Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. After a year there, she felt she was not cut out to be an actor because she had never been able to achieve “total concentration”, to the point where she would be oblivious to the audience. I explained that she was not supposed to be oblivious to the audience, that the audience is why she’s on the stage in the first place. If the actor becomes oblivious to the audience, in fact, the audience will get nervous.

My main quibble with David Mamet is his insistence that the playwright carries most of the water. “The actor”, he says, should “…open the mouth, stand straight and say the words bravely – adding nothing, denying nothing…”. He claims there is no “arc of character” and the playwright has already provided the only “arc of the play”. He has no patience for actors who want to analyze their roles, do a character biography, and interpret things. He wants the actors to say the words as written, approximating the actions and objectives that the playwright has provided. When he talks like this, it feels a little bit like Mamet wishes he didn’t have to fool with actors at all, that the playwright could do directly to the audience, like Sophocles used to do.

I can appreciate that a well-made play does not need embellishment, but I personally learned the most about acting from appearing in BAD plays off-off Broadway. Unfortunately, most playwrights are not as gifted as Mr. Mamet is. Also, some playwrights enjoy the collaborative process, actually want the actor’s input! Not Mamet. He wants to do it himself.

It is my view that actors are artists, same as playwrights, musicians, and painters. A person will go to see “Hamlet” many times, not because he didn’t grasp the play the first time, but because he wants to see different interpretations. I have seen brave Hamlets, superstitious Hamlets, half-crazy Hamlets…and they were all valid. Maybe Shakespeare didn’t envision a half-crazy Hamlet, but we would be poorer if all subsequent productions and interpretations had been precisely as Shakespeare dictated. To me, theatre evolves, and the playwright’s words are a frame. Say them precisely, but bring to it your own perspectives.


A good example of an actual case of method acting: In Cool Hand Luke, there is a famous scene where Luke eats 50 eggs. Paul Newman (who plays Luke) actually ate 50 eggs to realistically depict what that would look like.

A director in Berlin in the 1920s once told young Marlene Dietrich: “The audience doesn’t care what you feel—your job is to make them feel!”

According to David Niven in Bring on the Empty Horses, Bogart had “nothing but contempt” for Method Acting, calling it the “scratch your ass and belch” crowd…

Well, now, to be fair, the Method was just one tool to help good performers turn in good performances. But it has also been misused by Bogey’s “scratch your ass and belch” crowd.

I don’t see what Mamet plays have to do with reality. So unrealistic acting isn’t really a negative.

The only reason David Mamet doesn’t like method acting is because it’s completely inapplicable to his ridiculous, hackneyed dialog.

It does seem like a bit of a contradiction in terms. One of my favourite anecdotes, true or not, is about Dustin Hoffman, a method actor. He stayed up all night to play a character who has stayed up all night in Marathon Man. The next day Laurence Olivier asked him why he looked so tired. Hoffman told him what he’d done to prepare, and Olivier- Why not try acting? It’s much easier.

Eve, I am thrilled (and a bit freaked out) to see that we both recounted the Hoffman/Olivier anecdote on the same day. I think of that every time I watch Hoffman–which nowadays I try to avoid if at all possible.

My favorite performance of all time might be Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was filmed in 1927, LONG before Strasberg and his Method.

Eek! THREE times today!

I can kind of see the playwright’s choice. He’s an artist trying to create a three-dimnesional story. He wants to tell a story in his own way.

But then these uppity actors come along and start prodding and analyzing and ‘re-thinking’ the characters. Then they start changing lines. In the end, you get the product of a committee instead of the vision of the writer.

On the other hand, the performer is also an artist, looking to make an impact by creating a character for the audience. Thus the artistic clash.

I cannot contribute to any argument about ‘better’ or ‘best’ methods of acting - but I would like to leave you an amusing passage from one of Sir Alec Guinness diaries, which I finished reading the other day…

"Some ten years ago there appeared in a national newspaper an interview with an actor who held forth about what his approach would be to playing in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “My Dear Algy,” he quoted, “I thought you were down in Shropshire. How ripping to find you are up instead.” He went on to ask “What is it like to have a friend called Algy? Ask around. Better still, look through the phone book and find someone called Algy. Get to know him. Befriend him. Go to Shropshire. Find out why it is so ripping not to be there.”
etc etc etc.

Well, I liked it.

Moody, Excellent! Unexpected gems like that are why I come to the SD. BTW, you would be Ed, I assume?

I saw one of the best “examples” of method acting on an episode of “Friends.” Joey read for a part but was rejected. He had a second chance to read and got praised by the director for bringing an edgy, nervous quality to the character. He only did so however, because he just drank a giant slurpee (or something) and really had to go to the bathroom. He got a call back and for the third reading, he loaded himself up so his bladder was bursting. This made him so edgy and nervous he got the part until, at least, he peed all over himself and the director.

Well, where does it stop being method and become common sense?

Because for some things, like getting down accents, dance moves, etc-that’s not considered method, is it?
Basic research, I mean.

James Dean in East of Eden muttered & mumbled so much he is almost incomprehensible. He was a product of Strasberg’s method, no?