"A" is for "Acting"
Method Acting, to be precise.
You don’t hear as much about it today, but a couple of decades ago it seemed that everyone was talking about The Method. It was a style of performing that was made famous by actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando.
It was claimed that the method was the result of specialized dramatic training that involved what was called “emotional memory,” and it went on to become the single greatest influence on the modern American stage and screen.
For several decades, I had a fairly precarious career in the film business and I had dealings with a large number of actors, many of The Method persuasion. What puzzled me was that no one ever seemed to be able to define precisely just what the method was. I decided to research the subject.
Historically, the roots of the acting style were easy to trace. In the early 1920s, the great Russian actor and teacher Constantin Stanislavsky brought his famous theatrical company to the States. A young American actor named Lee Strasberg attended some of the plays; as he admitted later, it was the turning point of his life.
What got him turned on was the acting style. It was real.
The American theatre of nearly a hundred years ago emphasized diction, fencing, dancing and singing. And it was very successful. Mysteries, musicals, classical dramas, drawing-room comedies (“Tennis, anyone?”) and so on kept the theatres filled.
What Strasberg saw in the Stanislavsky players was something different: actors dealing not just with externals, but with internals as well – the emotional and psychological problems of real life.
Strasberg began teaching the method to Americans. “Emotional memory” was what he taught. An actor had to find within himself what he needed to express an emotion on stage. If the script called for a murderous rage, the actor had to look deep into his memory to find a moment when, perhaps as a child, he had felt a murderous rage against another child.
Strasberg’s classes became fabulously successful. He built up an impressive list in his studio of America’s top actors and actresses, all believers in The Method – including the young lady pictured above.
Nevertheless, there were quite a few people who didn’t believe in it. One was a well-known actress of the thirties, Stella Adler, who was on vacation in Paris when she learned that Stanislavsky was there too. She found the courage to meet him and ask him just what the hell the method was.
He invited her to study with him, which she did for six weeks.
When she returned to New York, she dropped a bombshell. Strasberg had it all wrong.
She had a long list of topics that made up the method and emotional memory was just a small part of the system.
Strasberg hit the roof. The Adler-Strasberg feud that was to last for over three decades began at that moment.
As I mentioned, I ran into quite a few believers in The Method over the years. I have actually had an actor ask for a few minutes time-out during the shooting of a commercial; he had to go off and dig into his emotional memory to come up with an appropriate acting style for the commercial.
The proponents and believers in the different Strasberg and Adler styles seem to keep on feuding even today.
But in my opinion, it was the actress Joanne Woodward who summed it all up best: “The Method is whatever works for you.”
1 year ago