Tuesday, January 18, 2011


"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.”


Roger Owen Green said...

I agree w Woodward. But there were some fine Method actors in the day.

ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Jinksy said...

James Dean convinced me The Method worked for him! Thanks for the photo, which reminded me how much I fancied him, way back in the mists of time! LOL

Gigi Ann said...

I agree with Joanne Woodward. In my book she was tops, with The Method, or without The Method.

richies said...

I like the whatever works for you idea.

An Arkies Musings

Carver said...

I love the Joanne Woodward quote. My impression is there are a lot of variations on method acting and I guess that's what Joanne summed up in that it evolved to where actors took bits and pieces of the original idea. Interesting post. I also remember when it was talked about a lot.

Life with Kaishon said...

I never knew what it was. Thank you for explaining it so perfectly : ) My son takes acting classes on Saturday at Stagecoach School and he just LOVES it. I am glad he has an activity that makes him happy. Sports don't really float his boat.

Sylvia K said...

James Dean always did for me! Enjoyed seeing all the old photos again! Great post for the A Day as always!

ABC Wednesday Team

Kay L. Davies said...

My goodness. What a trip down memory lane this has been. I know nothing about acting "methods" but I agree with Joanne Woodward, whatever works for you. Still, thanks for this post, Berowne. I really enjoyed it.
-- K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Margaret Bednar said...

...Stanislovsky... I've heard all about it!! My son is a senior in high school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Studying Drama. He has his hope on attending for the next four years. James Dean, Marlon Brando are a few of his favorites. Fun post - I believe Robert DeNiro is one who followed the Stanislovsky method as well as Johnny Depp.

Jedediah said...

I was fascinated by a a passage in Oliver Sacks' excellent book Awakenings, about catatonics being "awakened" by a new drug. He describes how Robert De Niro plays the role of one of his patients during a full-body spasm and he wonders how an EEG of De Niro at that moment would look like.

Some of the actors I like best are method actors. And some apparently walk on set, play their part and walk off again. So I guess Joanne Woodward is right.

Wanda said...

What a wonderful tour of Acting and great actors. They are all so excellent in their careers. Thanks for a delightful read.

ChrisJ said...

Very interesting. I have, of course, heard of the acting method, but never looked into what exactly it was. Now you explain it to me, I find that's what I though acting was all along. The closest I ever got to acting was to be the RED QUEEN in "Alice Through the Looking Glass". But I never got to perform as I came down with Scarlet Fever! True story!

Berowne said...

Good story, ChrisJ.

Hildred and Charles said...

It still amazes me how actors can lose themselves in another personality, and your explanation of The Method sheds a little light on how they do it.

Tumblewords: said...

I agree with Woodward, although I know very little about it. :)

Berowne said...

Interesting. We seem to have quite a few folks who agree with Joanne Woodward about the Method.

Lulu Post said...

Visiting from ABC Wednesday. I am your new follower too. I hope you can visit my entry too.
A is for Angels

Anna said...

'Acting'is a great choice of word for 'A'. I don't know that much about 'Method acting', but I am inclined to think that good diction and learning your lines well are still important, as correct spelling and punctuation are parts of what good writing is, but not everything.
I too agree with Joanne Woodward. Maybe acting is not something that can be reduced to a formula.

Sara Cat sends purrs to you. She has taken this week off. (There were no cats in this week's subject matter and she has become very 'pro-cat' lately. Everything she writes must have a cat in it.

Best wishes,
Anna's ABC-Wd-A is for Animal-Helpers

Berowne said...

Anna: 'Acting'is a great choice of word for 'A'.
Thanx; I thought it was okay too.

Trulyfool said...


'Method' had cachet throughout my early years watching. Certainly many great performances came from some form of it.

The common take was that 'it' contrasted with prefabricated molds of approach, that it let what was natural response trump directorial or stage tradition.

And: it fit directly into the film naturalism of post-war times.

Love this entry of yours -- I will read more.


Leslie: said...

Sorry to be so late in commenting, but I've had a busy week. As usual, a fascinating commentary and an apt post for A week! Hope you're having a more relaxing week than I've had! :D

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