Monday, March 21, 2022

Acting and Actors – The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act

The 1935 Broadway production of Awake and Sing!

The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury Publishing) is a gossipy, entertaining and informative history of Stanislavskian acting – how it developed in Russia at the Moscow Art Theatre and how two of Stanislavski’s associates, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, imported it to American shores, where, through its dissemination by the Group Theatre in the 1930s, it became the Method. Butler has rounded up an impressive amount of material and presents it coherently and compellingly. I didn’t realize how little I knew about the tensions between Stanislavski and the M.A.T.’s co-director, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko; about the role each of the personalities who were drawn into Stanislavski’s circle played in the development of his approach to acting; about the effect Stalin’s rise to power had on the M.A.T. generally and on Stanislavski specifically – or certainly about Boleslavsky’s intriguing and rather crazy biography. No account I’ve read deals so clearly and in such dramatic detail with the break in the Group Theatre, when Stella Adler, its most gifted actress, challenged the weight Lee Strasberg, one of the company’s co-founders, placed on affective memory, where the actor digs into his or her past to unearth emotional dynamite to blast open a scene. Adler and Strasberg became the most important American acting teachers of the twentieth century. The Method’s examination of the differences in their styles and approaches and that of Sanford Meisner, another Group alumnus who became a famous and influential teacher, is fascinating. He identifies Adler’s greatest quality as her gift at script analysis; her book, compiled posthumously from her class notes, on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, and to a lesser extent the one on American playwrights, bear him out.

Butler makes no attempt to simplify the dynamic, sometimes vague and self-contradicting characters whose names have become milestones in the history of the Method, especially Stanislavski and Strasberg. He includes a jaw-dropping anecdote about Strasberg refusing the financial help of a philanthropist when the Group was – as it continually was – in dire financial straits. There are other wonderful tales, too – about the conflict between Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan (who did more than anybody, briefly as a teacher and enduringly as a stage and film director, to promote the Method and establish it in the American theatre) and about the disastrous Actors Studio production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in London in 1965. The Group Theatre, the first American institution to employ Stanislavskian technique, was formed in 1931 and disbanded a decade later; the Actors Studio was a theatrical gym for professional actors to present material, not a producing body like the Group, but there were exceptions, and Three Sisters, which played a New York run before touring to London, was one. Butler reports that the show, starring Geraldine Page as Olga, Kim Stanley as Masha and Shirley Knight as Irina and directed by Strasberg, received glowing reviews in New York but that it fell apart in London, where Page (who was pregnant) was replaced by Nan Martin, Knight by Sandy Dennis and, as Trigorin, Kevin McCarthy by George C. Scott. (The details of the fiasco are mesmerizing.) But the 1966 movie of the production, which restored Page and McCarthy and brought in Shelley Winters to replace Barbara Baxley as Natasha, is such a compendium of Method excesses that it’s hard to imagine how it could ever have been any good. Of course, who knows? American theatre history is full of stories of fabled productions whose glories have been recreated in revivals, like the original mounting, by Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones, of The Glass Menagerie (with Dowling, Laurette Taylor and Julie Hayden) and Kazan’s Broadway version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (with Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara).

Butler is excellent on the genealogy of The Sea Gull, which Stanislavski persuaded a despairing Chekhov to let the M.A.T. revive after its disastrous Moscow opening. He’s terrific on Clifford Odets, an uninspired actor in the Group who became its unofficial playwright laureate, writing Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing! (his masterpiece) and Paradise Lost in a single year, 1935, and rescuing the company from bankruptcy with Golden Boy two years later. Here’s how The Method describes Odets’s style:

That voice, Odets’s voice, is slang-drunk, slinging street elocutions with such density and fire that they become poetry. It’s the sound of New York in the 1930s, the sound of polyglot immigrant tongues wrapping their rhythms around an English language that is stretching to accommodate them. This voice, which echoes through in plays both great (Lefty, Awake and Sing!, Paradise Lost, Golden Boy) and not so great (all the others), is urban, Jewish, neurotic, furious, explosive, and full of yearning.

And he’s very fine on John Garfield, who left the Group for Hollywood and became the first Method-trained movie star, cracking open the screen in the 1938 Michael Curtiz melodrama Four Daughters – though I don’t agree with Butler that Garfield’s penultimate movie, The Breaking Point (1950), contains his best performance (or anything close to it).

Robert De Niro in Mean Streets.

Butler’s judgments are generally sound. He defends Marilyn Monroe’s best work, like the 1956 film of the William Inge play Bus Stop, which is, as he argues, a crummy movie of a play with considerable charms. His point is to show that her reliance on Strasberg (who had a habit of being corrupted by celebrity) and  his wife Paula (who became her personal acting coach) was not only unfortunate but unnecessary, though Monroe’s insecurities were so extreme that the Strasbergs can’t be blamed for inciting them, only for acting like untrained therapists. (I wouldn’t go as far as Butler, though, in commending Monroe’s performance in The Misfits, John Huston’s misbegotten movie, written for Monroe by her husband, Arthur Miller. The only good acting in that picture comes from Montgomery Clift, whose performance Butler slights, and Thelma Ritter.) He’s very smart about Warren Beatty, and he’s wise to address the role Robert De Niro’s physical transformation in Raging Bull has played in encouraging young movie actors to wreck their bodies in misguided attempts to turn themselves into the characters they play. De Niro is a great actor – at least, when he’s at his best – but he’s got a lot to answer for.

Where do I part ways with Butler? Well, on Raging Bull, when he insists that its lack of a clear thesis or an explanation of the boxer Jake LaMotta’s behavior is the source of its power. Its force – which is different from power – comes from the way it pummels the audience, especially in the hothouse fight scenes, which Martin Scorsese shoots so close in that they make you wince. Scorsese’s technique and that of his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, are superlative, but give me the boxing scenes in Ron Shelton’s Play It to the Bone (lit by Mark Vargo) any day, where the camera breathes. Pauline Kael wrote about Brando’s performance in Last Tango in Paris, “He’s an actor: when he shows you something, he lets you know what it means.” And when he’s soaring, De Niro does too – even in the first movies he made with Scorsese, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, where he’s playing men whose personality disorders may seem to shroud them in mystery. To praise Raging Bull for not making sense of its protagonist is a case of special pleading. And I don’t know what Butler means when he writes that De Niro and Harvey Keitel aren’t giving psychological performances in Mean Streets, a movie that, unlike Raging Bull, I’m completely crazy about. De Niro is playing a sociopath; that makes his work psychological by definition. And I think Butler misses what’s going on in the relationship between his Johnny Boy and Keitel’s Charlie. He views Charlie as needing “a chaotic failure to take care of and define himself against,” but Johnny Boy’s appeal for his friend is that unlike Charlie, who is twisted into a pretzel by his attempts to please everyone – his buddies, his girlfriend, his Mafioso uncle, the church – Johnny Boy doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of him. When he goes too far and insults and embarrasses Charlie’s friend Michael (Richard Romanus), to whom he owes money, and Charlie allies himself with Johnny Boy, this dangerous loose cannon, with the peculiar insight of the sociopathic, quips to Charlie, “Well, you got what you wanted.” Charlie’s loyalty literally pulls him out of his safety zone; it also affords him a kind of freedom he’s never enjoyed before.

Butler is much tougher on James Dean’s than I would be (though he does acknowledge that Dean’s last performance, in Giant, which came out after his death, was his best work). His claim that in A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche “sets off a chain of events that will undo the lies the characters have told one another and themselves” and “uncover[s] the brutality and violence simmering under the surface of [Stanley and Stella’s] marriage” simply isn’t accurate. He writes that in Awake and Sing! Bessie and Myron Berger “have become so corrupted by their economic precarity that they nearly ruin their children’s lives,” but that phrase really only applies to Bessie. And he gets the end of the plot of A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, wrong. Clift’s George Eastman doesn’t murder Winters’s Alice Tripp, even though, in one of the weirdest conclusions in American movies, he goes to the chair for it.

John Garfield and Priscilla Lane in Four Daughters.

I was interested, as I always am, in what the book had to say about Kim Stanley. For me she’s the mystery woman of the Method. Her stage performances are legendary. In the 2003 documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, compiled by Rick McKay, distinguished actors who grew up going to the theatre when Broadway was still at its peak recall their favorite actors, and Frank Langella proclaims that he never missed one of Stanley’s shows. But she hated making movies and starred in only two, The Goddess (1958) and Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964).  Her role in The Goddess is a thinly disguised version of Marilyn Monroe. Butler lauds Stanley’s performance, but I think it’s awful, and I hated her in Séance, as Masha in the movie of The Three Sisters, in the TV version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (where she played Big Mama opposite Laurence Olivier), as Jessica Lange’s mother in Frances, and even in Philip Kaufman’s otherwise impeccably acted The Right Stuff. Everything in these performances feels wrong to me – overwrought, mushy, all over the place. I said so in my own book, Method Acting: Three Generations of an American Acting Style, more than thirty years ago. But some years later I came across a TV adaptation of a pair of Tennessee Williams plays called Dragon Country and she was marvelous in it. Broadway: The Golden Age contains a clip (probably from The Ed Sullivan Show) of a scene from the original production of Bus Stop, where she plays the role Monroe took over in the film, and she’s utterly charming. So is a seven-minute excerpt from a Horton Foote play called A Young Lady of Property she did in a TV anthology series. I wish I’d had the opportunity to see these bits and pieces before I wrote about her. And I certainly wish we had access to more.

The Method fades out toward the end. Butler wants a big finish (and you can hardly blame him), but his attempt to argue that the time of the Method is up doesn’t seem to convince even him: he admits that Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares is still required reading in acting classes all over the country. What he means is that the era in which the Method redefined American acting – the era of Brando and Clift and Dean and Julie Harris (whom the book barely mentions but who is, I believe, the greatest of the Actors Studio-period Method actresses) – is over. But it’s been over for decades. There was a generation after it: the generation of the young actors who worked with Brando in The Godfather and with Lee Strasberg (as an actor) in The Godfather, Part II. Reaching for a way to place Stanislavskian acting among other options, Butler writes:

Good acting is the mercurial approach of Meryl Streep, the sublimated rage of Al Pacino, the full transformations of Robert De Niro. But it is also the expressionism of Nicolas Cage, the volcanic, musical quality of Samuel L. Jackson, the generous emotionalism of Julianne Moore, the forcefulness of Viola Davis, the precision of Nathan Lane, the charisma and determination of Denzel Washington.

Not only is this a clumsy list that doesn’t really get at the distinctive qualities of any of these actors, but Moore and Davis are just as much Method actors as Pacino and De Niro. Anyway, it’s always been the case that actors you wouldn’t remotely think of as Method shared the screens at the multiplexes and the art houses with those who defined it. When audiences were being knocked out by Brando and Clift, there were still plenty of old-style movie stars; the other masterpiece to come out of Hollywood in 1972, the year of The Godfather, was Cabaret with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, both brilliant actors schooled in musical theatre, the most presentational of performance modes. The influence of the Method hasn’t shrunk; by the eighties, the Brits had caught the fever too, and they’ve still got it. Look at the 1982 drama Shoot the Moon with Diane Keaton and Albert Finney and see if you can guess which one is in thrall to the Method. The answer is both. I don’t think Stanislavski’s approach to acting is going anywhere, as long as talented actors are still on a quest for emotional truth.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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