Method to Madness

To answer Kent’s response about Brando, I’ve decided to dedicate a few blogs to a couple of different acting techniques and talk about their relative merits.

Brando embodied what has become known as “Method Acting”, although he was by no means the best practitioner of it. Dustin Hoffman’s entire career is a better example of what method can bring to an actor. There is a famous, and probably apocraphyl, story that is set behind the scenes of the movie “Marathon Man”. Hoffman and Olivier, the latter being not at all from the Method school, are in a scene together and Hoffman’s character was supposed to have not slept for several days. Hoffman decided that, in order to stay tue, he himself would not sleep for several days and in fact spent the days preceding shooting running for hours and hours to make sure he would be completely exhausted. When this was explained to Olivier, he turned to Hoffman and said, “my dear boy, have you considered *acting*?”

What Hoffman was doing was a rather wild example of “sense memory” which is one of the celebrated clichés of Method, but the more central aspect of method is asking for truth. What is true? That’s the central question. It’s why Hoffman spent all that time killing himself, he didn’t know what the truth of the scene was and he was trying to re-create it for himself so he could play it effectively.

This creates amazing performances in a lot of situations. Actors learn to drag themselves through the very worst of themselves, and the very best. They learn how to filter the characters they play through their own lives. It’s moment by moment, and it can be incredible. It isn’t just remembering your dead dog, as the cliché goes, it’s every little thing. A person plays every single level of subtext because they can access it. You might think to yourself that you know what it is to not sleep, but Hoffman actually knows, he knows that you get the shits, he knows that your eyes hurt, he knows that your sense of smell takes over wildly, etc. It was true.

Here’s the problem. A lot of young actors learn the method without learning basic stagecraft and without learning much about imagination. What this means is that if an actor is put in a situation where they are expected to do something outside the realm of what is real and normal to the actor’s real life, they generally suck. If it seems that every movie star plays the same damn character every time, a lot of that is typecasting, but it’s also Method.

One of the most famous and celebrated scenes ever in the history of Method acting is the cab scene between Brando and Stieger, the “coulda been a contender” scene. Here’s the problem, Brando improvised much of the dialogue. The way he did in most of his movies. Improv. Don’t get me started on improv

His next movie was Guys and Dolls. He is completely charm-free and humorless in this movie. Why? It’s a musical. He had no idea how to play circumstances even slightly outside his truth. In college, and honestly long since, there have been Method practitioners complaining about scripts and delivering muttered sotto voce lines under their breath while staring upstage in a hundred shows I’ve seen.

De Niro and Hoffman are examples of the best of Method acting, because there is more to it than just truth. There is also massive research. See Rainman or Awakenings for performances that go completely beyond anything the actors have ever experiences. See Hoffman in Wag The Dog or Ishtar for performances that understand the complete scope of performance. See De Niro in his more recent comedies. These guys both know how to act, not just be.

More later on questions, inention and imagination.