Friday, February 27, 2015

"Is It Safe?" The method of Method

Another effect of the functional specialization which is partly responsible for the segregation of music- and movie-making talent in modern entertainment, could be the adoption of the Method approach to acting.

Not gratuitous.  Really.
Traditionally, actors would assume a role as something apart from themselves and their “real” personalities.  This is conveyed in the common synonym for acting-role — that is, “part”.  In traditional theatre, the impersonation required for a part, was completed by the elaborate costuming and make-up typical of stage-performance throughout the ages.  

In classical Greek theatre, actors even donned large masks (the word “persona” is Latin for “mask”).  These and other forms of theatricality were necessary such that large crowds could see what was happening on-stage.  The motion picture, and especially television, rendered obsolete the exaggerated gestures and movements typical of theatre-acting.  Since the moving-image was almost always framed at intimate quarters to the actors on-screen, there was little need for such theatricality.  

More than this, though, the close-up especially served to reveal the artificiality of an acting role, even if unintentionally.  Expressive performance was seen as “over-acting”, but detailed exposure to the human face permitted the film and TV audiences to “see through” actors’ delivering their lines outside the proper emotional tenor.  In order for an actor to move beyond this inherent insincerity, after World War II many in Hollywood adopted techniques originating in nineteenth-century Russian theatre.  

Method acting exploits sensual or emotional memories so as to express authentically the very affects needed for a part.  Some of the most praised actors of recent times have taken this to extremes, by remaining “in part” even when no cameras are rolling, on-set or even at leisure.  This was reportedly done by Daniel Day Lewis, when he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the Spielberg film of a couple of years ago; less pleasantly, he also kept up his on-screen persona as the villainous cad in the earlier ThereWill Be Blood.  During the first decades of film, when most performers originated on the stage, actors maintained the distinction between on-stage and private personae.  

Hoffman insisted on a real drill, too.
The disjunction between the method and traditional approaches, was illustrated by an on-set exchange alleged to have occurred between Sir Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman during the making the Marathon Man, which was released theatrically in 1976.  Olivier, a star of the British stage before making it big in Hollywood, played a sadistic Nazi dentist who tortures a young grad student and marathon-runner (Hoffman) for information about jewels stolen from Holocaust victims.  Preparing for the part, Hoffman entered marathons and studied the subjects known to his character.  But when it came time to film the famous “Is it safe?” sequence, the young actor wondered as to what could be the “motivation” for having his root canal drilled into.  Olivier was said to have advised, “You should try acting.”  

As depicted in the recent movie My Week With Marilyn, Olivier’s patience was tried years earlier by method acting, when he filmed the Prince and the Showgirl in England during the 1950s.  His co-star, Marilyn Monroe, wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, and so studied vigilantly at the Actor’s Studio in New York city, American pioneers of the method approach.  This required lengthy delays in shooting, as Monroe constantly remained in her dressing room with an acting coach, looking to “get in character.”  As for Olivier, it appears he had no problem separating his stage personae from his real self.  According to one of his wives, the actress Joan Plowright, in spite of his dashing and debonair public image, Olivier was a “dullard” in his private life.

Method acting was but one example of the Modernist movement in the arts.  During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a cadre of innovators refused and refuted the traditional forms of artistic representation.  In painting, this entailed the progressive abandonment of perspective techniques that provided an illusion of real depth to a flat surface.  The resultant Impressionist works did not attempt photo-realism, but their method of representation was more authentic than in Renaissance-style works, for showing a scene as if in flux.  

Maybe the first actor to really live the part.
In theatre, though, the avant-garde sought for greater realism in drama, than was typical of the stage at the time.  Often with political or even revolutionary subtext, the new theatre attempted to dramatize the lives of the audience itself.  Professional dramaturgy had no choice but to affect a more naturalistic portrayal of ordinary folks, the very people whom the modernists wished to attract to the theatre.  Method was originally called “Stanislavski method”, after the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897 (which was originally called the “Public-Accessible” theatre).  

According to his Wikipedia page, Constantin Stanislavski’s “work was as important to the development of socialist realism in the Soviet Union as it was to that of psychological realism in the United States.  It draws on a wide range of influences and ideas, including his study of the modernist and avant‑garde developments of his time (naturalism, symbolism and Meyerhold's constructivism), Russian formalism, Yoga, Pavlovian behavioural psychology, James‑Lange (via Ribot) psychophysiology and the aesthetics of Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy.  He described his approach as 'spiritual Realism'.”  The entry goes on, “increasingly interested in "living the part," Stanislavski experimented with the ability to maintain a characterization in real life, disguising himself as a tramp or drunk and visiting the railway station, or disguising himself as a fortune‑telling gypsy; he extended the experiment to the rest of the cast of a short comedy in which he performed in 1883, and as late as 1900 he amused holiday‑makers in Yalta by taking a walk each morning "in character"” (page last modified Feb 25, 2015).  Such “life-acting” could only have been realized within drama devoted to intense realism.  If an actor of the mannered and costumed Shakespearean or classical theatre attempted to remain “in character” at all times, the result would be more comical than revolutionary.  

Always the irony: an approach to acting that originated in left-wing politics, is now a key part of one of the greatest examples ever of free-market capitalism: Hollywood filmmaking.

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