During a recent virtual roundtable sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, Lady Gaga—who has said that she prepared for her performance as a vengeful wife in House of Gucci by, among other things, speaking with an Italian accent for months—caught her fellow panelists off-guard with an imploring speech. After apologizing for being silent for most of the event, she thanked her colleagues—Jennifer Hudson, Kirsten Dunst, Kristen Stewart, Tessa Thompson, and Penelope Cruz, all perfectly poised and cordoned off in their little Zoom squares—for speaking so openly about their work, and then explained her problem: “I feel like I am such a masochist when I work, and I am totally unhealthy and completely detached from real life, other than what I choose to put in my toolbox as an actor,” she said. “I’m always thinking, when the movie’s over and I’m a bag of bones going home, there has to be this other way for me to tell stories without abandoning myself.”
Gaga needs this book, and fast: Isaac Butler’s The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.
Method acting is mysterious to those who have never studied it, and sometimes even to those who have. Acting can be magical, but it’s not magic: there are all sorts of techniques and modes of preparation that an actor can use, some of them exploratory in a beneficial way and others—the kind, it seems, that Lady Gaga has been employing—deeply unhealthy and perhaps even dangerous. Butler’s lively, well-researched and marvelously readable book isn’t just for actors, but also for anyone who loves watching them. Most in need of it is anyone who has ever announced authoritatively, at a cocktail party or anywhere else—and, sadly, my personal experience tells me these people are plentiful—that “Method acting is when you actually become the character.”
That, as Butler explains early on, is exactly what the Method isn’t. But before he gets deep into the complexity of what it is, he explains where it came from. What we now think of as Method acting was born at a lunch meeting in Moscow on June 7, 1897, a lunch between two theater professionals that stretched through the night, because neither of these men, ablaze with the passion of their ideas, could stop talking. During that 14-hour lunch, a theater director and teacher named Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and an accomplished actor best known by his stage name, Konstantin Stanislavski, hammered out a plan for a new Russian theater, one that would replace the staid and weary theatrical tradition of the time. Their brave and vital creation would come to be called the Moscow Art Theater, and cradled within it would be a mode of training for actors, developed by Stanislavski, known as the “system.”
The core idea of Stanislavski’s teachings was perezhivanie, which, as Butler explains, loosely translates to experiencing, or maybe more accurately, re-experiencing. Perezhivanie has a strong correlation to the idea of sense memory, the one Method precept that nearly everyone has heard of: the practice of using a memory, the feeling of a particular moment of the actor’s own personal experience, to summon a truthful connection with their character, and with life. But even then, Butler takes care to clarify, in a gentle smackdown to all those cocktail-party know-it-alls: “Experiencing does not mean to fully become the character, or to lose sight of the self. Instead, the actor’s living consciousness and the fictional consciousness of the part they are playing meet.”
So how did Stanislavski’s “system”—a mode of teaching, and thinking, that was so integral to this innovator’s life that he never even capitalized the word, as if not wanting to desecrate it by turning it into something so banal as a trademark—transmute into what we know today as the Method, a discipline by which actors reach deep into themselves to shape characters that, ideally, reach us just as deeply? Who were Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, and what connected—or divided—these three eminent teachers associated with the discipline? Was Robert DeNiro’s weight gain for Raging Bull true Method acting, or something else? And is the Method still a viable regimen for actors, or has its usefulness run its course?
Butler, a teacher of theater history and performance who was a professional actor as a child, answers all of those questions in The Method by weaving a story that keeps us asking, And then what happened? That’s no small feat in a book whose goal is to trace the history of an often controversial and sometimes rather opaque set of performance principles.
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Yet Butler pulls it off, by painting vivid portraits of the people who breathed life into those precepts. We learn that the “system” came to the U.S. from Russia quite literally on a boat, carried by acting teacher and future Hollywood director Richard Boleslavsky and his wife, Natasha, as they fled post-Revolution Russia, by way of Boleslavsky’s native Poland, for America. We learn about the many, many fights and feuds—between Nemirovich and Stanislavski, between Adler and Strasberg—that came to shape, in ways both subtle and bold, what we think of as Method acting. And we learn how the Method, flowering from the seeds of Stanislavski’s “system,” came to be the defining American acting style of the 20th century—represented by famous standard bearers like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe—even as it was dogged by a central question: Was this mode of training just mumbo-jumbo, or a truly useful path to the truth of a performance?
Butler acknowledges that we’re still asking that question—but that very inquiry is part of the Method’s vitality and resilience. The point of The Method is that the “system” and all that grew from it shaped the last century more than we’ve ever stopped to give it credit for. Far from just a grid of rules for performers, Method acting is, Butler writes, “a transformative, revolutionary, modernist art movement, one of the Big Ideas of the twentieth century. Like atonality in music, or modernism in architecture, or abstraction in art, the ‘system’ and the Method brought forth a new way of conceiving of human experience, one that changed how we look at the world, and at ourselves.” In fact, what we think of as modern American acting—the unruly inventiveness of Joaquin Phoenix, the introspective grandeur of Viola Davis—even if it’s not Method acting, still owes a debt to the Method and its adherents: from them, we learned to appreciate and even expect performances that feel committed and real, that breathe. The Method is a rich book, highly entertaining but also gratifyingly specific, about the point of connection between actor and observer, the lightning flash between us and them that, when it happens, is impossible to adequately describe or explain. If it’s grand, it’s also granular, a gift of humility drawn from an actor’s ego. No wonder Stanislavsky couldn’t bring himself to capitalize that S, to use a big letter in the service of such an intimate thing.
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