Guest Column: How Method Acting Elevated Five Films From The Godfather to The Lost Daughter – Yahoo Entertainment

Posted By on March 18, 2022

During the second half of the 20th Century, the Method an acting technique codified by Lee Strasberg that draws on the individual actors idiosyncrasies, psychology and emotion to help breathe life into their roles transitioned from insurgent movement to dominant establishment to an often-mocked and misunderstood long twilight in the popular consciousness.

Along the way, it revolutionized acting, writing and directing, and became almost synonymous with American performance. Strasberg, who ran the Actors Studio and taught both privately and at various schools, wasnt alone in leading this revolution. He had several rivals in Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Robert Lewis, Uta Hagen and others, and all of them traced the roots of their teaching to the Russian director and actor Konstantin Stanislavski, who was arguably the first person to create a technique that approached the actors inner life, creative spirit and psychology alongside her voice and body.

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We live now in the aftermath of that revolution, and with the taste it helped created. Here are five films with great Method (or Method-style) performances, showing how it evolved over time:

Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (1964)

Rod Steiger was one of the most important Method actors of his generation. In his supporting turns in films like On the Waterfront and his work in live television drama (including the original Marty), Steiger defined a highly emotional, fully committed and risk-taking form of acting. But he also got a bad rap for being emotionally over the top or, as Sidney Lumet, who directed The Pawnbroker put it, making tasteless choices. Great art often risks bad taste, however, and The Pawnbroker lives right on that line. In it, Steiger plays Sol Nazerman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who manages a pawn shop in Harlem thats a front for a gangster named Rodriguez. When Nazerman learns that Rodriguezs business concerns include sex work, he refuses to work for him anymore because, as we come to learn, his wife died in a camp brothel during the Shoah. In his confrontation scene with Rodriguez, Steiger does things that are almost inhuman in their emotional extremity. The trembling that comes all over his face and body seems wholly unintentional, his weeping perhaps outside is control, his every physical gesture filled with an intensity that should be unsustainable. Its difficult to watch but feels closer to the truth of experiencing trauma than most cinematic portraits.

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Sidney Poitier and Lee Grant in In The Heat of the Night (1967)

By the late 1960s, the Method was the dominant force in American screen acting. Even people who didnt study with Lee Strasberg usually studied with Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner or another of his rivals in the world of Stanislavski-based instruction. The Graduate starred Method actors Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, was directed by Mike Nichols, who had studied with Strasberg, and was co-written by Calder Willingham, who had risen to fame because of the Actors Studio adaptation of his book End as a Man. Bonnie and Clyde starred Actors Studio member Estelle Parsons, Method actors Gene Hackman and Faye Dunaway and Stella Adler student Warren Beatty. Director Arthur Penn was a mover and shaker at the Actors Studio as well and would eventually become its president. But even more mainstream films like In the Heat of the Night relied on the Method talents of Sydney Poitier, Lee Grant and Rod Steiger, who finally won an Oscar for his performance. All three bring incredible nuance and a sense of presence and living in the moment to their performances which give the film a rich, detailed, nuanced quality that helps it transcend its liberal message picture origins. Just watch the scene in where Poitier tells Grant that her husband has been murdered. Watch how their bodies navigate all the little details of their relationship, and the way that race shapes this encounter between strangers. Watch how Poitier uses his body to keep Grant from leaving the room without threatening her, while Grant decides whether she, a proper Southern lady, will take a Black mans hand and let him comfort her. The film is filled with little details like these that suffuse it with a power it otherwise wouldve lacked.

Al Pacino in The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather was Al Pacinos third film, and his performance as Michael Corleone was so restrained, so subtext-driven, that he was almost fired off the movie. What I thought was to low-key it early on, he explained, hoping that a character would emerge that will surprise you, but studio execs were initially confused by his performance, by the way he leaned into Michaels mysteriousness. Of course, that mysteriousness is key to the films power, and nowhere is that clearer than in the scene where his wife Kay (played by Meisner student Diane Keaton) confronts him about whether or not he has had his brother-in-law killed. Pacino and Keaton challenge one another to reach new heights in the scene, and it is the only moment where we get a glimpse of the titanic rage that would be such an important part of Pacinos acting in the future. When he slams his hand on his desk and firmly shouts, No!, both Kay and the audience finally realize exactly how dangerous Michael is, exactly how much hes been holding back and keeping in control. As always, Pacinos eyes are the key to the scene and to the role. Watch how they seem to lit from within, almost supernatural and predatory, expressive beyond what normal humans can do.

Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979)

The Methods true territory is that of the unsaid the unexpressable desire, the buried subtext, the emotion that yearns to burst forth. Martin Landau, an Oscar-winning actor and teacher of the Method, said that the key to the Method approach to emotion was to find the emotion, and then find a way to allow it out, and then hold it back the way the character would, and if stuff leaks out thats whats supposed to happen. This suppression creates a wonderfully compelling tension that also allows the actor to go big when the cathartic moment of release finally arrives. Few scenes illustrate this better than Sally Fields famous raising aloft of the sign that says UNION in Norma Rae. The film has many connections to the Method. Director Martin Ritt was a major force at the Actors Studio and co-stars Sally Field and Ron Liebman were both members, as were several of the other actors in the film. In this scene, Fields Norma Rae is about to be kicked out of the textile mill in which she works because shes been organizing a union there. The scene starts at a high pitch of emotion, as Norma Rae screams that it will take the sheriff and the fire department to get her out of there, but it somehow reaches a new peak of emotion as the scene becomes wordless. Field scrawls the word UNION on a piece of cardboard and stands on a table, both pleading with her coworkers and defying the powers that be with simple, deeply felt physical expression.

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter (2022)

Olivia Colman is not a Method actor. She studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, whose approach is rooted in classical English technique, and she began her on screen career in sketch comedy. But her performance in The Lost Daughter would not be possible without the Method revolution and the way it totally transformed our ideas of what it means to be a good actor. For much of the Methods history, the media put it in opposition to classical English technique as represented by Lawrence Olivier, but Colmans performance in The Lost Daughter is far closer to that of an American Method actor like Ellen Burstyn than it is to that of older generations of British acting like Helen Mirren or Gielgud. Colmans performance as Leda is extraordinary and built on the very things the Method prizes most: naturalism, subtext, neuroticism, hidden secrets, repressed emotions and a wild, anarchic quality that can never quite be contained. Its extraordinary work from one of our greatest living actors, but if you showed it to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1950s, theyd probably scoff at it.

Isaac Butler is a theater critic and author whose new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act (Bloomsbury), is the first exploration of the cultural history of Method acting.

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Guest Column: How Method Acting Elevated Five Films From The Godfather to The Lost Daughter - Yahoo Entertainment

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