Robert Osborne on Method Acting
"The Method." Those are words which struck terror into the souls of many a Hollywood actor in the 1950s, exactly as the phrase "Talking Pictures" sobered up numerous film players in the late 1920s (and in a few cases did just the opposite, sending them straight to the bottle). Seemingly overnight, the acting style known as "the Method" blew into Hollywood, arriving with a tornado-like force not unlike that big wind which sent Dorothy Gale off to Oz-sending numerous A-, B- and C-grade actors scurrying off to learn this new acting style in order to save their careers. What was, and is, "the Method"? It's a process by which actors behave naturally, stripping themselves of all artifice, using their emotional memory of past experiences and feelings to create a character's motivation. (It's worth noting that the man considered one of the greatest of all screen actors, Spencer Tracy, had been giving naturalistic performances for years, using a method quite his own.)
Interestingly, this "Method" we'll be looking at on TCM this month was far from new at the time Americans embraced it. It started in Russia in the late 1890s, nurtured there by producer-director-theoretician Konstantin Stanislavsky, and was famously given new life (with adjustments) in America by the legendary Group Theatre in New York in the 1930s, then in the 1940s by several teachers such as Lee Strasberg, David Lewis and Elia Kazan at N.Y.'s Actors Studio.
Two basic factors caused clamor in the 1950s: the fresh, vivid work being done in the New York theater by such Actors Studio grads such as Kim Stanley, Eli Wallach, Geraldine Page, Ben Gazarra and Maureen Stapleton; the work of two super-naturalistic actors in a pair of films which opened within a four week period in 1951-Montgomery Clift in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun and Marlon Brando in Kazan's film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. (Brando made it known his method came less from the Actors Studio and more from teacher-coach Stella Adler, a Group Theatre alumna.) Both actors had stirred interest in earlier films but it was the one-two punch of the Stevens and Kazan films that really started "the Method" steamrolling in Hollywood, with Clift and Brando each conveying his own, new kind of rare, raw, sensual honesty. Suddenly, the old ways of performing on screen-with the theatrical gusto and clear enunciation-seemed as out-of-date as a telephone party line.
"The Method" is a fascinating part of Hollywood's past and present, and we hope you'll join us as we give it focus every Monday this month, starting on January 4 with samplings of work by members of the 1930s Group Theatre, such as the dynamic John Garfield, this month's Now Playing cover boy, who parlayed his early Group Theatre training into a remarkable film career. In succeeding weeks we'll showcase the work of such exponents of "the Method" as Brando, Clift, James Dean, Paul Newman and Patricia Neal, as well as the many others who have brought a multitude of "Method"-fueled-and unforgettable- performances our way for 50-plus years.
by Robert Osborne