This month, TCM is paying tribute to “Method Acting” with 11 pictures made between the mid-1940s and the late 1970s, featuring the actors John Garfield, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Nicholson, Barbara Loden, Meryl Streep, Ellen Burstyn and Dustin Hoffman. Two of the pictures—A Streetcar Named Desire and Splendor in the Grass—were directed by Elia Kazan, who probably did more than anyone else to guide and reshape our ideas of actors and acting in this country.
Actually, bringing all of these artists together under the umbrella of the Method is misleading, because the term refers to a specific practice developed by the great teacher and actor Lee Strasberg, who was inspired by the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre productions and writings on acting. In 1931, Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford. The idea of the Group was to reinvent acting from the inside out and get at richer and deeper emotional truths. The Group came apart in 1941, but its many warring personalities—that includes Stella Adler and her brother Luther, Sanford Meisner, Martin Ritt, Franchot Tone, Frances Farmer and Kazan himself—fanned out into theatre, movies, and the development of the great acting schools and laboratories.
John Garfield, who left the Group for Hollywood in the 30s, was the first actor to bring a new emotional energy to movie acting (he’s represented by The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I think I would have chosen a different movie). Montgomery Clift took things a step further with his more interior approach, and then with Marlon Brando and his performance in Kazan’s production of Streetcar and the simultaneous founding of the Actors Studio (by Kazan, Lewis and Crawford), everything exploded. Over the years, Brando and the Method became almost synonymous, but Brando never studied with Strasberg and credited Kazan himself and Stella Adler (whose approached was diametrically opposed to Strasberg’s) with teaching him how to act. Clift worked with Mira Rostova, who had her own unique approach. Cassavetes and Poitier, the co-stars of Ritt’s Edge of the City, had nothing to do with either the studio or the Method, and Cassavetes openly expressed his hatred of Strasberg’s approach. Beatty, who made his film debut in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, studied with Adler. Dustin Hoffman studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Meisner, and Streep, his co-star in Kramer vs. Kramer, worked with different teachers, including Lewis. Nicholson studied with the blacklisted actor Jeff Corey, who taught a whole generation at his home in the Hollywood hills.
The two names in TCM’s program with the deepest associations with the Studio are Barbara Loden (represented by her own extraordinary film, Wanda), and my old friend Ellen Burstyn, co-president of the Studio, represented by the picture we made together, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In the end, no one’s approach was more “correct” than anyone else’s: they were all great and inspiring artists, and they all found their own way.
I’ll leave the last word to Stanislavski: “Create your own method!…Don’t depend slavishly on mine!”