Book Review: ‘The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act’

By: 
Ben Miles

What constitutes good acting? Honesty? Authenticity? Realism? Charisma? The culture critic, Isaac Butler, explores these questions as well as past as prologue in his absorbing new book, “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.”

In this massive treatise Butler suggests that there are several answers and many nuances to these questions. What’s more, Butler makes a strong case for how society and social norms have shaped the art and craft of acting and how acting and acting theory have shaped and reflected society – holding “as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.”

In 512 pages, Butler takes us from Russia, circa 1898 – with thespian theorists, such as Konstantin Stanislavski and Richard Boleslavsky, who emphasized the necessity of actors experiencing a scripted character so authentically that audience members lose sight of the actor in the role (they termed it “Perezhivanie”), to twentieth century acting gurus such as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

Then, to modern day eclecticist best represented in technique(s) by Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, to the reappearance of so-called persona actors, like Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe, who with little formal training but with loads of personal magnetism became breakout stars.

“The Method” is quite a history book, evoking both the autocratic Russian monarchs and the subsequent Bolshevik revolutionaries as repressers of artistic expression, as well as the career demolishing escapades of the U.S. Congressional Committee known as HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee).

Unlike Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares,” written in 1936, which outlines Stanislavski’s proposed “System” of acting or Uta Hagen’s 1973 text, “Respect for Acting,” which guides the actor through common conundrums the thespian encounters, such as “How do I talk to the audience?” and “How do I stay fresh in a long run?”

Butler’s book is not about acting technique per se but rather traces the origins and development of “The Method,” which became primarily associated with Lee Strasberg and the American acting style, mostly associated with the twentieth century and largely – rightly or wrongly – with the ingenious and eccentric Marlon Brando (though Brando never studied under Strasberg).

While “The Method” provides a cultural overview of acting, it is also loaded with disagreements between acting demagogues and performance pedagogues. For example, a deep probing of Lee Strasberg’s concept of “affective memory” versus Stella Adler’s use of imagination might seem like the two high-priests of American stage/film performance were making a mountain of a mole hill but Mr. Butler allows us to understand the rift as a legitimate aesthetic divide.

Also, Butler isn’t above sharing some chewy gossip – such as Kim Stanley’s drunkenness and her sordid dislike of fellow cast member Kevin McCarthy or the ugliness of Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman’s relationship in the filming of “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Unfortunately, Butler brings up the Jewishness of both Paul Newman, whose father was Jewish (and of whom Butler writes “If you were a good-looking gentile” or “if you were Jewish but could pass, like Paul Newman”) – and Pauline Kael (of whom Butler writes “the Jewish Kael’s resentment” of Meryl Streep) seemingly out of nowhere and for little reason.

Nevertheless, “The Method” tells a story of a preeminent art form that is well worth understanding, both as a lesson in history and as a study of the appreciation of the art of acting.

What: “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.”

Who: Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, New York, Author, Issac Butler.

How: Wherever you buy books.

ISBN: 9781635574777 (Hardback); 978163557484 (ebook). 

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