||With DeNiro sinking ever deeper in the quicksand of self-parody, Pacino waning, and Brando six feet under, Method acting has lost its holy trinity. With The Machinist and Batman Begins Christian Bale is stepping up, but who are the other Stanislavskians following his lead? Evan Leighton-Davis investigates.
Method acting, n.
a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part, based on the system evolved by Stanislavski and brought into prominence in the US in the 1930s. Method acting was developed in institutions such as the Actors’ studio in New York City, notably by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, and is particularly associated with actors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman.
Although its dictionary definition seems definitive, ‘The Method’ in fact features more intramural squabbles than Easy Rider. To a modern-day moviegoer, it’s just one big tangle of vagueness. What does it mean, exactly? Were actors like Brando, Dean, Pacino and DeNiro really exponents of it? Is it relevant who they trained with: Stella Adler (Brando) or Lee Strasberg (Pacino)? What characteristics define a Method actor? Is it the Godfather of acting styles as we know it today, or hocus-pocus intended to encourage the talent-less to enrol in expensive acting schools?
In its most simple, dictionary form then, The Method is a distinctive, mid-20th century American approach to acting, roughly based on the teachings of Russian legend Constantin Stanislavski. Purportedly, this style involves the actor emotionally identifying with the character he is playing, and drawing upon experiences and emotions in his own life to inform the dramatic creation. In this way, if their character is called upon to cry, so the actor would recall something from his or her own life that upset them, and use the memory to produce tears. What The Method isn’t then is burlesque, or Cary Grant, or Comedie Francaise, or improvisation, or Viewpoints.
The term ‘Method Acting’ – what it means today – has changed since the halcyon days of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman in the 50s. Today, in the twilight of Brando’s inheritors (Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman), a new batch of Method men are stepping up to continue the legacy of this most famous of acting schools.
In today’s frenzied cultural climate, the Method is less associated with emotional turmoil and more to do with preparation. It’s all to do with the physical transformation, the drastic weight gain, the learning-to-paint-with-your-left-foot, the speaking-in-ancient-Aramaic, the arriving-on-set-ripped-and-ready-to-go. You see, in A.D. 2004, we like to see our stars work out a little for their money. We like to read interviews where our performers detail how much weight they lost for a role, how they toiled in the gym, how they struggled with conjugating Aramaic. However, today’s high-speed world doesn’t always lend itself to this type of preparation. What with budgets and rehearsal schedules being cut to the bone, and performers skipping from continent to continent - one day filming a commercial, the next day a TV-mini series, then back to the movie set for re-shoots – the entertainment industry isn’t a very Method-friendly zone.
It’s also important to observe that although actors frequently become labelled with the Method tag, it’s more accurate to say that they invoke the style when it suits them best. For example, Marlon Brando is the most famous exponent of this school of performing, but you can’t tell me that in his 10 minute, $3million performance in Superman he was utilising any sort of method other than smart financial planning. As Christian Bale, the most promising Method-invoker on-screen today, told an interviewer in 2001: ‘my method can be nothing, or the most intense, bizarre preparations you’ve ever seen’. Other traits also contribute to an actor being mentioned in the same breadth as The Method: choice of role, evidence of intense preparation, staying in character off-camera, keeping out of the tabloids, and range of performances - all weigh in.
Historically, intense brooders with dark, sometimes menacing features and the ability and (work ethic) to metamorphose physically have dominated Method acting, and the following list is no different. We’ve split them into three sections (‘Masters’, ‘Contenders’ and ‘Apprentices’) based solely on their ages. ‘Robert DeNiro’, once said Barry Norman, ‘is quite possibly from Mars’ – and he’s not the only one…
Masters (age in brackets)
1. Daniel Day-Lewis (45)
‘He’s sort of not of this world, Daniel’ observed co-star Madeline Stowe on the set of The Last of the Mohicans, and she was probably right. DD-L is arguably the finest actor working in film today - when he actually works, that is. With an average strike rate of a film a year since making his debut in 1982’s Gandhi, the Poet Laureate’s son bucks trends with the facility with which others follow them. In 1997, at the apex of his powers, probably the only door not open to Day-Lewis was God’s. And what did he do? Risked it all to train as a cobbler in a remote part of Italy, absent from our screens for 7 years. His other research jobs include: spending three years training to semi-pro middleweight level for The Boxer; skinning animals and living in the woods (The Last of the Mohicans); prancing around New York in 1870s clothes (The Age of Innocence); sleeping rough for three nights in a police cell (In The Name Of The Father); and, most famously, learning to write and paint with his left foot, whilst existing on and off-screen as a randy and irascible wheelchair-bound cripple (My Left Foot).
2. Gary Oldman (46)
Sid Vicious. Lee Harvey Oswald. Beethoven. Pontius Pilate. Dracula. Is there no-one this British actor can't portray convincingly? First galvanizing film audiences as doomed, frantic punk rocker Sid Vicious in 1986's Sid and Nancy, the auburn-haired, pockmarked Oldman then transformed himself into the far more articulate but equally tormented gay British playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987). The most convincing shape-shifter in film today, Oldman’s willingness to chance his arm with diverse accents, and his lack of ego when confronted with the challenge of sporting all manner of hideous prosthetics (particularly in 2001’s Hannibal), mark him out as a modern Method man. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) probably represents his high-point. Decked out in elaborate period costumes, smothered in heavy makeup, and sporting a thick, impenetrable Eastern-European accent, he was almost unrecognisable as the Prince of Darkness.
3. Tom Cruise (42)
‘Blockbuster Boy’ and perhaps an unlikely candidate for a place on this list for the sheer commercialism of his films, Cruise’s finest work has Method written all over it. Consider his foul-mouthed sexual tyrannosaur in Magnolia – little more than a cameo role in terms of screen-time, Cruise spent three months preparing the character. Showing considerable range over the course of his 29-film career, The Cruiser has played everything from a paraplegic Nam’ veteran (Born On The Fourth Of July), to a repressed doctor (Eyes Wide Shut), to a shitty sports agent (Jerry Maguire) to a selfish vampire (Interview With A Vampire). A lifetime pupil of the ‘leave-no-stone-unturned’ school, he’s got both the inclination and the clout to move heaven and earth to get a part right. In addition, although every man and his dog has seen Cruise’s films, we still know remarkably little about the little man himself, making him all the more believable on-screen. Sorry, did we say ‘little’? Months of intensive weapons training for both The Last Samurai and Collateral means he could go medieval on our ass and still have enough in reserve to pop a cap in it. We take it back. Hastily.
4. Sean Penn (44)
Once the definitive ‘angry young man’ of cinema but now a mellower, if still brooding presence, Penn has ploughed a CV most actors would break their backs for. Sweet & Lowdown, 21 Grams, Dead Man Walking, Carlito’s Way, The Thin Red Line, The Game – his list of quality credits dwarfs just about every other actor of his generation. Often playing highly-strung or ‘intense’ types, it’s both ironic and a tribute to Penn’s ability to avoid typecasting that he first showed up on the cultural radar as arch-stoner Jeff Spicoli in 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Dead Man Walking and Carlito’s Way are widely regarded as his Method peaks. In the latter, Penn transforms himself into a human cocaine-hoover complete with a fright wig of orange pubic hair. His jittery, skittery-eyed loser couldn’t be further away from Death-row white trash inmate Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking, in which the actor sports a ridiculous bouffant hairdo, a Luciferian goatee, and a redneck accent.
5. Johnny Depp (41)
A Chameleonic presence to rival Oldman, some of Depp’s recent on-screen outings have smacked of a greater commercial agenda on the actor’s part. Nevertheless, his CV is littered with quality biopics: no coincidence this, for the man seems to thrive on what director Terry Gilliam calls ‘osmosis acting’ - meeting real people and reinventing them on-screen. For Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp lived with author Hunter S. Thompson and acted as his ‘tour manager’ (read: firing guns at propane tanks and living in Thompson’s basement). He visited Joseph Pistone (aka Donnie Brasco) more times than Pistone’s wife cared to remember. For Blow he hung out with the real George Jung, and in Pirates of the Caribbean he produced what is now the world’s most famous Keith Richards impression. Nothing, however, could top what Depp achieved in a hilarious two-punch cameo in Before Night Falls: he is ‘Bon-Bon’, a blonde transvestite who smuggles goods in his ‘capacious rectum’; and he is ‘Lieutenant Victor’, a raven-haired, sadistic prison guard. Genius.
1. Benicio Del Toro (37)
Facially hirsute in Big Top Pee-Wee. Paunchy for Traffic. Vice-taut and wolf-coiled in The Hunted. Simply obese in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This Mexican-born powerhouse has emerged as one of the most innovating actors in cinema, creating nuanced and believable characters from parts that are scarcely there on the page. An Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category for Traffic announced his considerable presence to a wider audience, and it emerged after the film’s release that one of the more memorable scenes (when Del Toro is interviewed by FBI agents in a swimming pool), was the actor’s idea. Breaking out as the incomprehensible, half-Chinese, half-Puerto Ricon criminal Fenster in 1995’s The Usual Suspects, Del Toro exhibits pretty much all the qualities a modern Method actor should do: intense preparation, staying in character off-camera, choosing artistically challenging projects, mumbling incomprehensibly, and keeping his private life, private. Though he did, reportedly, bang starlet Scarlett Johansson in a lift. Lucky bastard.
3. Matt Damon (34)
A character-actor marketed as a leading-man, Damon has impressed in his brief time in the big leagues, because he’s got it so right where buddy Ben Affleck’s misfired. ‘The talent is in the choices’ said DeNiro before his own selection process vanished up his own wazoo and right now, because of such a fine nose for a script, Damon’s sitting about as pretty as anyone in Hollywood. He’s an Oscar-nominated actor (Good Will Hunting), with two rock-solid franchises to his name (The Bourne films, Ocean’s 11/12). Astutely realising that he’d always be the poor relation of Messrs. Pitt, Depp, and Cruise in the ‘beautiful man’ stakes (‘eventually, stardom is going to go away for me’, he observed recently), Damon has thus intelligently tried to mix ‘n’ match his parts and genres. His Method high-point occurred during preparation for Gulf War drama Courage Under Fire. Running 13 miles a day and losing 41 pounds to play a drug-addled Vet, Damon’s outstanding performance didn’t even gain him a place on the press kit. One man though, who didn’t miss the young Bostonian’s performance, was Francis Ford Coppola, who immediately cast him in The Rainmaker and the rest, as they say, is history.
4. Billy Crudup (36)
The name says it all really. ‘Crudup’, unlike ‘Caine’, ‘Cruise’, ‘Diesel’ and uh ‘Van Damme’, is no movie star title, manipulated to sound more ‘heroic’. You can almost hear the executives’ groans: ‘Crudup? Sounds like a hillbilly. Sounds like crud. Wasn’t he ‘Fuckhead’ in Jesus’ Son? Can’t we change that?’ Thankfully for us, appearing at the top of movie posters is about as far down this actor’s agenda as it’s possible to go. You see, for several years now, most obviously since 2000’s (wryly-titled) Almost Famous, Billy Crudup has been traversing that precarious high-wire between ‘it’ leading man and serious character actor. Renowned as one of the most rigorous selector-of-roles around, rumour has it that he declined to audition for the leads in Titanic and The Hulk in order to seek out more challenging projects. Another arch-faced brooder (but blessed with a grin of Cheshire Cat dimensions), Crudup excelled as the doomed track star Steve Prefontaine in biopic Without Limits (1998). This showcased his ability to completely transform himself for a role - a quality that would help him skirt stardom and land substantive parts in quality fare like Almost Famous (extravagantly-moustached rock god), Big Fish (Albert Finney’s cynical son), Waking The Dead (man haunted by his dead wife), and Stage Beauty (homosexual cross-dresser).
5. Edward Norton (35)
When Marlon Brando died earlier this year, Jack Nicholson accurately observed that ‘there’s a well-known competition in this business to see who can say the best things about Marlon’, and a similar trend appears to follow Brando’s co-star in The Score, Edward Norton. The eulogistic ‘Best Actor Of His Generation’ tag is bandied around with such lazy regularity in media-circles nowadays that it seems almost lifeless, bereft of any meaning, and has been attached to a half-dozen or more actors since its inception a while back. Nonetheless, many commentators feel that the cap fits this scowling 35-year old better than most. Exploding into the cinema goer’s consciousness with his debut role in 1996’s Primal Fear (opposite Richard Gere), Norton’s standout performance in American History X (as a motor-mouthed, muscle-bound Neo-Nazi) brought much critical acclaim, as well as an Oscar nomination. Of late, the actor has mixed more commercial fare (Red Dragon, The Italian Job) with top-notch collaborations (Spike Lee on 25th Hour), and exploring his own range (he played a fuchsia rhino in 2002’s Death to Smoochy). Still yet to fully test himself though, there’s much more to come from this explosive talent.
1. Christian Bale (30)
Oily projects float to the surface from time-to-time in the otherwise clear waters of Christian Bale: Actor, but really, they’re few and far between. ‘My method can be nothing, or the most intense, bizarre preparations you’ve ever seen’, Bale told an interviewer in 2001 and, if he’s honest, it’s normally the latter. Watch American Psycho and marvel at his pitch-perfect Stateside delivery, obsessively-preened exterior and equal parts comedic timing and explosive rage. Then watch the forthcoming The Machinist (he lost 63 pounds for a role, described in the film’s script as ‘a human skeleton’) and see if you can spot that it’s the same guy. The new Batman, Bale has served his apprenticeship and then some, and is undoubtedly ready for the jump to the big leagues. A dark, brooding presence with the suggestion of menace lurking not far from the surface, the Welshman’s no matinée idol in the George Clooney-vein: he’s far too good for that.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio (30)
Cinema’s Greatest Young Talent/A Woofter Who Looks Like A Girl (delete depending on viewpoint). Although the party-boy rumours circle as ever, DiCaprio has long been an advocate of the Method, most effectively in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, where he portrayed a mentally-retarded teen to tremendous acclaim. Elsewhere, it’s his range and willingness to stretch himself that impresses: he’s played everything from a drug-addled author (The Basketball Diaries), to a tormented homosexual French poet (Total Eclipse), to the world’s most famous lover (Romeo & Juliet). Whilst his many detractors would cite Titanic as a low point, his performance is everything the (admittedly lightweight) part is, and in CV terms the film itself is really just a bloated whale on an otherwise pristine beach. Ultimately, the proof lies in the pudding of DiCaprio’s collaborations: he has been long admired by two of the finest directors that ever lived in Spielberg (Catch Me If You Can) and Scorsese (Gangs of New York, The Aviator), and got his big break in This Boy’s Life opposite one R. DeNiro. The best is yet to come.
3. Joaquin Phoenix (30)
Picky and ever self-critical, the only film of his Joaquin Phoenix can actually sit through isn’t (surprisingly) Gladiator, but 2000’s The Yards. It was his role in the former though, as the paranoid, selfish young emperor Commodus, which brought his mysterious talents to a wider audience. Gorging himself on high-calorie foods and avoiding the sun to cultivate a pasty complexion, Phoenix amused more laisse faire talents like Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, with his neurotic approach. In 2000, the actor appeared in two indie films in very different roles: firstly as the priest in charge of the Marquis de Sade’s asylum in Quills, and secondly as a corrupt longshoreman in The Yards. Was wonderfully immoral in 2001’s Buffalo Soldiers.
4. Jude Law (32)
Being taken seriously when you look like Law can’t be easy, and the London-born actor has gone to extreme lengths to distract viewers from his beatific, cut-glass exterior. His CV teems with bitter, baleful men. In Gattaca he was a champion swimmer paralysed by fate, torn apart by self-loathing (‘even with all I had going for me, I was still only second best’ he said, hauntingly). The same year, Law played a trashy gay hustler in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and destroyed Oscar Wilde’s life as the playwright’s spoiled, petulant lover, in Wilde. But perhaps his most acclaimed performance to date occurred in Road To Perdition where, playing a voyeuristic hit-man, he shaved his head to appear prematurely bald, and sported teeth rotten to their cores by sugar-addiction. It was an intelligent move that role – a little ‘fuck you’ to all the millions of female admirers who reduce him to mere lust object. For his star-making turn as ultimate playboy Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley though, Law didn’t put himself through too much pain in the name of research: ‘I told Anthony (Minghella) that if I play Dickie, I want to learn to play the saxophone and to sail, and I want to eat in the best restaurants and drink the best wines because that’s exactly what he would’. It’s a hard life.
5. Paddy Considine (32)
Heralded as ‘the British DeNiro’ by regular collaborator Shane Meadows, Considine has shown impressive range in his brief career to date, most notably in 2004 when he appeared at the Edinburgh Film Festival in two very different films. He was equally convincing in the polarised roles of a) a born-again Christian (My Summer of Love), and b) an ex-marine hell-bent on butchering a gang who tortured his brother (Dead Man’s Shoes). Able to flit with ease between extreme menace and deep compassion, this untrained talent has potential to burn.