Method acting is a phenomenon which divides opinion in an unparalleled way. The ‘proper’ artistic method or lack thereof, is one of those issues which rather uniquely infiltrate the established Hollywood elite as much as it does the ambitious beginner learning the trade. Greats have spoken out against it, notably with Lawrence Olivier commonly lamenting over its inadequacy; “All this talk about the Method, the Method! What Method?” he screams, “I thought each of us had our own method!” Indeed, to Olivier, acting is better kept as an illusion, “as much an illusion as magic is, and not so much a matter of being real”. For a man so opposed to the standardisation of the artistic method, Olivier had a very specific idea of what the artistic method should be, or rather what it shouldn’t be. If anyone was qualified to offer a definitive voice on the subject of acting, one would feel it would be Olivier; being arguably the ultimate encapsulation of the new Hollywood Thespian: a perfect combination of ability and aesthetic which has arguably set the standard for all who succeed him.
However, to take Olivier’s views as authoritative would be to undermine what the man is asserting in the first place. After all, is there a correct method in such a multifaceted and ever evolving field as acting? I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis’ and Robert De Niro’s combined 5 Academy Awards have an opinion on the matter. The stories on the former in particular can be found in spades: from refusing to leave his wheelchair for the duration of My Left Foot, to catching pneumonia out of a refusal to break period in Gangs of New York, to causing his first supporting actor to walk off set and flinging real bowling balls at his second in There Will be Blood, Day-Lewis is nothing if not committed to his roles. Perhaps the results speak for themselves on this issue: all are undeniably fantastic performances and Day-Lewis has garnered a reputation as one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, but when does it cease being acting and start becoming an endurance test? Often-times, Day-Lewis will train himself in the trade of his character: he became an apprentice butcher for Gangs of New York for example; he learned how to use actual oil mining machinery for There Will Be Blood and, most extremely, trained for one and a half years to become a profession grade boxer for his role in The Boxer. He certainly has a lot to put on his CV, but doesn’t it all seem a bit unnecessary? Is one’s acting ability not measured on how well one pretends to do these things? At this point, Day-Lewis seems to simply be a skilled tradesman at whom someone has pointed a camera.
To take this assertion however, one falls into the dangerous territory of attempting to define an undefinable art. Indeed, the conclusion can be drawn that the Method has its drawbacks like any other artistic process has, just as it has its advantages too. As the great actor, director and, later, acting teacher Lee Strasberg asserted in typically explosive terms to one of his pupils, “[the actor] would pretend, but he would know what he is pretending at least”. So then, in defence of Day-Lewis, De Niro and their Method cohorts, is there any greater understanding which can be gained than that of actively becoming what one is pretending to be? Admittedly, this is a rather confusing and paradoxical question to pose and just one more of many questions which have been asked and not answered in this debate.
That, however, is the point of the thing: no reasonable conclusion can be reached in this matter because the nature of the debate is itself pointless. There is no correct way of acting just as there is no correct way of film-making. Cinema, and consequently the creative process as a whole, is a deeply personal experience and one which is as such wholly reliant on one’s tastes and perspectives. To come down on either side of the debate is to standardise art and to standardise art is to spit in the face of all that it stands for. If we are to surrender to separating any aspect of cinema into easily defined dos and don’ts then we render it fatally tedious. Where there is no need for innovation none will exist, something we risk at our peril when we begin to speak in absolutes. Opinion is important, however it is equally important to realise that one Method is as valid as the other.
Image: The Film Daily; Wikimedia Commons