Birth of the Method: the revolution in American acting

Born from the experimental work of Constantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre in the early 20th century and incubated in the 1930s at New York’s pioneering Group Theatre, Method acting exploded on to the stage and screen in the US at the end of the 40s and early 50s in the work of a new generation of actors such as Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Julie Harris.

Foster Hirsch explores the history of the new style, outlining the numerous ‘methods’ behind the process, while James Bell introduces the 12 films showing in our accompanying season.

Foster Hirsch

from our November 2014 issue

Marlon Brando as Terry Molloy in On the Waterfront (1955)

Marlon Brando as Terry Molloy in On the Waterfront (1955)

Is it fair to say that Marlon Brando’s performance in Elia Kazan’s 1947 Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire introduced a new style in American acting? As Stanley Kowalski, his coiled body language and delivery of dialogue, pitted with pauses, stumbling, mumbled repetition and backtracking, carried a visceral charge. Critics and audiences at the time knew they were privileged witnesses of a shift in the representation of human behaviour.

Brando’s mimetic skills seemed more real – more true to life – and more intense, vibrant and electric than earlier acting styles on either stage or screen. With his compelling presence he even seemed, subversively, to be rewriting Tennessee Williams’s play: ostensibly he was cast as the antagonist, a brute who causes the destruction of vulnerable Southern aristocrat Blanche DuBois, yet audiences began to root for Stanley and to snicker at Jessica Tandy as Blanche, unable to hold her own against the force of nature embodied by her novice co-star.

Brando’s dual register – he was both attractive and scary, tender and intimidating – accurately reflected contradictions in the playwright himself: Williams, like his quicksilver heroine Blanche a combination of puritanism and promiscuity, was both drawn to and fearful of Stanley’s potency. When he directed the film version in 1950, Kazan, who had come to feel that Brando’s pulverising magnetism unbalanced the play, took care to put the focus on Blanche (played by Vivien Leigh, a stronger adversary than Tandy). Even subdued, however, Brando’s film performance remains a startling benchmark in the history of American film acting: a prime example of a style that came to be known as the Method.

While this performance of America’s greatest actor was revelatory, it had ample historical precedent. The roots of the ‘new’ style Brando incarnated reached back to the work of Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre at the turn of the 20th century, when the impresario began to ask probing questions about the ancient art of acting that no one had ever asked before in exactly the same way: how do actors act? What is the process actors undertake in order to create the simulation of a fully dimensioned, alive-in-the-moment human being? As he developed exercises designed to unlock the sources of the actor’s inspiration, Stanislavski remained remarkably open-minded. To its founder, the Stanislavski System (as the ensemble of exercises that grew out of his investigations came to be called) of necessity remained fluid. In his never-ending pursuit, the readiness was all.

It is worth noting that Stanislavski developed the foundation of his System while he and his company worked on the plays of Chekhov, whose characters speak in cryptic and indirect ways. As Stanislavski and his actors realised, the real drama in Chekhov’s work takes place beneath and between the words – in a palpitating subtext, a knot of feelings that defy spoken language.

When the Moscow Art Theatre appeared on Broadway in 1923, the response was rapturous. In place of the usual egocentric star acting that had been the American custom, Stanislavski’s company performed as a unified ensemble who seemed to be living their roles. Two members of the Russian troupe remained behind, and at the American Laboratory Theatre, sponsored by wealthy American patrons, they began to instruct American actors in the principles of the Stanislavski System.

In 1931, inspired by the Russian ensemble, three young theatre enthusiasts, director Harold Clurman, actor-director Lee Strasberg and producer Cheryl Crawford, co-founded the Group Theatre. Their goal was to train hand-picked actors in an adaptation of the Stanislavski System.

Despite internecine conflicts and defections, the Group pioneers lasted on Broadway for ten years. The company did not produce any plays of lasting value – their house dramatist was Clifford Odets, whose lyrical works about the impact of the Depression on working-class families now seem both overwritten and dated – but it created actors passionate about studying their craft who were to become America’s most influential acting teachers. Out of the Group emerged Strasberg, Stella Adler, Robert Lewis and Sanford Meisner – who were to remain the high priests of actor training for the rest of their long lives – as well as Elia Kazan, America’s foremost director of actors. Although they were in agreement about the qualities necessary for good acting, these members of the misnamed Group Theatre had bitter doctrinal disputes.

The principal antagonists were Strasberg, a remote, bookish man with a deadpan expression, and Adler, who had the high-flown manner of a theatrical grande dame. Reflecting their personalities, Strasberg pushed actors to go inward to examine their own lives, while Adler urged her students to get out of themselves and develop their imaginations. To Strasberg, the actor’s work on his or her psyche took precedence over the playwright’s words; to Adler, the (great) play was always the thing. Their battle was joined in 1934 when, after having studied with Stanislavski in Paris, Adler announced to Strasberg in front of the Group that they were mangling the master’s System. Forty-eight years later, on the day of Strasberg’s death, Adler announced to her class that “it will take 100 years for the American theatre to recover from the damage that man has caused”.

However, their conflict points up a fundamental misconception that there is a singular process called the Method. As Stanislavski himself insisted, no one method or system could presume to solve the mysteries of how acting is created. It’s convenient to refer to the Method, but in fact there are many methods.

When the Group disbanded, the idealistic impulse behind it continued. Six years later three Group veterans – Kazan, Lewis and Crawford – co-founded the Actors Studio as a workshop for actors, a place to go to practise in a private environment.

When Lewis abruptly resigned after one year and Kazan was too busy professionally to continue as the Studio’s main moderator (Crawford functioned as a producer only), Strasberg was invited to teach. He was appointed artistic director in 1951 and remained on the job until his death in 1982. It was here, in a converted church a few blocks west of Broadway on West 44th Street, under Strasberg’s watchful – some would say tyrannical – supervision, that Stanislavski’s System was transformed into the American Method. Virtually every major actor of the postwar era attended the Studio and, whether acolyte or foe, to some extent absorbed Strasberg’s lessons.

The cornerstone of Strasberg’s approach was a technique known as affective memory or emotional recall – which remains controversial and which Stanislavski had come to distrust – to be used when the actor cannot produce the emotion needed for a scene. (Strasberg accepted as an article of faith that the inability to produce genuine emotion was inevitable and recurrent, an occupational hazard; he felt it was his job to assist actors in excising whatever was blocking their access to fluent emotional expressiveness.)

If, for example, an actor comes up dry in a scene in which his character has to respond to the death of a loved one, Strasberg trained the actor to recreate from his own memory the circumstances surrounding an analogous experience in his own life. He cautioned the actor not to go directly for the emotion but to recreate in his mind the atmosphere of the scene: the details of the room in which the death had occurred, the sensory recall of heat or cold, of light and dark. It was Strasberg’s belief that if the actor could reconstruct the scene, the emotion would rise to the surface, almost like a Pavlovian reaction, and he could channel it directly into the moment in the play where it was needed.

Critics of Strasberg’s Method claimed that his unrelenting focus on inner work neglected such external matters as voice and projection, and out of this common complaint emerged the stereotype of the mumbling, unwashed Method performer who ended up playing his or her own neuroses rather than the psychological truth of their character. To be sure, there are potential pitfalls in his Method, and Strasberg wasn’t always scrupulous in protecting his actors from them. But, used with common sense, his Method sharpens and develops the gifts of talented actors.

At the Studio, and in the classes of Adler and Meisner and the other Group gurus, craft was examined in terms of theatrical performance and scenes were selected primarily from the work of noted American playwrights. But in fact the inner work practised at the Studio was ideally suited for the intimacy of film acting – and it was both apt and inevitable that the Studio’s Method was presented to the world on television, on prestigious dramatic series such as Studio One and Playhouse 90, and popularised in four transcendentally well-acted films by Elia Kazan: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955) and Baby Doll (1956).

But was there no equivalent of the Method before the Studio or before the term itself became a household word? Was there no great acting in American films before the explosion of acting talent in the postwar period? The answer to both questions is, yes there was. Often causing consternation among disciples, Strasberg would cite movie stars of earlier generations, such as Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy, who seemed to him to be doing the Method by instinct. With a glance, a silent reaction, a pause, a gesture, naturalists like Cooper and Tracy could convey a rich sense of their character’s inner life. Strasberg often cited Garbo as a Method actress before the fact and Kazan hailed her Camille as the finest, most complete film performance by an actress he had ever seen.

However, it isn’t usually Cooper, Tracy or Garbo who are cited as early Methodists but John Garfield, a refugee from the Group Theatre, who indeed was the first actor trained in the style to achieve Hollywood stardom. Garfield brought an unvarnished city-boy veneer to each of his roles, but his brand of realism didn’t quite have the depth charges that Strasberg in class and Kazan on screen were in search of.

It is in the work of Montgomery Clift first, followed by Brando and then Dean, that the Method broke through to cinema. All three actors were popularly associated with the Actors Studio, though none attended regularly and Brando many times said that his mentor was Stella Adler rather than Strasberg. Nonetheless the work of the three is marked by the kinetic projection of an inner life that for Strasberg embodied truth in acting.

In The Heiress (1949) and A Place in the Sun (1951) Clift played characters with turbulent inner lives, people more wounded and vulnerable than most Hollywood representations of masculinity. As the suitor in The Heiress he is wonderfully hard to read – we can feel the presence of his character’s busy inner monologue, but we can’t be sure how to interpret it. Does Morris Townsend care for the rich woman he is courting and professes to love, or is he merely a fortune hunter?

If we can answer the question before the character jilts Catherine at the end of act two, the suspense is undermined: William Wyler, the film’s canny director, depended on Clift’s ambiguity and privacy. When Morris returns at the end, pleading with Catherine for a second chance, Clift is notably different: now we can see his desperation, barely under control. In his bearing and posture, in the haunted look that now appears in his eyes, Clift supplies a rich subtext, a sense of what has happened to his character off screen, in the wings.

Clift’s inner style is famously displayed in the final scene in A Place in the Sun when his character, George Eastman, is in jail awaiting execution for having killed his girlfriend. Clift communicates Eastman’s ambivalence about whether he is guilty as charged or innocent of the crime of murder: the actor’s slumped posture, pained expression, heavy silences and verbal groping eloquently incarnate George’s inner torment.

The dramatic conflict in On the Waterfront is also an inner struggle, as Terry Malloy slowly comes to terms with his complicity in the death of a friend. Brando acts on two levels: beneath the swagger of a ne’er-do-well the character has a hyperactive inner life which, by degrees, he is forced to confront. Terry’s struggles come to a boil in the famed taxi scene with Rod Steiger as his mob-owned brother. “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am,” he announces at the climax of the cinema’s greatest scene of self-recognition. After this epiphany, restored to himself, the character is freed to do what he must: testify against the capo who controls the waterfront.

When his brother pulls a gun on him in the taxi, Brando’s reaction reveals the kind of psychological realism the Method fosters. A superficial or conventional actor might well have pushed the gun away with an angry or fearful gesture, but Brando, thinking and reacting from deep within his character, touches the gun gently as he turns it away from him. “Charlie, Charlie,” he murmurs in a soft voice choked with love.

Most Hollywood acting was star acting, in which the performer was expected to project the same winning persona from role to role. By contrast, the Method was intended to train actors to lose themselves in their roles, a strategy the career of Brando, the quintessential Method actor, bears out. Within a few short years in the mid-1950s Brando played Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy, two working-class characters who came to embody the Method; a beautifully spoken Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (1953); Napoleon with an elegant British accent in Désirée (1954); a dark-skinned but unaccented revolutionary in Viva Zapata! (1952); a wily Japanese interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); an inarticulate, slow-moving biker in The Wild One (1953); and a musical comedy gangster in Guys and Dolls (1955). Each time out the actor transformed his way with words as well as his movement. (Brando’s mumble was a character choice; the actor himself had a clear, resonant voice and flawless diction.) In practice, however, most Method actors followed the star-acting model, transporting, like James Dean, a vivid persona from film to film.

Brando was a chameleon; Dean had a narrower range, but in his three film appearances played the role of a troubled teen with father issues with indelible vitality. On screen Dean was alive, spontaneous and intuitive in ways that before him only Clift and Brando had attained. The one time he had to depart from ‘James Dean’, in the last act of Giant (1956) when he had to impersonate an ageing alcoholic millionaire, he was uncomfortable.

Unlike Brando, Dean did not speak well – he didn’t have to. It was believable that his characters, festering with deep psychic wounds, struggle with language as they attempt to connect words with feelings.

His most electric moment is the scene in East of Eden (1955) in which his character, Cal, is rejected by his father, Adam. When Adam spurns the boy’s birthday gift, Dean clutches him, leaning in as if, to survive, he would have to ingest Adam, a cold man who cringes at Cal’s overwrought display. (Offstage, Raymond Massey was repelled by Dean – Kazan stoked the animosity because he thought it was a way of getting a true response out of a stiff actor untrained in the Method. It worked.) Inarticulate with grief, Cal turns away with a wrenching scream and then dashes out of the house with a scurrying, animal-like movement.

Clift, Brando and Dean – the exquisite Method triumvirate – became perhaps the most widely imitated actors in film history; to this day actors who strive to create an illusion of spontaneity and emotional depth on camera are working in a ‘line’ established by their iconic performances. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, they exerted a pernicious influence. As a too-old-looking high-school troublemaker in Blackboard Jungle (1955) Vic Morrow offers a hollow, posturing imitation of the ‘rebel’ style of Brando and Dean.

But the example of the Method, and the lure of the Actors Studio as a place where actors could go for help, could also have a positive impact on outside actors, as in the example of Marilyn Monroe. Groomed for stardom and inevitably typecast by her studio, Twentieth-Century Fox, Monroe was drawn by the promise of the ‘new’ style of actor training offered at the Actors Studio. Perhaps too eagerly, Strasberg became both surrogate therapist and parent to the troubled actress, but he did help her to hone the talent amply displayed in her early work – her psychotic babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), her smouldering wife in Niagara (1953). When she had a good part, as in Bus Stop (1956), playing a no-talent chanteuse longing for love and respect, she was deeper and more self-revealing than she had been before.

Clift, Brando and Dean led the way, but American films of the 1950s and early 1960s are distinguished by many examples of luminous Method acting by Studio-trained performers. A small sample: Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding (1952) and East of Eden (Kazan said he could never watch her final scene, with Massey, without crying); Kim Stanley in The Goddess (1958) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964); Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke (1961) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962); Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956); Ben Gazzara in The Strange One (1957) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959); Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Something Wild (1961).

It is surely no accident that many of these rich performances are in works by major writers: acting of psychological and emotional complexity grows out of and collaborates with writing that has similar qualities. Just as Stanislavski began to evolve his system working on Chekhov, the Method as developed at the Actors Studio coincided with the debut of Tennessee Williams, poet rather than naturalist, a lyrical writer with acute psychological insight. Likewise, the Method is a style of enhanced realism. Adler insisted that the kind of realism that she and the other Group teachers were after was a style and not to be confused with life itself: reality, she told students, is what you live; realism is what you do when you transform reality into art. As she maintained, realism is “the greatest, most demanding style of all”.

In its earliest and most influential phase, at least until the early 1960s, the Method is an overt, even – almost paradoxically – an extroverted display of craft. Early Method actors, like writers in love with writing, often paraded technique – as opposed to star minimalists like Gary Cooper, who never let you catch them acting. The flamboyant and joyful acting by Actors Studio members in many 1950s films formed the basis of what has come to be called the American style. The work was so seductive that it has to a large extent become the international film style – the kind of acting all good film actors strive for.

— Foster Hirsch


13 Method classics

1. The Breaking Point

Michael Curtiz, 1950, starring John Garfield

Michael Curtiz’s superb yet overlooked adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (released six years after Howard Hawks’s Bogart/Bacall version) saw John Garfield on riveting form in his penultimate performance as Harry Morgan, a fishing-boat captain who gets trapped in a smuggling plot while his affections are caught between a good-time-girl (Patricia Neal) and his wife (Phyllis Thaxter).

Garfield was a former member of the 1930s Group Theatre, and one of the few actors associated with it to transfer to movies, when he signed with Warner Bros towards the end of that decade – much to the outrage of some others in the Group, who viewed Hollywood as a poor relation of the stage (Franchot Tone was perhaps the only other Group actor to work regularly in Hollywood). But then Garfield was always a highly independent figure: he often refused the projects assigned to him by Warners, and when his contract expired in 1946 he established his own independent production company.

As a tough, brooding presence in noirs such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), Garfield anticipated a whole generation of male Method actors. He was famed for playing hard-boiled rebels, but his Harry Morgan is both tough and a conflicted family man, and shows Garfield’s range. It’s a hauntingly naturalistic portrayal by a pioneering actor.

2. The Men

Fred Zinnemann, 1950, starring Marlon Brando

On the Waterfront

Elia Kazan, 1954, starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb

Following Marlon Brando’s revolutionary stage performance in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, he made his cinema debut in The Men, in which he gives a standard-setting, deeply empathetic performance as a paralysed and embittered WWII veteran who initially rejects the treatment of Everett Sloane’s doctor, and the concern of his fiancée (Teresa Wright). Brando spent a month on a paraplegic ward in preparation, and his Method intensity brings an urgency that makes the rest of the cast feel outdated – watching, you can feel fault lines opening in American acting.

Four years after The Men came On the Waterfront, perhaps the definitive Method film, with Kazan directing and much of the cast drawn from the ranks of the Actors Studio. The explosive impact of Brando’s Terry Malloy, the boxer turned docker and errand boy for corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), has hardly dimmed since it was released 60 years ago.

Brando’s nuanced work eloquently expresses Terry’s inner turmoil, explored through his complicated relationships with his older brother (Rod Steiger), the local priest (Karl Malden) and Edie (Eva Marie Saint, another Method-trained Studio alumnus, who brought great sensitivity and depth to her role, earning her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1955), the sister of the man he unwittingly lures to his death at the start of the film. Conveyed through great technique, spontaneity and intelligence, it is a touchstone performance felt in all great American screen acting since.

3. The Member of the Wedding

Fred Zinnemann, 1952, starring Julie Harris

Reprising her role from a stage production of Carson McCullers’s novel for her film debut, the then 27-year-old Julie Harris plays Frankie Addams, an awkward, tomboyish and hyper-imaginative 12-year-old girl who finally wants nothing more than attention from those in her poor Deep South community. If the high volume and bold gestures of Harris’s performance can be exhausting, and betray the film’s theatrical origins, it’s nonetheless a tour de force of Method technique, through which Harris achieves an astonishing transformation to portray a troubled child less than half her age.

One of the most idiosyncratic of the new crop of Method-trained actors, Harris alternated stage performances with film and TV work for the rest of her life, arguably with greater balance than fellow female Studio peers such as Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page, both of whom had formidable reputations on the stage, which in Stanley’s case was arguably never matched by fitting onscreen roles.

Harris then played opposite James Dean in Kazan’s East of Eden (1955), and was especially memorable as Nell in The Haunting (1963). Like many other Studio members, she was also a regular presence in the ‘Golden Age’ of American live television dramas that ran through the 1950s and did much to build bridges between stage and screen. A fine example of her TV work in this period is A Wind from the South (1955), included on the Criterion Collection DVD set ‘The Golden Age of Television’ alongside other important early Method performances like Rod Steiger in Marty (1953), written by Paddy Chayefsky, and Jack Palance in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956).

4. East of Eden

Elia Kazan, 1955, starring James Dean, Julie Harris

Our first big-screen sighting of James Dean conveys immediately his magnetic, self-possessed onscreen presence, still modern in its strangeness and volatility. Setting the scene in California in 1917, the camera pans up from the seafront, following a woman in black along a dusty street, to reveal teenager Cal Trask (Dean), crouched on a curb, his limbs drawn inward to his body much as an animal might do for protection. All of a sudden Cal springs to his feet and follows the woman, his movements a mixture of twitchy hesitancy and barely contained energy. Dean’s use of the Method, which he studied under Strasberg from 1952, and described as “the best thing that can happen to an actor”, was always more physically expressive than verbal – even in dramatic dialogue scenes he typically provokes a visceral reaction through an anguished shout or cry.

The woman is Cal’s mother, now a madam at a Monterey bordello – an outcast much like him. Cal tries to reach out to this absent mother, with whom he feels an emotional connection that’s lacking in the damaged relationship he has with his father (Raymond Massey) and older brother (Richard Davalos), but present with his brother’s fiancée Abra (Julie Harris).

Dean would play the rebellious son again in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), and his early death means he didn’t get to prove that he had a greater range. But it’s often forgotten that he left behind a prolific number of performances for television, admittedly often in the same troubled teenager vein, as in Glory in the Flower (1953) and The Dark, Dark Hours (1955), and as an ex-con in A Long Time Till Dawn (1953). Whether he could have gone on to reveal new shades to his acting is difficult to say – Kazan doubted it, as he felt Dean relied too heavily on projecting his own confrontational personality, and wasn’t as finely trained as Brando. Nonetheless, Dean remains a cornerstone of the onscreen Method and a defiantly singular actor, even as he has inspired countless imitators.

5. The Big Knife

Robert Aldrich, 1955, starring Jack Palance, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Ida Lupino, Everett Sloane, Wendell Corey

Robert Aldrich’s indictment of Hollywood is adapted from a play by Clifford Odets that was first performed in 1949 with John Garfield in the central role, and boasts some of the most grandly wrought Method-influenced performances of its era. Jack Palance is emphatically physical as Charles Castle, a Hollywood studio actor in the Garfield-mould who yearns for more substantial parts and wants out of his contract, yet finds his ambitions blocked by the tyrannical head of the studio, played with typical relish by Method-trained Rod Steiger.

Shelley Winters stands out in a fine supporting cast as Dixie Evans, the flirty starlet with whom Castle is having an affair, while Ida Lupino as Castle’s estranged wife provides a fascinating contrast to the Method approach taken by the Studio actors elsewhere.

The film reveals how pronounced the impact of the Method revolution on Hollywood had become by the mid-1950s, as the Method is implied in its very themes and characters, and stands for integrity against the apparently surface entertainments of traditional star performances – much as the raw excitement of rock and roll made old crooners seem staid and contrived.

6. Bus Stop

Joshua Logan, 1956, starring Marilyn Monroe

As with several female Hollywood stars in the 1950s and 1960s (among them Shelley Winters, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda) Marilyn Monroe found in the Method a refuge from the typecasting she had come to resent. She became a regular at the Actors Studio, and had private lessons with Lee Strasberg – something that divided opinion at the Studio, some recognising in her a real acting talent, others resentful of the special attention Strasberg gave her.

Monroe’s portrayal in Bus Stop of a saloon singer who yearns to be respected for more than her looks, and who faces the overbearing affections of a naive cowboy (a wincingly misjudged, yet somehow Oscar-nominated performance by Don Murray), is a model of the Method style – an exposing performance drawn from within. The contrast was still more pronounced in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), with Monroe’s Method interiority contrasting sharply and compellingly with Laurence Olivier’s British stage technique.

7. Baby Doll

Elia Kazan, 1956, starring Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach

Scandalous in its day, Baby Doll sees Elia Kazan wring every sordid drop of jealousy, sleaze and black comedy from Tennessee Williams’s hothouse adaptation of his own one-act Southern Gothic play about a grotesque and bizarre love triangle. The three Actors Studio stalwarts at the film’s core all deliver hugely enjoyable Method-fuelled performances, with Carroll Baker unforgettable as the seductive but virginal teenager who has married too young; Karl Malden as her lustful, pathetic husband Archie; and Eli Wallach as Silva, the wily Sicilian businessman intent on seducing her.

Though Baby Doll would remain the role for which she was best known, Baker continued to have an interesting career up to her retirement in 2002. She acted alongside James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant (1956), then moved to Italy in 1965 where she appeared in numerous giallo and horror films before returning to the US in 1980. One of her most compelling performances was as a rape victim who is taken captive by her would-be rescuer (Ralph Meeker) in Something Wild (1961), an independent production by her then-husband Jack Garfein, who was also a key teacher at the Actors Studio.

8. The Strange One (aka End as a Man)

Jack Garfein, 1957, starring Ben Gazzara, George Peppard, Pat Hingle

Adapted from a play entitled End as a Man by Calder Willingham, and first developed by Jack Garfein and Studio actors (including James Dean) through intense late-night improvisations at the Actors Studio in 1952, Garfein’s film is very much an ensemble showpiece for the Method, and one of the clearest onscreen records of the Studio’s work in the period. As Garfein has written of the rehearsals:

“There was no thought of a future commercial production. The aim was to implement what we called the work on an entire play. The work in Studio parlance, meant there would be no pre-conditioned interpretation of the characters. We would have unlimited rehearsals without a set date of presentation – the use of an inordinate amount of improvisations until we found the behavior that truly reflected the psychology of the characters.”

The action centres on a group of cadets at a military school, boasting a cast that includes George Peppard and Pat Hingle. But the film is ultimately stolen by the magnetic Ben Gazzara, making his film debut as the cunning, ferociously articulate anti-hero Jocko De Paris, who exerts a bullying reign of terror over his peers. The play suggests that much of Jocko’s vengeful bullying stems from repressed homosexuality, something that Garfein had to mute for the screen by cutting three minutes of film owing to the censorial Production Code constraints still in effect in the late 1950s.

As an aside, the film made a great impression on a youthful Morrissey, who writes in his autobiography of the thrilling impact Gazzara’s performance had on him.

9. Edge of the City

Martin Ritt, 1957, starring John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Warden, Ruby Dee

Often likened to On the Waterfront because of its New York dockside setting and exposure of corruption, Martin Ritt’s gritty film revolves around two superb performances from John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier.

Poitier was an Actors Studio member, though it’s Cassavetes as a new-to-the-job drifter whose performance sits more obviously in the twitchy Method-style. (Cassavetes was in fact teaching Method acting in New York at the time of shooting.) Early in the film his character antagonises Jack Warden’s crooked foreman, and is taken under the wing of Poitier’s more experienced porter.

The film broke ground in its portrayal of a mixed-race friendship, and in positioning Poitier as a stable role model to his more wayward white friend.

10. Fear Strikes Out

Robert Mulligan, 1957, starring Anthony Perkins, Karl Malden

Based on the memoir by the gifted but troubled Boston Red Sox baseball player Jimmy Piersall, Mulligan’s film is at once a sports biopic and an examination of the damaging psychological toll of overbearing parental expectation. Actors Studio member Anthony Perkins portrays Piersall with astonishing sensitivity and control as a vulnerable young man only inches from mental breakdown, desperately seeking approval from his oppressively devoted father (Karl Malden) until eventually his mind can take the strain no more.

Perkins’s career would, of course, be defined by his portrayal of another, more dangerously unstable young man in Hitchcock’s Psycho three years later, which, while it ranks among the most iconic of all screen performances, arguably frustrated him by casting an inescapable shadow over his career thereafter, despite diverse performances in films such as Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962) and Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968).

11. Somebody Up There Likes Me

Robert Wise, 1956, starring Paul Newman, Pier Angeli, Sal Mineo

There’s a famous photograph taken by Eve Arnold at an Actors Studio class in 1955, and in among the attentive faces there’s a figure in the foreground who draws your eye away from everybody else and on to him. It’s Paul Newman, of course, and the picture captures the tension between his classic star looks and the committed actor. Early in his career, Newman surely recognised how his looks could limit him to bland roles, and he often offset them by offering abrasive characterisations in films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and alongside Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).

Newman’s film breakthrough was in fact relatively slow in coming, his debut role in the sword-and-sandals production The Silver Chalice (1954) having been an embarrassing disaster. But alongside stage work, Newman, like Julie Harris and other Studio members, acted regularly in live television dramas in the early and mid-1950s, refining his technique.

One of his most obviously Method-fuelled performances came with his second film, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). In a role originally intended for James Dean, the famously blue-eyed actor convinces against the odds as street-tough Italian-American boxer Rocky Graziano. Chronicling Graziano’s rise from the embattled family life of his youth, via street crime and jail, to eventual redemption in the ring and in life via marriage to Pier Angeli’s Norma, Newman’s performance provided a model for the committed Method actor – Raging Bull-era Robert De Niro among them. His immersive preparations saw him shadow the real Graziano for weeks, picking up his mannerisms, speech and fighting style.

12. Wild River

Elia Kazan 1960, starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet, Barbara Loden

After John Garfield, Montgomery Clift was the first of the new generation of Method-trained actors to capture attention in the movies. The introspective vulnerability for which he became famous was detectable in his performance in Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), and presented a riveting naturalistic counterpoint to one of co-star John Wayne’s own finest performances in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), in the process nudging Wayne to nuances beyond the ‘on-the-horse/off-the-horse’ school he personified. But Clift first truly opened the gates with his signature Method performance in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), which alongside Brando’s performance in the same year’s A Streetcar Named Desire provided the spark that ignited the onscreen Method revolution.

By the time of Wild River in 1960, his saintly beauty tarnished by the injuries he had sustained in a car accident, Clift’s Method techniques might seem more muted and contained. Yet he still beautifully projects a mournful empathy as a New Deal-era government official sent to move people off an island on the Tennessee river before a new dam submerges everything around them. Elia Kazan originally wanted Brando for the role, but Clift’s quiet determination and physical hesitancy bring further depths to an engrossingly lyrical film, not least in the powerful love scenes with the emotionally fragile yet physically assertive Lee Remick.

— James Bell

  • Sight & Sound: the November 2014 issue

    Sight & Sound: the November 2014 issue

    Mike Leigh gets Romantic, Darwinian sci-fi and the birth of the Method. Plus Nightcrawler, ’71, Gone Girl, The Knick, Venice and Toronto, agnès b,...

More from this issue

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.