The Rise of Method Acting in Film

Paper by Ann-Sophie Masse.

Director Elia Kazan is the founding father of Method Acting in film, since he first introduced the Method to Hollywood in the early 1950s, where it revolutionized acting in the US film industry forever. Method acting is a technique where an actor utilizes past experiences to create a sincere and emotionally expressive performance. The rise of the Method in film is best seen in Elia Kazan’s films a Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955), where Marlon Brando and James Dean were praised for their performances that were created with the Method. Prior to introducing the method to film, Elia Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio, which was a workshop where actors, including legendary Marlon Brando and James Dean, could go to practice in a private environment.
Method acting changed the US film industry forever because it was the first time in the history of film that actors were no longer just “modeling” characters. The Method started an era of truthful acting in film, where actors previously spoke in a graceful and poetic way, and would not let the emotions get in the way of that. With the Method, actors were now “becoming” the characters connecting previous experiences, which brought out emotions that felt less like a show and more like emotions people had perhaps once felt or seen in others. The characters that were produced using the Method felt more real and human. By using emotions that came from a deeper state, the actors had a more prominent effect on the viewers.

At this time in the US film industry, of the late 1940s and early 1950s, many regulations restricted films unlike they did with plays. In the Broadway play version of Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando’s character Stanley rapes his sister-in-law, Blanche, in a climactic rape scene. In the play version, his wife stays by his side and he is not punished in any way. When the play was turned into a film, controversy widened as the Catholic Legion of Decency threatened to condemn the film unless the story would be adapted. In response to this, the rape scene was created in a not very graphic way, and in the end, Stanley pays the price for what he has done where his wife leaves him with his child for good. With these restrictions occurring in the film industry, the Method also came about as shocking to many audiences who were restricted to a more superficial Hollywood, where true emotions were often softened to appear less intense.

The Method was created to bring out emotions from deep within in order to create performances that would be more captivating. The Method was known to have been refined at the Actors Studio; however, it originated from the Stanislavsky system that was introduced by Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theater. Konstantin Stanislavski was a Russian actor, producer, and theoretician where he explained that what the actor wanted was to create truthful feelings under certain circumstances where Stanislavski wrote in My Life In Art, “No one knows what will move his soul, and open the treasure house of his creative gifts. The creativeness of an actor must come from within.” His system brought a whole new way of acting where we would now see life on stage, instead of seeing an impersonation of life on stage. Director Elia Kazan with Cheryl Crawford, Anna Sokolow, and Robert Lewis together formed the Actors Studio on October 5, 1947 where the System was analyzed and changed throughout the years to become the “Method” especially when Lee Strasberg became Artistic Director in 1948. Lee Strasberg refined the Method where he focused on teaching the actors how to feel and express emotional subtexts of scripts through relaxation, sense memory, improvisation, and transformation. Sense memory was a technique aimed at recreating real life in which concentration on stimuli associated with a sensory experience, would create an appropriate and corresponding response. This response would be more truthful to the original response than it would be without this use of the Method. “An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.”-James Dean.
With his links to The Actors Studio, Elia Kazan was an incredible director for actors since he was one of the first directors to encourage his actors to use the Method, where he discouraged the use of artificial emotions, instead used the Method to dig deep in the actor’s past experiences to bring out true emotions that feel more sincere. In his autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”, Marlon Brando wrote about Kazan saying, “I’ve never seen a director who became as deeply and emotionally involved in a scene. Kazan was the best actors’ director by far of any I’ve worked for. [He] got into a part with me and virtually acted it with me”. One of the plays Elia Kazan directed on Broadway was called A Streetcar Named Desire in which Marlon Brando played the role of Stanley Kowalski. Brando’s performance was recognized for its intensity and brutality that left many spectators in shock.

What often characterizes an actor using the Method is often seen with the use of improvisation that goes beyond the script that speaks more truly from the character’s perspective. Marlon Brando and James Dean were often noted for doing brilliant acts of improvisation that reflects the characters on an emotional level. These two actors, like most Method actors had childhoods that would one day be source to their Method acting.

Marlon Brando was the son of alcoholic parents where his mother was often absent from Brando due to binge drinking and his father was physically abusive. As traumatizing as the intense feeling of fear, abandonment, and hate Brando had for his parents, it is undeniable that he used these intense feelings from his past to use on screen through the Method. Marlon Brando confessed himself in an interview that he used the emotions evoked by his father’s violence in his performances, saying: “If I have a scene to play and I have to be angry, I can remember my father hitting me.” Here Marlon Brando expresses how he used his past experiences as a source to his acting.

James Dean, Like Brando, also had a difficult childhood where his mother died when he was only nine years old. Following his mother’s death, his father sent Dean away to go live with his aunt and uncle in their rural Quaker home. James Dean later moved back with his father where his father encouraged him to study pre-law in College, even though acting is what he truly wished to study. His father however, did not want him to do this and even threw him out of his house when Dean decided to change his major to drama. This began a difficult relationship between him and his father. Prior to the film East of Eden, director Elia Kazan once witnessed James Dean with his father and saw that they could barely stand one another, and knew that these emotions Dean had for his father could be used to create a great performance in East of Eden where the son and father in the film have similar issues.

One of Elia Kazan’s crucially important films that he directed for film after directing for its Broadway version, was A Streetcar Named Desire Staring Marlon Brando. This film is important to the US film industry as it is often seen to be one of the first and greatest Method performances of all time, which brought light to the Method in film. This is all due to Marlon Brando’s overpowering, and raw naturalistic performance of Stanley Kowalski portrayed through the Method by which he had studied at the Actors Studio. The intensity of his role in the film can best be portrayed in a specific scene of A Streetcar Named Desire.

In this scene of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley (Marlon Brando) loses at a game of poker and blames the radio that had been turned on by his sister-in-law Blanche. He throws the radio through the window and follows to beat his wife Stella. He has regrets of beating her and starts to cry. He calls Stella and when she comes down to see him, he drops to his knees for forgiveness. She holds him as he cries and forgives him. When he throws the radio through the window and beats Stella, his performance is shockingly frightening and explosive unlike anything that had been seen before in film. The Method is most apparent in this scene when he has remorse for beating his wife and starts to cry. Marlon Brando uses the Method to create a sincere transition between his character’s anger and his realization of what he had done. There is a look on Stanley’s (Marlon Brando) face when he realizes that he may lose Stella because of what he has done, and then starts to cry because he realizes that he may lose the one person who loves him. Like stated previously, Marlon Brando had explained how his father affected his performances where he would think of his youth at times where his father would beat him and his mother when he had to be violent in a scene. This is an example of how Brando used the Method to translate his personal experiences to the screen as Stanley.

On The Waterfront directed by Elia Kazan, was another film that was revolutionary in the world of acting due to Marlon Brando’s use of the Method, as well as for Elia Kazan’s trust in Marlon Brando’s acting instincts. What is often distinctive of Method actors is that they often seek to find the psychological and sensory motivations for their characters, which is what Marlon Brando does for his character in On The Waterfront. In this film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker that had been a rising boxer until the powerful local mob persuades him to lose purposefully in order to gain money that has been thrown on the bet. Following this, a dockworker named joey is killed before he can testify about Friendly’s control of the Hoboken waterfront, Terry joins with the waterfront priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) to testify for justice, against the advice of Friendly’s lawyer, Terry’s older brother Charley (Rod Steiger). In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, often seen as Brando’s finest acting, is a conversation Terry has with his brother Charley in a taxicab. Afraid that he will testify, Charley is sent to assassinate his brother by Friendly’s command. When Charley senses that he does not have the loyalty from Terry where he might testify, Charley takes out a gun and points it at his brother. A great sense of Marlon Brando’s acting is present in the improvisation of this scene where instead of grabbing the gun in an aggressive and forceful way, Terry gently points the gun away in a heartbroken, disappointed, and weary manner. As he does this, Terry simply says, “Charley…Charley…Oh, Charley. Wow.” This simple gesture digs deep into the character where Terry realizes that his brother does not care for him as much as he thought. Although Brando could have gone with the emotions of boastful anger, he chose to use emotions of anger that are more reflective, more utterly painful, which demonstrates the use of the Method. “To grasp the full significance of life is the actor’s duty, to interpret it is his problem, and to express it his dedication.” these are the words of Marlon Brando in which he highlights the importance for an actor to use the elements of the Method.

In another scene in On The Waterfront, that demonstrates the Method used by Marlon Brando is when Terry and Edie are walking in a park where we see that he wants to spend time with her and get her attention. In the scene, Edie drops her glove and Terry picks it up. After picking it up he caresses the glove and neatly removes the twigs from it, and then puts the glove on. This was Marlon Brando’s work where in the rehearsals with Eva Marie Saint (Edie), Saint dropped her glove and Brando picked it up. Instead of simply giving the glove back to her, like most actors would have done, Brando kept it and put it on his hand for the rest of the scene. This improvisation made sense because it was a way for his character (a man of no good reputation) to keep Edie (a catholic girl training to become a nun) talking to him. This improvisation completed the scene, and director Elia Kazan kept Brando’s idea and intergraded it into the film. This shows the respect and open-mindedness Elia Kazan had for his actors who used the Method.

East of Eden directed by Elia Kazan, has often been praised for the use of Method acting utilized by James Dean. In this film, Cal (James Dean) and his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) live with their father raising them as a single parent, where they have been told their mother died when they were very young. Cal grows up with the idea that his father seems to prefer and love his brother more than him, where he is often told that he is not good. Throughout his life, Cal is frustrated and wants his father to think that he is good. Cal has a plan to purchase bean shares knowing that they will soar through the roof during the war, and sell the shares to give the profit to his father as an opportunity to save him from ruin and gain his father’s love once and for all. Cal is ecstatic to see his beans grow as he sees this as a step closer to having his father’s respect.

In one of the most important scenes of East of Eden, Cal gives his father the money he made from the bean shares and gives it to him as a birthday present. Cal throws him a birthday party where he decorates the house in birthday cheers to make sure that the moment he gives him the money will be perfect and will be something that his father will never forget. On his father’s birthday, Cal hands over the delicately wrapped stack of money he had made for his father in a very proud, nervous, and anxious way. When his father opens the gift, his father refuses it as though Cal had cheated innocent men to make this profit. When this happens Cal is overwhelmed and tries to convince his father to take the money where he had only done it in good intentions to please his father. Once again Cal feels as though he has done something very kind for his father but instead, his father tries to prove that he is selfish and unkind. As Cal realizes that his father will not take the gift, Cal begins to cry. Cal slowly turns around and makes his way to a painful hug towards his father for him to give his son the love he has always wanted from him. His father is shocked and calls his name in a strict manner for him to let go without any form of love. As his final resort for love from his father fails, he turns around to leave the room still crying and moaning saying, “I hate you”. This moment in the scene captivates James Dean’s perfect sense of the Method where instead of only looking at Cal’s father and running away saying “I hate you”, James Dean improvised where he turned around slowly while crying, and made his way to hug Cal’s father. His use of the Method is evident because like his character, Dean had felt rejected and disappointed by his father, as stated previously, where like Cal, Dean had always wanted to have his father’s love.

James Dean’s improvisation bring much more meaning to the film where his previous experiences, specifically with his father, made him decide that the only way for his character to be certain that his father did not love him, was by reaching out in such a loving manner. The devastation in his moaning is the result of this realization that came with the rejected gesture of love. Since James Dean’s improvisation wasn’t planned, we also get Raymond Massey (Cal’s father)’s reaction of utter shock and perhaps confusion. Director Elia Kazan kept this improvisation related to the Method as he believed that the improvisation not only worked for the scene, but also greatly improved it by making it more genuine.

In conclusion, Elia Kazan can truly be acknowledged for having a tremendous effect on the birth of truthful acting in film where his formation of the Actors Studio helped to form some of the most important actors of the early Method age in Hollywood. Marlon Brando and James Dean were individuals that worked with Elia Kazan who were given the chance to explore the use of the Method in film, which hadn’t been widely accepted and encouraged by directors before Kazan. Without Marlon Brando and James Dean, the world of acting in film today could be very different, where this great gift of sharing emotions worldwide would be nonexistent. To this very day, some of the most critically acclaimed actors have studied at Elia Kazan’s Actors Studio and look up to Marlon Brando and James Dean for their own craft, where these two actors will forever be a source of inspiration for authentic acting. These three men have enabled us to connect with more understanding to characters where we are able to see ourselves in their eyes. James Dean and Marlon Brando are individuals that we value as true actors, as individuals who are able to create a universal union between individuals across the world who share common feelings.

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