Stanislavski and the 'method' - 'it's called acting my dear'

Stanislavski and the 'method' - 'it's called acting my dear'

Since Steven Spielberg's Jaws came along in the summer of 1975 and took the biggest bite of the box office in history of cinema up to that point (bad pun as always intended) the summer period has always been about the Summer Blockbuster, that most peculiar of things.

Jaws is thought to be the film that changed cinema, changed the way films were released, how many screens they were released onto and brought to the fore the idea of a film being not just (not even?) a piece of art but a commercial event of such magnitude that the bottom line became all important.

This summer we have had a slew of superhero films already and DC comics and Warner brothers are soon to release upon the world their new wannabe Blockbuster: Suicide Squad. Which is I am informed based on a DC comic in which a secret government agency recruits imprisoned super villains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency and forgiveness. It hits cinemas on 5th August and is expected to be a huge box office draw.

Much like Inarritu's DiCaprio starring Oscar winning individualist creed The Revenant, many stories of extreme actor preparation have been emerging from the set of the film, each one as yawn inducing as the next. Jared Leto, who plays Batmans arch enemy the Joker in Suicide Squad, is judging by the movie trailers, attempting to chew up more scenery than any actor ever on a set before. Perhaps he's channelling his dreadful performance in David Fincher's Panic Room. He reportedly has handed out gifts like a dead pig and black rats to his co-stars in an attempt to "get into character".

He is not alone it seems. The films director David Ayer (Training Day) has encouraged various approaches in order for his cast to capture the truth of the characters they play. Jai Courtney apparently has indulged in magic mushrooms and putting cigarette butts out on his arm, or so it has been reported. In the film he plays Captain Boomerang, a supposedly horrible individual (I've never read the comic) which presumably the always reliably awful Courtney couldn't manage to portray by just pretending to be him. The rest of the crew have also been tattooing each other with the name of the film. Edgy stuff indeed.

This all goes back to the idea of something called: the method or method acting. Which is the name given to various techniques for training actors to achieve truer representations of the characters they play, it was conceived by Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) an American actor, director and acting teacher.

We can trace the origins of "The Method" to the similarly preposterously monikered "System", as created by Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) a Russian theatre director. Stanislavski's philosophy was a part of the theatrical realist movement which was prevalent in Russia at the time and based on the idea that great acting is a reflection of "truth".

Stanislavski tried to convey this through a more human system of acting, which would encourage an actor to build a cognitive and emotional understanding of their role. He developed his system of acting through his collaborations with Russia's leading actors, with Anton Chekhov, and his own research and work at the Moscow Art Theatre.

Stanislavski's self important system is often incorrectly spoken of in the same bracket as Lee Strasberg's "Method" approach, which did claim inspiration from Stanislavski's concept. Strasberg's approach drew on personal psychological techniques and in reality differed greatly with Stanislavski's more holistic psychophysical approach (pretending basically), which explores character and action both from the "inside out" and the "outside in." In this respect his system is far more similar to more classical acting techniques than to method acting.

Strasberg's method pivots upon the idea that in order to develop an emotional understanding of the roles they play, actors should draw on their own life experiences. This involves recalling emotions or memories from the actor's own life.

Stanislavski when coining his earlier concept, well before Strasberg, had already found there to be many inherent issues with an experience-based concept of acting. He was well aware that it could lead to the sort of overacting I'm guessing we will see alot of in the upcoming Suicide Squad and has become an increasing problem in Hollywood films.

For this and other reasons he shifted the focus of his system to rely upon imagination, which the actor can use to portray things they haven't even experienced. One is reminded of Sir Ian McKellans description of what acting is in Ricky Gervais' Extras: "When they say action I pretend to be Gandolf and when they shout cut then I stop pretending to be him".

The Method is an example of how we allow so called artists to pontificate about their profession and apply an important sheen to it when people who do actual important work are dismissed by society. Acting is play acting is pretending. No more no less. It is a talent and an at times inspiring one but we must not lose sight of its relative importance in the overall scheme of life.

Strasberg's students when listed is a whose who of who was once who; actors like: Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson amongst many others and this has given more credence to his concept that it deserves.

People like De Niro and Day Lewis have famously been known to stay in character throughout film shoots, be it when the cameras are rolling or off and it is true that these two along with others mentioned above have given us some wonderful performances. I am drawn to a quote from Marlon Brando: "Would they applaud me if I was a plumber?" We live in the golden age of the celebrity, which is what most actors are now and the films they star in are as much about selling shoe polish as they are about art.

We have placed people as talentless as the Kardashians on another plain and aspire to their lifestyles and money rather than to the people they are. In future it would be nice to hear an actor or film-maker speak about how lucky they are to be involved in a profession or trade which we have put on the biggest pedestal we could find.

One recalls the advice Lawrence Olivier is purported to have offered his method obsessed co star Dustin Hoffman who supposedly drilled actual holes in his own teeth to portray the pain correctly in a scene when Oliver's Nazi dentist tortures him: It's called acting my dear.