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Film Society Series Highlights an Approach to Acting

  • Marlon Brando in a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire." (Courtesy photograph)

    Marlon Brando in a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire." (Courtesy photograph)

  • Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun." (Courtesy photograph)

    Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun." (Courtesy photograph)

  • Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio starred in "Gangs of New York." (Courtesy photograph)

    Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio starred in "Gangs of New York." (Courtesy photograph)

  • Marlon Brando in a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire." (Courtesy photograph)
  • Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun." (Courtesy photograph)
  • Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio starred in "Gangs of New York." (Courtesy photograph)

The Method actor, with all his brilliance and maddening self-importance, is the focus of this spring’s film series at the Hopkins Center.

The series begins next Friday with Flight, starring Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot and concludes on May 26, with Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, with James Dean. In between are star turns by Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando (of course!), Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Elizabeth Taylor, Ryan Gosling and Daniel Day Lewis.

Films being shown include Flight, with Denzel Washington; Gangs of New York, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis, directed by Martin Scorsese; Rust and Bone with Marion Cotillard; Some Like It Hot, with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe; The Impossible with Naomi Watts; and A Late Quartet with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener.

There’s also an intriguing new film on the schedule: The Place Beyond the Pines, which stars Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes. It’s directed by Derek Cianfrance, whose last film, Blue Valentine with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, was a popular and critical hit. Gosling’s a bank robber, Cooper’s a cop, and you can imagine the rest.

The Method, which was popularized by acting teacher Lee Strasberg in New York, is drawn partially from the theories of Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavsky, who wrote the classic books An Actor Prepares and My Life in Art, and was a co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater in 1897.

Stanislavsky urged actors to rely less on external effects — costumes, wigs, props — and more on the internal psychology of a character, drawing on self-analysis, introspection and memory. The result would be an actor who was more natural, less obviously stagey, someone who seemed to live and breathe the character.

In this country, such influential acting teachers as Strasberg, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner borrowed from Stanislavski while also devising their own approaches to technique. To tease apart the often-charged atmosphere between these camps would take a book, but let’s say that there was a pro-Strasberg coterie, and those who had qualms about his insistence on a kind of psychological transference, in which actors ceded authority to him.

Some actors have been criticized or mocked for staying in character even when not filming, or allegedly demanding ad nauseam, “What’s my motivation?” when an action calls only for opening or closing a door.

Perhaps the ultimate joke about the Method’s method came in Sidney Pollock’s Tootsie, in which Pollock, playing Dustin Hoffman’s agent, berates Hoffman, playing struggling actor Michael Dorsey, for asking during the making of a commercial in which he played a tomato what his motivation was for sitting.

“You played a tomato for 30 seconds — they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn’t sit down,” Pollock snipes.

“Of course. It was illogical,” Hoffman replies.

“YOU WERE A TOMATO. A tomato doesn’t have logic. A tomato can’t move.”

“That’s what I said. So if he can’t move, how’s he gonna sit down, George?” parries Hoffman.

While the Method has produced many memorable performances, there are actors the world over who weren’t steeped in it who did work just as stirring, without calling as much attention to themselves as creative, if troubled geniuses.

Method actors like Brando, Monroe and Clift became known as much for their personal dramas as the parts they played, and while some of that can be attributed to the glare of the media, the Method’s technique of using an actor’s own life as a way to achieve naturalism on stage and screen perhaps became something of a crutch, or a cliche.

Spencer Tracy was a great film actor, who conveyed authenticity and integrity, but he didn’t subscribe to the Method. Neither did Sir Ralph Richardson or Sir John Gielgud. Helen Mirren isn’t a Method actor, but she’s a supremely talented one regardless. Daniel Day Lewis isn’t a Method actor per se, but he’s celebrated for his meticulous preparation in which he, according to stories in the press, remains in character off-set. He’s remarkable in Lincoln, so who can quarrel with his approach?

You could argue that the Method helped to refine such meteoric talents as Brando or Clift, but they probably would have been great anyway; each actor has his own mystery and reserves that he draws on.

That said, when an actor we associate with that kind of Method immersion has the right part, the results can be stunning. Is this the Method, though, or does the skill in casting also play a role? Both, probably.

The obvious choice here is Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, but I’m going to praise Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, which was based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and directed by George Stevens. Clift seems the ultimate immersion actor paired with one who was the invention of the studio system, Elizabeth Taylor.

Both were physically beautiful creatures who had a certain delicacy to them, and they’re ideally paired here, drawing performances from each other of great feeling and sympathy.

Shelley Winters, another product of the Method, is also fine in the film as the factory girl who lands Clift in the beginning, until he falls for Taylor. She is everything Taylor isn’t: unglamorous, awkward, with no particular aspirations or flair. And in some ways her performance is the bravest because she’s asked to be so pathetic and irritating that you can understand why Clift, playing the social climber George Eastman, would want her dead, even as you abhor his callousness.

But watching Clift is a little like watching Secretariat; you’re so dazzled by the power and artistry of his performance that his sheer skill and technique are invisible. Whatever his method was, it worked.

For information go to hop.dartmouth.edu/Online or call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.