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Why the Oscars love method actors

From Marlon Brando to Daniel Day-Lewis, Hollywood’s infatuation continues.

Method acting describes a broad framework for training actors to break down, understand, and portray their characters. The acting technique emphasizes tapping into one’s personal experiences to reproduce the emotions, actions, and behavior required for a dramatic performance.

But this approach remains controversial, because of the mental and emotional stress it can create in actors, and because of the extreme lengths some actors go to achieve it.

Although method acting was popularized by Lee Strasberg in the mid 20th century, it has its roots in early 20th century Russia. Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and drama theorist, and his peers at the Moscow Art Theater developed a “system” that method acting is directly based on. Stanislavski’s teachings emphasized critical, holistic analyses of scenes in tandem with self-reflection by the actor.

Konstantin Stanislavski, 1936 / German Federal Archives

Stanislavski’s ideas spread throughout the US in the 1930s where they were interpreted and transformed by a subsequent generation of instructors, including Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. These schools acting diverged, emphasizing and building upon different parts of Stanislavksi’s original system.

Strasberg’s interpretation emphasized drawing on personal experiences to relate to fictitious ones, Adler taught a greater focus on leveraging an actor’s imagination, and Meisner stressed the importance of inhabiting a scene truthfully, with less emphasis on abstraction and intellectualizing of the relationship between an actor and their character.

Today, method acting is perhaps best associated with actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, who is famous for going to extreme lengths to portray the characters he plays. From his breakout performance in My Left Foot, where he plays a quadriplegic artist, Day-Lewis has built up an impressive, critically acclaimed track record of dramatic roles. Day-Lewis and fellow method actors Gary Oldman and Meryl Streep are each nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, at the 2018 Oscars.

Daniel Day-Lewis (right) and Paul Thomas Anderson (left) at the New York premiere of Phantom Thread.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

But one critique of method acting remains: It’s impossible for audiences to know that an actor underwent intense preparation for a role unless they are explicitly told. Hollywood has thus conspicuously and carefully publicized high-profile productions featuring method acting performances, such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant.

So is method acting more about marketability than anything else? It’s impossible to say for sure. But the technique is a reliable way to raise dramatic stakes, and for studios to make movies more appealing to audiences.

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