But the elephant in the room is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. In a memorial post, I mentioned the torment that’s revealed in his art. I think that it’s a variety of artistic torment that arises from the modern art of acting, of exactly the sort that Franco cites—and it’s not solely a matter of coping with fame. Here, for instance, is a moment from “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, ” the portrait of the octogenarian artist that opens today. Stritch is a first-rank wit, and the movie bristles with her exuberant yet vulnerable inventiveness, but the best lines in the film belongs to George C. Wolfe, who directed her one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty, ” from 2002:I think there’s that pursuit to get at the thing that is underneath the thing that will illuminate a moment. That pursuit can produce madness, can produce a kind of irascibility, a kind of narcissism, but that’s what drives her.
There’s something about modern-day acting—the style that is famously associated with Lee Strasberg’s Method and that gained currency from his Actors Studio and its offshoots—that inclines toward deformations of character. That modern school, which links emotional moments from a performer’s own life to that of a character, and which conceives characters in terms of complete and filled-out lives that actors imagine and inhabit, asks too much of performers. Here’s how Franco describes it:Actors have been lashing out against their profession and its grip on their public images since at least Marlon Brando. Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be “performing, ” in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being
Franco’s description of the style is, I think, accurate; his diagnosis of its connection to Brando’s public image is beside the point. An actor’s attempted excavation of her own deepest and harshest experiences to lend them to characters adds a dimension of self-revelation (even if only to oneself), of wounds reopened and memories relived, that would make for agony in therapy. On the other hand, the effort to conceive a character as a filled-out person, with a lifetime of backstory and biographical details, becomes a submergence into another (albeit fictitious) life, an abnegation of a nearly monastic stringency. In the effort to make emotions true, to model performance on the plausible actions of life offstage or offscreen, the modern actor is often both too much and too little herself.
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Popularity of the Method grew with the work of actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean. Robert DeNiro is also a method actor.