In 1923, the 22-year-old Lee Strasberg saw a performance by Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater in New York. It was a revelation. With mind comprehensively blown, he gave up his job at a Lower East Side wig-makers and turned his full attention to the theater.
Dubbed the father of American method acting, Strasberg was not alone in promoting the technique, a development of the Stanislavsky system in which actors strive for immersive emotional connection to a role, but it’s his name that is most closely associated with it.
It’s generally thought that the Method was born at the New York Actors Studio, which Strasberg founded in 1947 with Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford, but in fact it had its roots in the earlier Group Theater, created in New York in 1931 by Strasberg, Crawford and Harold Clurman, and hailed by many as America’s first true theatrical collective. Still, it was behind the firmly closed doors of the Actors Studio that the Method, and Strasberg himself, came into full bloom. A list of students who flourished there during Strasberg’s tenure reads like a Who’s-Who of contemporary acting talent – Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, Sidney Poitier, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn, Eli Wallach, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Dean and, of course, Marlon Brando, “the hot, sleek engine on the Actors Studio express,” according to movie historian Sam Staggs.
With a roll-call like that, incomplete though it is, it’s not hard to appreciate the seismic effect that method acting had on American theater and film. In movie terms, Brando’s groundbreaking performances in 1951’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and 1954’s ON THE WATERFRONT – both very different films and very different characters – are often cited as the death knell of the old world and the birth of the new. But if you’re looking for a more succinct illustration of how the Method reinvented the art of screen acting, take a look at 1956’s GIANT. Based on a 1952 novel by Edna Ferber, and directed by the reliable George Stevens, GIANT was an unabashed widescreen epic designed to showcase the talents of its two principal stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, both of whom were, at the time, riding the peak of their careers. The film begins with wealthy cattleman Hudson falling for East Coast socialite Taylor and bringing her home to the family ranch in Texas. It’s all fine and comfortably of its time, with good chemistry between the leads and gorgeous Technicolor vistas – and then James Dean shows up as bad-boy cowhand Jett Rink. It’s as if he’s been teleported in from another dimension. The way he utterly inhabits the character is in such contrast to Hudson and Taylor, neither of whom were exactly hams, it’s literally shocking. Suddenly, everything about the movie except Dean becomes creaky, overblown and irredeemably dated; think Elvis crashing an Ink Spots gig.
Much of Dean’s impact was powered by his enigmatic charisma, already established in EAST OF EDEN (1955), and fully exploited in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), but it was the Method, and Lee Strasberg’s teaching, that enabled him to harness it and channel it to such explosive effect.
Strasberg was born Israel Strassberg in the village of Budzanów in Austrian Poland (now Budaniv, Ukraine) in November 1901. At the age of eight, he emigrated with his mother to New York, where he joined his father and two elder siblings (a brother and a sister) who had settled there some time earlier. Withdrawn and bookish, he was devastated when his beloved older brother Zalmon fell victim to the 1918 flu epidemic. Zalmon had been his closest friend and confidante, and his death set the seventeen-year-old Strasberg adrift. He dropped out of school, despite his record as a straight-A student, and retreated further into himself and his books. A concerned relative, sensing a dangerous downward spiral, introduced him to the theater by giving him a small part in a Yiddish-language play produced by a local drama club. It had the desired effect. Strasberg took to acting immediately and showed early promise. After several years with various New York drama clubs, he enrolled at the Clare Tree Major School of Theater where he studied and performed for a year. And then came his encounter with Stanislavsky. When actors Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya from the Moscow Art Theater opened The American Laboratory Theatre in New York in 1923, Strasberg was first in line to enroll, putting the wig business behind him forever.
It was at the Laboratory – which, as its name suggests, took a radically experimental approach – that Strasberg was fully introduced to the Stanislavsky System and began his own investigation of the actors’ craft. Although he became a fine actor, Strasberg had no illusions about his future on the stage or the screen; physically, he was hardly the stuff of leading men. Instead, he became fascinated with the process of acting, with creating character from more than the traditionally accepted elements. “What Strasberg took away from the Actors Lab was a belief that just as an actor could be prepared physically for his work with dance, movement, and fencing,” wrote Richard Schickel in his biography of Elia Kazan, “he could be mentally prepared by resort to analogous mental exercises. They worked on relaxation as well as concentration. They worked with nonexistent objects that helped prepare them for the exploration of equally ephemeral emotions. They learned to use “affective memory,” as Strasberg called the most controversial aspect of his teaching — summoning emotions from their own lives to illuminate their stage roles.” Strasberg himself summed it up: “Method Acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well. But The Method – it’s how you get there.”
Strasberg earned a reputation as a director at the Theater Guild of New York, but began to concentrate on teaching after the formation of the Group Theater and, especially, the Actors Studio, of which he assumed artistic control in 1951. He could be a hard taskmaster, and the Studio was not for the faint-hearted or the dilettante. Total commitment was not merely expected, it was demanded. “At the studio, we do not sit around and feed each other’s egos,” wrote Strasberg in the 1950s. “People are shocked how severe we are on each other.” A committed non-profit organization, it set the highest imaginable standards for admittance. Of the thousand or more hopefuls who auditioned each year, typically only a handful were accepted. Aspiration was not enough. You needed innate talent and often dogged perseverance too. Jack Nicholson auditioned five times before being accepted; Dustin Hoffman six times; and Harvey Keitel no less than eleven times. Rejected candidates had to wait up to a year before trying again. In 1955, over 2000 candidates auditioned for a place. Only Martin Landau and Steve McQueen were accepted.
The Studio was a collaborative effort, and credit for its success or its extraordinary roster of alumni should not be given to Strasberg alone. Stella Adler and Elia Kazan made equal contributions. Marlon Brando was primarily taught by Adler, and always claimed, much to Al Pacino’s chagrin, that he learned nothing from Strasberg. But the tributes paid to Strasberg over the yeas speak for themselves. “I went to the Actors Studio and Lee Strasberg told me I had talent. Real talent,” recalled Jane Fonda. “It was the first time that anyone, except my father — who had to say so — told me I was good. At anything. It was a turning point in my life. I went to bed thinking about acting. I woke up thinking about acting. It was like the roof had come off my life!” Marilyn Monroe was so grateful for Strasberg’s mentorship she left him the bulk of her estate in her will, including the licensing rights to her image.
In 1970, after helping to establish the Actors Studio West in Los Angeles, Strasberg began to distance himself from the Studio and founded the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, an acting school with branches in New York and Hollywood. His teaching style and philosophy remained unchanged, going on to benefit successive generations of aspiring talent. The school is now under the artistic directorship of its co-founder Anna Strasberg, Lee’s widow. Among its long list of graduates are Karen Allen, Steve Buscemi, Rosario Dawson, Miles Teller, Alec Baldwin, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Brandon Lee, Rachel Brosnahan, and Lady Gaga. Again, a representative but by no means exhaustive selection.
The Method, as developed by Strasberg, Adler and Sanford Meisner, was not a hit with everyone. Alfred Hitchcock described working with Montgomery Clift on I CONFESS (1953) and Paul Newman in TORN CURTAIN (1966) as “difficult” (an understatement if ever there was one), and Charles Laughton argued that “Method actors give you a photograph. Real actors give you an oil painting.” Silent star Lilian Gish was even more dismissive. “It’s ridiculous,” she once said. “How would you portray death if you had to experience it first.” Famously, when Dustin Hoffman showed up on the set of 1976’s MARATHON MAN, unshaven, stinking and sleep-deprived to match the state of his character, his co-star Laurence Olivier quipped, “My dear boy. Why don’t you try acting. It’s so much easier.” Olivier had lost all patience with the Method while working with Marilyn Monroe on 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl.
Lately, method acting has come in for sever criticism from some quarters thanks to the extreme, even dangerous lengths certain actors will go to in order to fully ‘inhabit’ a character. “The openly theatrical style of performers like Frank Sinatra was tossed in a dumpster on Broadway,” writes Nathan Kamal on Cracked.com, “and replaced by Brando’s grit and slurring intensity. Then the 1980s rolled around, cocaine got good, and actors decided they really wanted to do some crazy shit.”
In 1974, perhaps to silence the critics by practicing what he’d been preaching for the best part of four decades, Strasberg agreed to make his major screen debut playing ailing crime czar Hyman Roth in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974). If there were any qualms about the mechanism being rusty – he hadn’t acted since a small role in forgotten war flick CHINA VENTURE in 1953 – or that his former pupils Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino might upstage the master, he put them to rest magnificently. “[H]is portrayal blends so many elements, from ordinariness to suggested evil,” wrote the New York Times’ John Barthel in February 1975, “that the wisest critics have declined to dissect it, relying, instead, on a catalogue of adjectives, from “beguiling” to “marvelous” to, simply, “perfect.” In his book “The Fervent Years,” the history of the Group Theater in the 1930’s, Harold Clurman described Lee Strasberg then: “The effect he produces is of a classic hush, tense and tragic, a constant conflict so held in check that a kind of beautiful spareness results.” Now, 40 years later, that classic hush can be felt on screen, and even reviewers who didn’t like the movie liked Strasberg; Vincent Canby called his ‘The dominant performance of the picture.’” It was certainly enough to earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Strasberg didn’t win, but was probably consoled by the fact that one of his protegees did. De Niro picked up the award for his portrayal of the young Vito Corleone in the same film.