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The Arrival of Method Acting in US Film & TV

by Jeremy Butler

Method acting initially came to the attention of the U.S. public at about the same time that television enjoyed its first growth spurt: the late 1940s and early 1950s. At that time, director Elia Kazan brought Marlon Brando to the stage and then to the screen in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which was followed by On the Waterfront (1954). Brando was the most visible of several distinctive new actors who were advocating the Method. He, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, and others had been trained by Method teachers such as Lee Strasberg (at the Actors Studio) and Stella Adler (Brando’s principal teacher). However, the Method was being taught in the live theater long before this crop of actors made their impact on U.S. cinema. The technique originated in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, when Constantin Stanislavski founded the Moscow Art Theater in 1897. Stanislavski disdained any acting other than that of the live theater. He barely tolerated film actors and died in 1938 before television became a mass medium. Still, the impact of the Stanislavski system on television has been immeasurable. 

The Method made a remarkably early incursion into television performance. The musical variety programs, Westerns, sitcoms, and soap operas—and, moreover, the bulk of 1950s television—had little to do with the Method, but 1950s television also hosted the so-called golden age of live television drama. Stage-trained actors and theatrical productions were imported into television to be broadcast live on programs such as Playhouse 90 (1956–61) and Philco Television Playhouse (1948–55). The latter was initially sponsored by the Actors’ Equity Association (the principal theatrical actors union in the US) and dealt directly with Method-influenced performers. One such actor was Rod Steiger, who trained alongside Brando at the Actors Studio and brought the Method to the title role of Marty—broadcast live on Philco Television Playhouse May 24, 1953. In some respects, the 1950s live television dramas more closely resembled theatrical presentations than did the cinema of that time. In both theater and live television, each scene was played straight through, not broken apart and then edited together as it would be in a film production. And 1950s television drama was also shot on an indoor sound stage— equivalent to the theatrical stage—rather than the location work that was becoming popular in film at that time. In many respects, 1950s actors must have felt more comfortable in a television studio production than on a movie set. As suggested above, however, Playhouse 90 and the like were not typical of programs on the infant medium, and Method acting was definitely the exception rather than the rule. Since that time, though, Method acting has found a home on television in dramatic programs such as Hill Street Blues (1981–87) and Law & Order (1990–2010) and, in diluted form, many others. Vincent D’Onofrio, Detective Robert Goren on Law & Order, is one example of a television performer who studied the Method at the Actors Studio. 

In theory, emotional and sense memories may be used to access a broad range of emotions, both negative and positive. The history of Method performances in television and film, however, has been heavily weighted toward darker emotions, anxieties, and quirky neuroses. It is no small coincidence that the Method was popularized at roughly the same time as Freudian psychology—psychoanalysis—became part of everyday language. Just as in Freud, the Method presumes that negative emotions are somehow more authentic than positive ones; that sorrow, depression, and doubt are more realistic than joy, elation, and self-confidence. This, however, is a dubious assumption, because positive emotions appear in reality also; they are thus no less real. Nonetheless, the Method’s emphasis on emotional discord is a large part of the reason it has not been used much outside of television drama. These sorts of emotions find little expression in sitcoms and the like. Aside from the emphasis on gloom and melancholy, Method performances historically also have been marked by a specific use of per formance signs. In the 1950s, the vocal performance of Brando, Dean, Clift, et al., was often remarked upon. In comparison to contemporary acting norms, they used odd speech rhythms (offbeat, faltering); over lapped dialogue; and slurred or mumbled their lines. Their movements were similarly offbeat and quirky, when compared to the norm of the time. 

Thus, Method acting was initially described as a technique that actors used to create a performance, but it has also developed its own conventions, its own code of performance. It has come to rely on the creation of negative emotions and has been marked by odd performance signs.


The Method in TV: Marty

Rod Steiger exemplifies Method acting in Marty.

from Marty (1953)
Creator: Paddy Chayefsky
Posted by Jeremy Butler