Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler.
Meryl Streep is famous for her accents: here she is as a Polish woman in Sophie's Choice; there she is mimicking Julia Child's "distinctive patter"; now she's an Irishwoman, a Dane, a woman from the Bronx, an Australian, a Brit. We praise her for her verisimilitude—how accurately she adopts these voices—and she does it incredibly well. But it's less easy to say whether Streep displays any verisimilitude to an actual human being. What one can say for sure is that she is expert at representing humans in the manner we are accustomed to.
A friend of mine recently said about the art of acting, "Even when it's good it's bad." I laughed, but understood intuitively what he meant. The actors we consider "best"—like Streep or Daniel Day Lewis or, closer to home, Sarah Polley—imbue their art with subtlety; they do the smallest amount necessary to get the emotion of the character across. For performing in this way, we call them "good," while Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls is "bad." We say she is overacting, and understand her portrayal to be implausible, phoney—not how a person behaves. When we see a "good" actor, we call her that because we imagine she is accurately representing a human. But what this "good" actor more accurately represents is an era. She presents the psychology, cosmology, religion and politics of the day—and, in so doing, embodies what we understand the human to be.
Because we live in a time that places a great deal of importance on individuality, the "good" actor will create a character that resembles no other who came before. Think of Dustin Hoffman as Ratso in Midnight Cowboy. He squints, limps and talks in a whine—that sensitive, belligerent, poverty-stricken con-man. Is Ratso life-like? Who knows? When and if our culture begins valuing the ways in which people are alike, Ratso will seem mannered, and Hoffman's greatness—if he's still
considered great—will no longer be discussed in terms of his characters' idiosyncrasies. How humans currently portray other humans is an invention, just as three-point-perspective was an invention.
For nearly a century, most trained actors have studied (intentionally or just by osmosis) a system developed by Constanin Stanislavski, who was the director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavski's influence among actors is akin to what Raymond Carver's was to writers in the 1990s, or what David Foster Wallace's is now. Just as Carver and Wallace provided templates of what reality "really" looks like in American fiction, and are the authors Creative Writing students most frequently mimic (imitating art, not life), Stanislavski provided as compelling a template for actors.
He was most productive as an actor and director at the end of the nineteenth century, and his life span closely parallels that of
Sigmund Freud, who, by developing the hugely influential field of psychoanalysis, provided the lens through which we've been considering the human these past hundred years and more. Stanislavski was born in 1863, when Freud was seven, and died in 1938, one year before Freud. Like Freud, Stanislavski emphasized the importance of looking into one's own self. As an actor, Stanislavski drew upon former emotions and memories, and made them the basis of his characterizations; acting, he believed, was the imitation of feelings the actor had already experienced. As a director, he developed a system that was fundamentally psychological and thorough.
As in psychoanalysis, actors who use the Stanislavski technique only make progress by investigating their depths. It is by now a cliché for an actor to ask, "What am I feeling? What is my motivation?" But it wasn't always so, and it's hard to imagine actors in the original production of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus in 431 BC approaching acting (or that text) the same way. Marlon Brando is, famously, one of the earliest American practitioners of the Stanislavski technique, dubbed the Method once it hit North America. He was taught by Stella Adler, who, with Lee Strasbourg, opened the Actors Studio to spread the Stanislavski System in the United States.
Actors who studied at the Actors Studio—like Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman and Dennis Hopper—present us with a version of the human as a deeply individual, emotionally rooted being, with psychological depth, continuity of self, and a past that profoundly affects present behaviour and relationships—a human as Sigmund Freud and mainstream psychoanalysis would have us be. This is not how Marlene Dietrich played her roles, nor how Charlie Chaplin played his.
Today, though not all actors speak about Method acting, they almost all seem to do it. My friend's remark on the "badness" of good acting is actually a comment on the ever-more diluted Method, which every actor in Hollywood (and everywhere else) takes for granted as how to act. Watching Marlon Brando today, it's hard to sense the same electricity that his original audience felt; one gets it, but in a distant sort of way, like watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a different era, and to really experience what audiences felt watching Brando then, we need actors who are artists in our own time.
Over the past several decades, we have been moving out of the Freudian era. Most psychotherapy today is cognitive behavioural, not Freudian, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tells a different story about what the human is. CBT teaches that we have control over who we are; we are not determined by our past experiences to replay old traumas, but rather, through self-discipline and hard work, we can change our patterns of thinking and being. We don't need to delve into the past. Often, people who use cognitive behavioural techniques supplement their therapy with psychopharmaceuticals. We are now in an age in which to be a human means, in part, to be able to choose what sort of human one wants to be.
Are there any actors who express this new world, this new idea of the human? I can think of only one example: the "actors" in the video work of the artist Ryan Trecartin (who, significantly, comes out of the art world, not the world of Hollywood and business). Here is a sample script:
I-Be: Okay look. I wrote a letter to my future self.
Jamy: Just 'cause your original is having a complete human change meltdown makeover—
Cheeta: Just 'cause you're creative don't mean you have to memorize—
Jamy: Yeah poseur, play yourself a full side.
I-Be: It's called a clean slate, Jamy, Cheeta.
Cheeta: I-Be, I don't understand how this is supposed to represent a minimal situation. [Holding a piece of blank paper.] I-Be—
I-Be: —put it in a bottle. Thirty years from now, when I'm walking on the beach and a perfect wave comes and hits me in the face with my bottle, and I open this letter back up—I want to see nothing. [Wistfully] I want to look back on this like I'd just been born.
Jamy: Yeah, I see a face in it. (Looking at the paper.)
Cheeta: Thirty years from now when you're sitting on the beach, you're going to be looking at this dude's face.
The actors are decorated in surprising ways—painted faces, streaks of colour everywhere, costumes like you might create from a trash heap—and deliver their lines in a disjointed, weird way; there is no personality at the core. There is no sense that Cheeta or I-Be have what we consider an emotional history, or have lived days and years prior to the moment they are currently living on screen before us. They whine, scream and moan their lines. There is almost no connection between how one piece of dialogue is said and the next. Often they speak their lines while bashing things to the ground. They frequently seem angry, sometimes sad, always bitchy and bristly. They are cruel and oddly tender to themselves in certain moments—but rarely to each other. Watching them is tremendously exciting, and the viewer feels deeply liberated from the need to relate to her past, her feelings, her psychology.
Trecartin has said in interviews that he doesn't recognize "personality" as a fixed thing, or even think it has much bearing on his view of the world; people are who they are in the context of their environments, so a person might be one way in one room, and another way in another room. This is a far cry from the human in the psychological mode that Freud posited, or that Stanley Kowalski (Brando's famous portrayal in A Streetcar Named Desire) exemplifies. Stanley Kowalski is Stanley Kowalski, whether he's in an apartment or in the street, in Brooklyn or in Paris, alone or with others.
Of course, Method acting was devised to respond to the startling new texts of Anton Chekhov, Tennessee Williams and other major writers of the day. So contemporary writers have to lead the way, writing scripts (like Trecartin's) that demand a different style of playing; scripts that reflect what the human is now. But actors are not exempt, and have work to do, too.
The actors of the 1950s showed Americans going deeper into themselves, and, since art has always been an example of how to live, showed Americans how to go deeper into themselves. I wish actors today would realize that they are not beholden to imitate acting, but can choose to imitate what is most exciting about the time we're living in. All the factors around us today—instant communication, YouTube, Prozac, quantum physics—have an impact on what we understand the human to be.
I asked my friend who made that comment about acting—that even when it's good, it's bad—why he thought this was so. He said, "Because, at the top of the form, it's nothing but a kind of high mimicry, obviously a very inferior art to the other creative ones." He's right, but that "high mimicry" doesn't have to be the only way for actors to proceed. That is what acting has been, but we are no longer in 1950, and actors need not only act in the way their predecessors did. "Bad even when good" is a phrase you'd apply to any art that has outlived its vitality. Certainly when Brando first spoke on a screen, he was an artist. Actors can be artists, but actors who imitate actors will only remain actors.
For us to be other than how we are, we have to see, in art, the far reaches of how we can be. Let the actors cut ties with the Method and its psychological understanding of the self, and show us how electric we are; let them do the real, hard creative work of divining—if not a collection of neuroses, a history, a personality—what a human is.
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