I am presently enjoying the mini-series "John Adams" from HBO. Paul Giamatti plays Mr. Adams, and Laura Linney his wife, Abigail. It's a superb series-- I recommend it. It's marred, in my mind, by only one thing: Paul Giamatti's bizarre performance.
Once upon time, actors learned techniques, for voice and gesture, intonation and rhythm, and how to evoke character. This worked very well on the stage, where a large number of people had to not only see you, but hear you. In the movies, however, the excessive embrace of technique sometimes led to ridiculous results--look at "Dr. Zhivago", for example. The "drama"-- especially during scenes that were supposed to be extremely emotional-- is, by today's standards, stiff and constrained. Clearly, the actors are applying technique, not instinct, to their performance. Watch Marlene Dietrich in "Witness for the Prosecution". It's hard to believe this performance got past the director and into the final cut. They make the formal gestures, but you can see that there is no intensity or spontaneity in their faces-- as there would be in real life. It's like those stage kisses still often used-- the illusion is temporarily shattered.
Along came "the method", popularized by Lee Strasburg at the Actor's Studio in New York in the 1930's, and, later . Strasberg, in turn, picked up the idea from Konstantin Stanislavski, the great Russian actor. In the words of wiki: In Stanislavski's 'system' the actor analyzes deeply the motivations and emotions of the character in order to personify him or her with psychological realism and emotional authenticity. Using the Method, an actor recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed.
Now, I personally can't remember which is "sense" memory and which is "emotional" memory and what the Meisner technique is, but suffice to say they are all variations on the idea that one should mumble one's lines so that nobody in the audience can understand what you say and, therefore, will conclude that you are incredibly deep.
This is not all bad. Some of the most compelling performances of the past 30 years have come from method actors. And some of the worst.
The problem is this: Marlon Brando was a method actor. Marlon Brando used the method to arrive at a character, in the movie "On the Waterfront", who happened to be inarticulate and shy. Brando mumbled. Brando received widespread acclaim and a new era of realism was heralded in. Therefore, great acting consists of mumbling.
So we have Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and-- worst of all of them-- Ryan Gosling. All mumbling and whispering and looking painfully introverted as they do their best imitation of what they think made Brando successful: mumble. It's as if an athlete came to the conclusion that the way to train for a race was to practice ascending the podium. [2011-03: Just saw Ryan Gosling in "Blue Valentine". No actor of his generation is less fun to watch than he is. I'm not saying he can't act-- it just isn't fun to watch.]
Even when your character is in a large room full of people to whom he is trying to speak: mumble softly. Even when the character you are speaking to is talking normally because otherwise you couldn't hear him. Mumble anyway-- he'll know what you said because he has a script.
So we have the spectacle of Paul Giamatti-- who is not a bad actor, by the way-- whispering to his fellow revolutionaries-- and being close-miked in order to be audible. You can actually hear them change over to different miking when he speaks. Why? What has possessed the man to such ridiculous lengths? To make his character more "real" he makes him utterly implausible and, at times, ridiculous. It hurts every scene he's in... except, when he and his wife are in bed together-- the only time his vocal mannerisms make sense.
There are obvious reasons for an actor's preference for "the Method", especially for actors who are more talented-- at least, more ambitious-- than average: the method relies on the actor ransacking his own memories and emotions to evoke the character's actions and expressions. When an actor takes his "art" seriously, it helps to be able to explain that he or she has tapped into some incredibly deep emotional experiences in order to portray the character required. He's deep; I'm deep; we're all deep. You like me? You really like me?
I actually don't mind the method, when sensibly applied. If you watch enough Leslie Howard and Richard Burton, you might start longing for "the Method".
But you don't see Phillip Seymour Hoffman whispering when his character is speaking to a large gathering. The Method has its limits.
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