Method or Madness?

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Sam Prance

Method acting. A technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part.

For years critics have debated over method acting. Is it some wacky idea that a theatre practitioner came up with for ‘lols’ or is it in fact a viable way for actors to create a very real interpretation of a character?

Well – ever since the unexpected death of Heath Ledger, method acting has garnered rather sinister undertones. It is widely known that to prepare for his role as “The Joker” in the Batman film The Dark Knight, Ledger locked himself up in an apartment for a month, presumably aiming to create the madness of “The Joker” naturally within himself. A dark method by any means. Soon after filming The Dark Knight Ledger was found dead in his apartment – he’d taken a drug overdose. Whilst this could have been, as a result of his own personal problems, it is likely that the psychological issues he had created for his character in The Dark Knight, had effected his own personal psyche.

Interestingly, following his death, Ledger was praised for his flawless portrayal of “The Joker, even winning an Oscar for the role, suggesting that his use of ‘method acting’ wasn’t pointless. However. this does beg the question as to whether actors really ought to be putting themselves at risk for our own entertainment? Does their commitment to understanding a role in depth enhance our cinematic experience or is it pointless?

Method acting can be practiced on different levels and in varying degrees. Method acting such as that of Adrien Brody spending hours off set learning how to play the piano for his role in The Pianist is no bad thing. Similarly that of Robert De Niro earning a taxi license for his role in the Taxi Driver is equally harmless. In these cases actors are essentially just learning new life skills in their quest to provide their audience with an authentic cinematic experience and, as Box Office figures and critics dictate, the results pay off.

So with regards to Brody and De Niro – method acting can seem pretty harmless. However, when an actor embarks on a project to try to physically and physiologically embody a character, this is when it all seems to become a little absurd.

Take Christian Bale for example. He lost 221 pounds for his role in The Machinist and was left only eating a can of tuna and an apple a day during filming. Vivien Leigh took her character preparation in Street Car to a whole new level when she practically prostituted herself for the role. And finally, Daniel Day-Lewis really pushed boundaries when rehearsing for My Left Foot; he stayed in a wheelchair for the entire time they were shooting and apparently found it difficult to adjust back to real life afterwards. The director’s daughter commented “You’d be feeding him, wheeling him around. During the entire film, I only saw him walking once.”

With these actors going to such incredible lengths to impersonate someone else it does cause us to question whether they are really going too far for their art and our entertainment. In the extreme cases of Ledger and Day-Lewis, I would say yes. These two actors did win Oscars for their roles but it does not take away from the fact that they put themselves in danger in doing so. If we compare that to Brody, who also won an Oscar for his role in The Pianist, we could argue that just playing the piano for four hours a day will suffice for method acting. Method acting is an interesting way for an actor to prepare for a role but with most pros there come cons, and with regards to this form of acting, this should be remembered and taken with caution.

Emily Soar

Emily Soar studies Spanish & Italian at Edinburgh University. She would like to prance through life but she can’t. We find this incredibly disheartening although we can understand why. You see Emily is blessed with an equally great surname: Soar. And, as a result, she soars through life – which, we can all agree, is pretty cool.

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