Saturday, August 18, 2007

They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To

'The Actor's Studio' revolutionized and redefined the actor's craft. The instructors and coaches promulgated 'the method' that required actors to empathize intensely with their respective characters in order to play them. Some the most celebrated actors who swear by 'the method' are Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis. Method actors are known to have gone to great lengths to bring characters to the screen. For instance; Dustin Hoffman deprived himself of a night of sleep in order to appear convincing as a sleep deprived man running from the Nazis in 'Marathon Man'. Daniel Day Lewis is almost infamous for the extent to which the method is internalized in him. When he played Christy Brown, the Irish artist plagued by cerebral palsy, in 'My Left Foot'; he confined himself to a wheelchair all day, sitting in a contorted manner like those with cerebral palsy, and practiced painting with his left foot. Some of the crew members had to spoon-feed him, because he refused to leave his wheelchair. It is said that he didn't uncoil himself from his posture when one of Christy Brown's relatives came to meet him !

There was a time when 'the method' didn't exist. An entire generation of actors gave us stellar performances without its use. Lawrence Olivier is the most outstanding example. He played the Nazi in 'Marathon Man', opposite Dustin Hoffman, his craft indubitable. When Olivier came to know about Dustin Hoffman's sleep deprivation he only asked, 'Can't the boy just act ?'. Peter O'toole, the actor most blatantly insulted by the Academy of Arts and Motion Pictures, played T.E. Lawrence with the most incredible ease. David Lean, the director, said of O'toole, 'The boy is Lawrence'. O'toole had no use for the method. One must also mention Richard Burton, Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. Peter Sellers was almost chameleon-like. He slithered from being the intellectually challenged inspector in 'The Pink Panther' movies ,to the exaggerated Indian actor in 'The Party', to the alcoholic writer in 'Lolita'. I have lost count of the number of characters Sellers played in 'Doctor Strangelove or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'.

Present day actors and actresses use 'the method' as the default actors' manual. We have actresses, like Charlize Theron and Renee Zellweger, piling on pounds and turning themselves ugly to fit a character. But can any of them stand up to Elizabeth Taylor in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'. Who can forget the guile of Betty Davis and the torment of Garbo. Acting is fundamentally all about make believe. It treads that fine, almost invisible, line between imagination and reality. Little wonder then, that several method actors struggle to do equal justice to characters that are both real and fictitious. Dear actors where is thy craft? They don't make 'em like they used to.

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