For Better or For Worse: How Acting Has Evolved Since the 1930s

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How Method acting changed the Stars

By Tynan Yanaga

I. 1930s-40s: Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda

“I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth.” ~ James Garner

From the dawn of the moving picture there has always been acting. People moving in front of the camera representing what it is to be human. There have been movie stars ranging from Mary Pickford to Philip Seymour Hoffman, the ones who bring acting to the masses and make us feel something.

After the advent of talking pictures in 1927, modern acting truly took off in the 1930s and 40s. Hollywood’s studio system churned out movies and made actors into icons. Gary Cooper was the quiet All-American (Sergeant York), Cary Grant was the quintessential bachelor (The Philadelphia Story), Spencer Tracy had candid looks (Boy’s Town), and Henry Fonda was the plain-speaking everyman (The Grapes of Wrath). Each one had his trademark that they did not deviate from. They stuck to their prototype and it made them highly successful.

“Compare Brando with several of his noted predecessors, such as Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum," says Richard Brody in an article for The New Yorker, "who seem not to become the roles they play but to turn the characters into versions of themselves. Their roles aren’t put-ons, but they do put them on: they don their roles like costumes while continuing, manifestly and even brazenly, to be—themselves.” 

It’s not that they never played against type (Grant and Fonda are case and point), but in some way they always seemed to retain who they were. There was never weight loss, special diets, or elaborate make-up jobs. There was rarely even a foreign accent.

The result was that stars were often hard to separate from their on-screen identities. In the words of Cary Grant, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” 

It is, in a way, more risky as an actor to be yourself rather than to take on a far different role, because the whole world sees who you really are. With that comes vulnerability, along with a big payoff if you get it right. To this day, fans are devoted to these early Hollywood stars for just this reason. They feel like they knew the men themselves.


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II. 1950s: Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman

“[Brando] was the bridge between the heroic screen purity of earlier stars such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and a generation of gritty, conflicted anti-heroes played by the likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.” ~ Associated Press on Marlon Brando

In the 1950s a strange thing began to happen thanks in part to acting gurus like Konstantin Stanislavski,  Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler. From these origins “The Method” style of acting found its roots and slowly made its way from the stage onto the sets of Hollywood. And there was no figure more integral to this emotionally moody acting revolution than a young man named Marlon Brando, who worked under the tutelage of Adler. He led the charge with this new style of acting that captured the angst and rebellion that defined a post-war generation (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild Ones, On the Waterfront).

“What set Brando apart was the way that technique unleashed his inner conflict," said one eulogizer after his death in 2004, "The same qualities that made Brando a world-class actor also made him, by some accounts, a world-class pain. The method seemed to harness his anger, warmth, insecurity, charm, cruelty and weakness -- separating those traits from the eccentric streak that would define him later in life.” 

If Brando was the tip of the spear, there were several other men who followed hot on his heels -- the first being James Dean. Most people know that Dean’s life was cut tragically short at the age of 23 and that he made only three films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant). What was it that made him such an electrifying screen presence? Dean studied some drama at UCLA, but it was his time at The Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg which seem to be truly formative.  Co-founder of the studio and director Elia Kazan spoke of Dean in this way:

“Everything this kid does should be delightfully anarchistic, odd, original, imaginative, eccentric, full of longing, and with sudden mood alterations. He is the unexpected personified. He goes directly to the heart of the matter.”

John Steinbeck famously disliked Dean, but told Kazan that he was perfect for the part of Cal in East of Eden for these exact reasons. Much like Brando, he had a moodiness and emotions that were always being drawn upon, ready to be unleashed at any given moment when you least expected it. He was a rallying figure for younger generations, capable of stealing scenes with his improvising or remain content in his brooding. There was no one quite like him.

One of the forerunners who is often criminally forgotten is Montgomery or “Monty” Clift, who had an important impact on this new wave of actors in his own right. An argument was made in The Telegraph that he was in fact better than Brando and more tragic than Dean:

“There’s a toughness about his work that the other two lack – even Brando, with his heft and animal magnetism, could appear to be conducting an internal conversation about acting technique with himself. These days, Dean’s acting can look flighty and neurotic. But Clift genuinely projected: he portrayed loners, defying convention and resisting the mainstream; he was at his best playing principled idealists whose will could not be bent.”

In films like A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) he portrayed characters who rivaled Brando and Dean in both tragedy and intensity. It should be noted that Clift struggled with alcoholism and he similar to Dean died young at 45. David Gritten of The Telegraph further conveys that, “Clift preferred to portray different characters convincingly, rather than seek variations of himself.” This point is potentially important because it suggests that Clift was one of the harbingers of things to come in the 1970s and beyond.  

The final prominent member of this era was Paul Newman, who had a very different legacy than his three other contemporaries. He too perfected his craft under Lee Strasberg and after James Dean’s death he got many of the roles that would have gone to the other actor. Yet the argument was made that he did not portray the angst and generational conflict as convincingly. The Independent suggested the following:

“It was hardly Newman's fault that he so closely resembled Dean and Brando. He had been taught by the same teachers. If he wasn't a natural screen rebel, he soon learned how to be a very convincing one. The detachment and air of opportunism served him well in films like Sweet Bird of Youth, where he played a gigolo returning to his hometown, as the unscrupulous womaniser in Hud, or as Fast Eddie in The Hustler. Newman's trick was to take narcissistic and often cynical characters and to give them just a hint of vulnerability.”

Newman broke with Dean and Clift in that his career lasted 50 more years, well into the 2000s. He surpassed Brando using his charm and winning smile to continually endear himself to the masses (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), while Brando was losing popularity and gaining weight in his later years. So in a sense Paul Newman transcended these generations proving that they are not hard and fast categories because some actors are timeless no matter what generation they fall in.

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III. 1970s-80s: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman

“My dear boy, why don't you try acting?” ~ Laurence Olivier to Dustin Hoffman, on the set of Marathon Man

For much of the 1970s and 80s the New Hollywood landscape was dominated by directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Arthur Penn. It was a generation further defined by Robert De Niro in roles as loner Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. De Niro got his acting training in under Stella Adler while also spending some time at The Actors Studio. So it was from the same background as Marlon Brando that Robert De Niro came from, making it rather ironic that he played the younger Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. De Niro would become the model of later generations for his full commitment to his craft. For example, he lost weight for Taxi Driver, gained over 40 pounds for just the latter half of Raging Bull and he had his dentist purposefully ruin his teeth for his villainous turn in Cape Fear. Now that's commitment.

Arguably one of his greatest rivals, also hailing from New York, was Al Pacino who got his break in the same The Godfather films. 

“As Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, the movie that really made him, you could barely hear his voice," says The Guardian, "Pacino, so young and grave, did the 'Method' - he didn't act so much as inhabit his characters. He expressed himself in the tiniest gestures. He showed ambiguity with consummate economy, saying one thing with his voice and something completely different with his eyes.”

Both De Niro and Pacino portray characters prone to violence that is so often explosive and personally destructive. What set Pacino apart is the contrast between his demeanor and his action. De Niro is often more formidable as a tough guy, while Pacino can be just as imposing thanks to his black hole eyes. They are full of ice cold emotion that allow him to shift between the status quo and corruption in an instant.  

Jack Nicholson is often remembered for being a constant presence courtside at Laker games. However, he is also one of the big name actors of the 1970s and of all time with 3 Oscars to his name. In an interview with Esquire Jack talked about how he is still not considered by some to be a Method actor and yet he considers himself a real student of it, using the techniques in his acting. It fits when you look at roles like Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and even The Joker where he brims with psychotic tendencies and cruel humor. He has a different approach than De Niro and Pacino, but he represents the same anti-establishment stance that came out of the New Hollywood movement.

The opening quote by Sir Laurence Olivier was famously directed towards Dustin Hoffman, because the younger actor went three days without sleep in order to become the character he was playing in Marathon Man (1976). It illustrates the clash between Old and New Hollywood ideals. Olivier came from the tradition of classical acting in England and before Brando he was considered the best with over 10 Oscar nominations. By the 1970s Hoffman had made a name for himself in memorable dramas like The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969).

He lacked the looks, voice or presence of Olivier and yet he too had become a respected actor. This probably would never have happened in The Golden Age of Hollywood, but in the 1970s his style of “acting,” which was laughable to older veterans, brought life to many memorable characters. He had the grittiness and the inner conflict that reflected the new age of Vietnam and social unrest. So as Olivier and others began to age gracefully, Hoffman and his contemporaries kept holding onto their intensity. They were an indication of things to come.

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IV. Modern Era: Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger

“Now, in the post-Method age, actors seem expected to inflate or stretch or shrink or compress themselves to fit the character.” ~  Richard Brody in The New Yorker

Meryl Streep might disagree with me, but it seems like every year she is taking on a new role, a new persona, in which I lose her inside of a part. To her credit she is quite convincing and she does not have an astounding 19 Oscar nominations for nothing. My question is this. Is Meryl Streep more realistic or inspired than one of her earlier counterparts? Does her miraculous morphing into Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher make her a superior actor?

In the modern age  there are many actors who refuse to break character and attempt to immerse themselves in a role like Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Jake Gyllenhaal and even the late Heath Ledger. They are the heirs of the De Niro and Pacino era. Their approach to the acting craft makes them prone to angry outbursts (Exhibit A: Christian Bale on the Terminator: Salvation set), however they also produce some dynamic work bursting with passion and channeling artistic inspiration.There are obvious pros and cons. Have they gone too far or is it simply part of the creative process to get as realistic as possible?  Again, is their type of acting superior or just different from the classic stars of yesteryear?

Christian Bale may now be known for box offices smashes like The Dark Knight Trilogy, but there is no doubt he maintains the method of his predecessors. The most glaring example is his role in The Machinist (2004) where he shed a whole lot of body weight, living off solely coffee, cigarettes and apples. Even more recently in American Hustle (2013) he added a belly, a new comb-over and a Boston accent. In Bale you can also see some of the angst and the brooding fury of earlier generations.

In the modern era no actor has received quite the acclaim of Daniel Day-Lewis who has transformed himself from Oil Tycoon Daniel Plainview to our 16th president Abraham Lincoln -- two men on the complete opposite spectrums of humanity. For both roles he received Oscars. After picking up the 3rd statuette The Independent did their own analysis of Day-Lewis:- 

“To call Daniel Day-Lewis a method actor is to understate the case...Stars tend to be defined by their immutability. John Wayne was always John Wayne. Cary Grant described the secret of star acting as becoming ‘as familiar in people’s lives as their favourite brand of tea or coffee.’ Day-Lewis, though, makes hardly any films and rarely repeats himself. When he does appear on screen, it’s always bound to be in a radical new guise.”

Jake Gyllenhaal is sometimes forgotten, but he still is a worthy addition, made evident by his most recent performance as Leo Bloom in Nightcrawler (2014). He augmented his creepy portrayal as the crime photographer with a gaunt figure and leaned out face that felt strangely unnerving. At times it was hard to remember that this was the same man who starred in Zodiac (2007) and Source Code (2011). He was just so weird in a oddly captivating way.

For his part Heath Ledger will forever have his legacy solidified for his tour de force as The Joker. After his death and subsequent Oscar nomination the parallels with James Dean became even more prominent. What Ledger did though was arguably even more involved than Dean. He supposedly spent a month alone in a hotel and much like Daniel Day-Lewis he would not break character on set during filming. He was fully invested in the role of this villainous figure and it paid heavy dividends at least on the award circuit.


Acting has progressed just as film has progressed, but the question is, has it gotten better, worse or is it just different? I attempted to look at the evidence and give a basic case study of how acting has evolved by highlighting four actors from four different eras. The 1930s and 40s was the age of the Hollywood studio Star who used their iconic personas to win audiences over with their plain, everyday authenticity and charm. The 1950s saw the advent of younger actors who went through more training, funnelling their emotions into some of film’s most iconic roles of all time.  The following decades gave the opportunity for a wave of anti-stars to come to the forefront. They pushed the trade further than anyone else before and we can see this trend being continued even right now. Actors are devoted to their profession. They are devoted to their roles,  going through physical regiments and training to get everything just right. 

So whether you’re a Classic Hollywood purist or all about the method or partial to the modern method, there is no doubt that acting come in all shapes and sizes. With all those varying approaches there are also, conveniently, numerous conflicting viewpoints. Some are in favor of the old ways while others are content with the direction acting is taking. That’s for every person to decide on their own.  I’m open to both, I just hope that acting does not go the way of CGI where technology completely removes the human element from the screen entirely.

For now I think it can still be said that actors share one common goal--to reflect a little piece of humanity that audiences can take away with them. That’s what acting is after all, taking a character and injecting him or her with a little bit of who they are. The degree at which actors don a part may have increased, but I think at the end of the day all great actors do one thing well. They place a magnifying glass to reality.