Film Studies: The Method man takes his final bow

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The Independent Culture

The day after Elia Kazan died, I got into an argument as to why he might be remembered. A friend said, put all the films and plays aside, it was Kazan's 1952 decision to name former Communist associates to the House Un-American Activities Committee that would mark him forever. Others had been friendly witnesses, but Kazan was the most distinguished traitor: his was the biggest career saved by squealing. Well, it may prove to be so.

Then I made up a list: James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Ann Revere and Celeste Holm in Gentleman's Agreement; Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters in Pinky; Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire; Brando and Anthony Quinn in Viva Zapata!; Brando, Lee J Cobb, Malden, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront; James Dean and Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden; Carroll Baker and Mildred Dunnock in Baby Doll; Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass.

That's 24 nominations in a little over a decade - with nine victories. All in films directed by Kazan.

Oscars aren't everything: the nomination to Peck was generous, but then I'd have to remind the jury that Julie Harris in East of Eden and Lee Remick in Wild River didn't even get nominated. I will also add that Ernest Borgnine in Marty won out over Dean in East of Eden.

These are games, if you like, and just a prelude to suggesting that Kazan deserves to be remembered because he defined acting as an American art. It's not always remembered how much the tradition of English acting - polite indicating - prevailed in American films before the Second World War. Kazan, who had been raised as an actor himself, with the Group Theater in the Thirties, loathed the affectation, the clear articulation, the graceful movements accepted as fine acting. He argued that no one in life behaved like that. That people were untidy, awkward, inarticulate, because their feelings were muddled. He wanted to see that kind of naturalism on stage and screen.

Of course, he was brilliantly skilled at what he wanted. Kazan liked to rehearse the script, but with improvisations that took off from it. He wanted actors to sense the larger life of their characters. To that end, he hung out with them, he became like a brother to the guys and he sometimes had affairs with the women. But he came to know them intimately, and then at crucial moments in a work he would whisper to the actor, "You know, this is like you and your father", or whatever.

That may sound cold-blooded or calculating, but actors found Kazan irresistible. In great part, that's why the Actors Studio (which Kazan helped found in 1947) became such an influence on American acting. It wasn't simply the legend that that's where Brando and Dean had begun, or even the possibility that Marilyn Monroe would be there (Kazan had had an affair with her), or the later pre-eminence of Lee Strasberg as the director of the Studio. It was the aura of Kazan, not just the best actors' director in America, but someone who believed in raw talent missed by others.

The Actors Studio is still there, of course, and the tradition of the Method (a way of acting derived from Russian teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky) is palpable in the work of people like Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman - many of whom never actually worked with Kazan. But for nearly every young actor in America to this day the example set by Kazan and Brando is still the mainstream of acting.

It's not only America, of course. That indicating style has gone out of fashion in Britain, too. Naturalism reigns. And sometimes, begins to feel stale? If only in the drab mannerisms of De Niro and Pacino? It's not a contradiction, I hope, to praise Kazan for all he did for acting, and yet wonder whether it isn't time to move on again. I want no return to "indicating", but sometimes I yearn for the clean, startling wit of pretending - of actors doing something wildly unexpected, not so much psychologically true as a sign of how far acting itself has become a part of human nature. I see it sometimes, in John Malkovich, in Jude Law, in Kevin Spacey. But actors need material, and the greatest impact of the Method may have been to turn psychology itself into a cliché.

I think that real people are no longer always true to themselves. They play with acting - it's something that movies have taught them. And new writers and new actors need to grasp this new rhythm, instead of just doing Brando and Kazan for the rest of time.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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