The Method Is Madness

Olivier and Hoffman

I write this (the first draft, anyway) at 11:45 am, Monday morning, August 5. There will be approximately 4 more working hours in the day. About 6,060 minutes stand between me and the end of the work day on Friday. Now 6,059.  Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a “clock-watcher,” someone who simply gets to work and runs out the clock until the end of the day.  I’m all about the work.  Still 6,059.

To those people who are dedicated to their craft, who are willing to spend as many hours as necessary to chase some unattainable perfection, I salute you…to an extent. My legal practice helps keep my kids fed and their rooms filled with stuffed animals, it keeps my house out of foreclosure, it supports my wife’s efforts while affording the occasional birthday/anniversary/random present, and it keeps my dresser covered with novels and comic books.  My law practice helps bring me HBO, and I am grateful.  For those things, I love it, but I’m not in love with it.  

SandmanWhat is partially covering my dresser now.

I am not a “method lawyer,” and nowhere is the zeal for career perfection more in evidence than in the craft of certain actors.  In the 30’s, Lee Strasberg developed what has come to be known as “the method” in his teaching of the acting craft. It was a means for actors to dig inward and root out their character’s psychological reactions and motivations, mining their own emotions for the mimicry.  While some memorize their lines and repeat them on cue,  others sacrifice themselves to an extent which fills you with awe, and makes you wonder just how much of it is just artistic self-indulgence and more than a touch of masochism.

Here’s a famous story most of you have likely heard already, a story Dustin Hoffman claims is half true. He was filming “Marathon Man” with Sir Laurence Olivier, and they shared a scene which takes place the day after Hoffman’s character had been kept up all night. To really nail the scene, Hoffman stayed up all night, and during shooting, Olivier asked why he was looking so tired. When Hoffman told him about being up all night, Olivier said, “Try acting, dear boy.” (In Hoffman’s version, he had been up all night partying to take his mind off a rough divorce, and Olivier was actually making fun of his lifestyle, not his “method.”)

LaMotta DeNiro

Robert DeNiro famously gained sixty pounds to play the aging Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull,” but less famous is his success getting himself into boxing shape for the first half of that movie, training so intensely that, legend has it, he could have been a professional boxer…instead of a bum, which is what he was.  Let’s face it…wait, sorry. Wrong actor.  

The exemplar of this behavior is Daniel Day Lewis. He lived in a wheelchair during the making of “My Left Foot.” He learned to speak Czech for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” For “Last of the Mohicans,” he learned to track and skin animals, build a canoe, and survive in the wild. For “Gangs of New York,” he trained to be a butcher, and to properly prepare himself for the role as a homicidal gang leader, he killed several people with a machete. During the filming of any of his movies, he responds only to his character’s name.

Bale the Machinist

Christian Bale allegedly lost a third of his body weight to represent the exo-skeletal lead of the film “The Machinist,” possibly in an effort to make that movie even less watchable. During filming of his Terminator movie, so engrossed was he in his character, he went on a several minute screaming rant against a cinematographer who wandered near the set while he was shooting. Oddly enough, as angry as he was, the rant was screamed in an American accent, and not the actor’s own Welsh/English hybrid.

Adrian Brody learned to play the piano for “The Pianist.” Even one of our most honored thespians, Jim Carrey, allegedly refused to leave character while filming “Man on the Moon.” In his defense, though, he was playing Andy Kaufman, whose own commitment to character was so great, people still think he faked his death as a practical joke.


Frank Langella wrote in “Dropped Names,” “Lee Strasberg encouraged his actors to act not in spite of their neuroses, but because of them. The result being floods of tears, both on celluloid and floorboards, from actors determined to sacrifice their characters’ lives to a subplot of personal turmoil and aimless rage…(one such actor) whose predilection to wallow in sense memory obliterated his character as written and subsumed the author’s intention. It resulted in the audience feeling totally left out and uninterested in his masturbatory performance.”

Not knocking Robert DeNiro (bow your heads), Dustin Hoffman or people of their stature.  OK, I am knocking Christian Bale a little bit.  (Did you see those photos? What was he thinking? And did he really have to do that voice as Batman?) The work these people do can be inspiring, awesome and entertaining…but I’ll never lose thirty pounds to deliver a closing argument in Czech.  I may have to do it in Spanish, though.        

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About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a Miami lawyer still deciding what he wants to do for a living. Once a lover of Pynchon, Pinter, and any other artist whose work he barely understood, he has since "come home" to genre fiction and fandom, where he truly belongs. He focuses most of his fan-attention on his wife Elena and his three little girls, who will one day be a female president, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a supermodel/astrophysicist. (He's not sure which one will be which yet.)

2 Responses to The Method Is Madness

  1. Kevin Walsh says:

    Nice post, Bob. Reminds me of “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Peter O’Toole quoting Edmond Kean in “My Favorite Year.” Sometimes the dramatic side of acting gets way too much credit and the comedians don’t get enough. That’s why I like the Golden Globes extra category of Best Comedy/Musical.

  2. Kale says:

    “Learn your lines … plant your feet … look the other actor in the eye … say the words … mean them.” – James Cagney. That’s all there is to it!