Marlon Brando was an actor for his time, not ours. Ours is one filled with Facebook and quantum physics. There’s no way Stanley Kowalski—Brando’s character in A Streetcar Named Desire—could understand what it means to be human now. Likewise the type of acting used by Brando, now commonly known as the Method, cannot get to the heart of who we are today, or so argues Sheila Heti in Maisonneuve.
The Method—the form of acting started by Constanin Stanislavski in Moscow and popularized in the U.S. by Stella Adler and Lee Strasbourg through their Actors Studio—Heti explains, follows closely the development of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, pleading the actor to look inside himself to find similar emotions from real human experience to project onto characters, who will then appear to us, the watcher, to have a past context that has brought them to this moment.
Actors who studied at the Actors Studio—like Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman and Dennis Hopper—present us with a version of the human as a deeply individual, emotionally rooted being, with psychological depth, continuity of self, and a past that profoundly affects present behaviour and relationships—a human as Sigmund Freud and mainstream psychoanalysis would have us be.
This, however, no matter how good, amounts to little more than mimicry. “How humans currently portray other humans is an invention,” Heti writes, “just as three-point-perspective was an invention.”
Today, we have moved from the Freudian era toward cognitive behavioral therapy, meaning that “we are not determined by our past experiences….We are now in an age in which to be human means, in part, to be able to choose what sort of human one wants to be.” As Heti sees it, our actors have not followed the trend, but rather are still attempting to act the way Brando did. Even the best of this acting, Heti sees as bad, as it is only “high mimicry.”
So what, exactly, would Heti want to see replace the form of acting so commonly used today? She gives one example: the artist Ryan Trecartin’s videos. The characters in these videos have “no personality at the core” and “[t]here is no sense that [they] have what we consider an emotional history, or have lived days and years prior to the moment they are currently living on screen before us.” Other than that, she pretty much offers only a call to duty for screenwriters and actors to discover what the next stage of acting will be:
[C]ontemporary writers have to lead the way, writing scripts…that demand a different style of playing; scripts that reflect what the human is now….Let the actors cut ties with the Method and its psychological understanding of the self, and show us how electric we are.
Maybe I’m too steeped in Freudian thinking, but I’m not sure I buy the whole characters having no history equals a better representation of who we are today argument. And watching a bit of Trecartin’s videos, for me, is not “tremendously exciting,” as it is for Heti. Still, it is interesting to think about the way viewers originally saw Brando’s portrayals (or another example: what the Beatles did for music) and wonder what might come next to bring that same feeling to a modern audience.