Over the course of the twentieth century, Method acting and its practitioners have become loaded signifiers of exceptionality and inscrutability etched into U.S. popular culture. Discourses of actor commitment, immersion in character, bodily sacrifice and transformation have worked to corroborate a singular status (for performance and performer alike) paradoxically familiar and yet elusive. This phenomenon has become so entrenched that we often talk “Method acting,” “the Method,” or simply “Method” through those mutually understood markers without explicitly invoking “Method” or questioning its characteristics and associations. Method Men counters this trend, offering a radical perspective that revises prevailing analytical frameworks and historical narratives shaping how we think and talk about Method acting specifically and screen performance broadly.[1]  I break with the tradition of exploring what Method acting is within a film text and examine instead what it does as an accumulating body of meanings forming in the contexts and paratexts surrounding motion pictures. Prevailing understandings of performance coalesce in such spaces, I contend, and these terms and conditions supplant actual techniques and philosophies to constitute the significance of acting in U.S. popular culture. Method Men mobilizes an extraordinary array of archival materials (e.g. Hollywood studio promotion and correspondence, reviews, fan magazines, interviews, films, letters) to chronicle this process. I argue that shifting from film-centric analyses of Method and screen performance to the contexts and contingencies of their reception enables us to understand for the first time what it is we are talking about when we discuss Method acting, what “the Method” does to entwine—and enshrine—celebrity and white male exceptionalism beneath the veneer of performance.

Scholars in film, stardom/celebrity, performance studies, theatre, and American studies have noted the chasm between popular understandings of Method acting and the theories and techniques comprising its actual practices. They have looked to film-specific performances, to acting philosophies, and to classrooms in hopes of closing the gap by elucidating what Method acting is and where it originates. This has yielded invaluable insights into the inadequacy of “Method” as an omnibus label, and provided critical language for analyzing film performances in relation to motion pictures’ formal and narrative features. Asking “What is Method acting?” has also imposed limitations by presuming that Method acting is internally coherent and can therefore be isolated within a gesture, a film, a classroom. For film-oriented scholars, these corrective efforts have not resonated with the very parties in need of education. The chasm remains decades later and popular (mis)interpretations of Method acting continue to prevail. How are scholars to reverse this trend, to close this gap?

Method Men resolves this vexing problem by exploring the chasm between perception and practice, and specifically scrutinizing the terms and conditions under which a particular interpretation of Method acting emerges and prevails (regardless of its veracity) in U.S. popular culture. This analytical shift amounts to asking what Method acting does ideologically as a received performance style in the contexts and paratexts—texts that prepare us for other texts—circulating around producers, films, and audiences.[2] It also grants access to what I call Methodness, the discourses coalescing in those circuits that have come to define Method acting in U.S. popular culture. Methodness bears some resemblance to Method acting (sharing certain techniques, adherents, and institutions) but diverges elsewhere in its political entanglements with whiteness, stardom, inscrutability, masculinized authorship, anti-commercialism, transformation, sacrifice, and regressively-tinged outsider/rebel status that dominate the prevailing popular perception of “the Method.” Methodness entwines film acting, fame, and identity politics, and becomes so entrenched in popular culture that it serves as the lingua franca for popular postwar understandings of both film acting and performer identity while eluding scrutiny of those links.

            I dissect Methodness by reconstituting the broad interpretive landscapes in which its meanings accrue. Set within sweeping sociocultural forces stretching across the 19th to the 21st centuries, Method Men’s in-depth, original case studies provide unmatched access to crucial episodes in the history of this received performance style. I draw on extensive archival research from ten of American cinema’s foremost repositories to reconstruct such moments,[3] and these primary materials (e.g. studio pressbooks and publicity campaigns, actor diaries, studio correspondence, fan club journals, audience letters, film reviews) allow me to excavate the intertwined historical reception of Method acting and the concurrent construction of Methodness through both prominent and overlooked performers, teachers, luminaries, and organizations. This includes familiar figures (e.g. Stella Adler, James Dean) and those consigned to the margins (e.g. Rose McClendon, Maria Ouspenskaya), as well as those explicitly opposed to Method acting (e.g. John Wayne, Hedda Hopper). Method Men’s expanded purview allows us to see for the first time how critics actively participate in shaping the interpretive landscape for acting. James Dean-related correspondence between gossip columnist Hopper and her readers, in tandem with Hopper’s own published writings on the Method-aligned performer, reveal how this epistolary community of avowed Method detractors built their influential reactionary memorialization campaign on a bedrock of Methodness (e.g. anti-commercialism, rebellion, inscrutability, white male victimization). John Wayne was even more vociferous in his animosity toward the Method, yet the insistence with which studio publicity, fan magazine articles, and print profiles about his “prop man” origin story and his self-identification as a transparent “re-actor” formed the foundations of his star image upon an imaginary, inscrutable “actor” foil throughout the 1940s that inadvertently (but significantly) primed the interpretive landscape to make sense of Method “actors” well before their widely-recognized arrival in popular culture.

Although I concentrate on these forces as they give shape to Methodness between 1923 and 1982, Method Men gestures to historical threads stretching further back and forward in time. I integrate discourses about acting with broader currents of modern American identity politics from 19th century back-to-nature movements to 21st century moral panics about the self-harm of actor over-commitment. The five chapters in this book follow Methodness from a loose constellation of gendered and racialized features foregrounding male authorship in the American Laboratory Theatre (1923-1933) and Group Theatre (1931-1941); to its omission in Group Theatre alum John Garfield’s ethnicized and politicized star image during his career (1938-1952); to its indirect popularization as the spectral, enigmatic “actor” foil essential both to John Wayne’s “re-actor” star image beginning in 1941 and to priming the “actor” reception of Marlon Brando’s star image beginning with his1950 film debut (The Men); to its centrality in the posthumous efforts of Hedda Hopper and letter writing fans (1955-1957) to memorialize James Dean and make explicit his signifying potential as a conservative martyr; and its retroactive attachment to John Garfield decades after his death amidst the White Ethnic Revival’s modifications of whiteness and retconning of Garfield’s place in “Method” history. Method Men is a study of power and perception that traces how the significance of screen acting is not reliant on the screen at all. The implications here extend well beyond the Method to the epistemological frameworks we rely on to make sense of film performance, and the questions we should be asking—about history, identity, culture—when we talk about acting.

[1] I use “screen” synonymously with “film” here.
[2] Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 25.
[3] These repositories include the Harry Ransom Center, Margaret Herrick Library, Warner Bros. Archive, Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, UCLA Film and Television Archive, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Columbia University’s Oral History Archives, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Lilly Library, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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