Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire did more than launch the heretofore unknown actor into superstardom. It also came to define method acting, a then-emerging craft that came to be epitomized by actors such as Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro.
Brando was not alone in his embrace of method acting, which was popularized at the time by Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio, said Keri Walsh, Ph.D., associate professor of English. But his performance in the film had the effect of making it synonymous in the popular imagination with explosive, masculine, working-class characters. Women, it was thought, did not embrace it.
“In fact, the method is a way of constructing and preparing for a performance, and it’s a way of working where you bring your personal life to the role, and you aim for a very naturalistic physicality through exercises,” she said, noting that physicality need not be of the blustery sort perfected by Brando.
“Those things could lead to any kinds of performances, so there were always women at the Actor’s Studio who went to Hollywood and had varying degrees of success.”
Walsh had explored method acting previously, in her latest book Mickey Rourke, (British Film Institute 2014), and was working on a follow up that would explore gender and sexuality and method acting. That lead her to realize that female method actors deserved their own story.
Support from Hollywood
This earned the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which recently named Walsh a 2018 Academy Film Scholar. The award includes a $25,000 grant to conduct research for a monograph be published by Routledge that is tentatively titled Stella’s Claim: Women, Method Acting, and the Hollywood Film.
It’s a big jump for Walsh, who is the founder of Fordham’s annual Irish Women Writers Symposium and editor of the modern editions of James Joyce’s Dubliners (Broadview Press, 2016) and The Letters of Sylvia Beach (Columbia University Press, 2010).
“There are fellowships that people know to apply for every year, like the National Endowment for the Humanities, but this one, I just found on my own. I thought I would throw in my hat, and actually was very stunned to receive the award,” she said.
Method acting, which is based on the teachings of the Russian theorist and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, places emphasis on bringing emotional truths and natural physical behavior to roles. Strasberg built on this, Walsh said, by guiding actors through exercises where they revisited a powerful memory from their own past.
“That helps you theoretically connect to some kind of powerful emotion. Then you have to find a way to bring that to the character,” she said.
“It’s this complex thing where you’re creating a relationship between your own emotional experience and the emotional experiences that you read about in the dramatic text that are those of your character.”
The Connection to Feminism
Because the process has some similarities to therapy, it occasionally gets a bad rap as mere navel-gazing. Walsh said these critiques miss the fact its popularity coincided with the rise of second-wave feminism and that actors such as Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Kim Hunter, and Joanne Woodward found it to be extremely valuable to their work.
“When Ellen Burstyn talks about the experiences she had in her family as a woman, in her first marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, and all the experiences of her life that led her to become a feminist, those were experiences that she used in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” said Walsh.
“I argue that the personal basis of method acting was actually a way for women actors to say ‘I’m bringing my personal experiences of injustice and what I’ve noticed in society about being a woman to the role. Method acting invites me to do that and says, even if the script doesn’t currently contain that, you can bring it. You have a right as the actor to show what you know.”
One need only to look at Brando’s Streetcar co-star Kim Hunter, who won an Academy Award for her role as Stella Kowalski, said Walsh. As part of her research, Walsh examined notes that Hunter made to her copy of the film’s screenplay, and compared reviews of the 1947 Broadway production, which she also starred in, to the 1951 film to trace what she calls a “feminist evolution” of Hunter’s performance.
“Even though Elia Kazan, who directed both the Broadway and the film version, did not see her character as having much feminist potential or didn’t care much about her character, Hunter molded her character to be a very informed kind of treatment of domestic violence in the context of men coming home from the second World War,” Walsh said.
“We’ve really written that one performance off as just ‘Oh she’s just the abused wife, so the method must not be good for women.’ But if you actually look at how she approaches the role and changes it from Broadway to Hollywood, it actually is quite a feminist story of trying to take seriously what a woman is going through in that situation.”
A Career Focused on the Performing Arts
Although film is a relatively new area of research for Walsh, she has long explored performance art and theater. In 2016, she organized the New York gathering of Waking the Feminists, a movement that calls attention to the wealth of women’s voices that are excluded from Irish theater.
She said she’s fascinated by the self-transformation that actors undertake for their craft.
“I think of myself as a feminist cultural historian who is trying to listen to the voices of women who have been in the industry, whether it’s in Irish theater or in Hollywood. I try to do the archival work that reminds people that their stories really challenge the dominant paradigms,” she said.
Their stories are especially resonant in the #MeToo era, she said, because actresses who might have kept personal stories involving abuse sequestered to their acting classes have now taken their stories public instead.
“Was it fair to just say ‘We’re going to talk about this in acting class, and then you put it away and use it to fuel your performance?’ Female actors are saying ‘no,’” Walsh said.
“I think Hollywood is ready in some quarters to listen to this. The fact that my project got this award from the Motion Picture Academy; I think they are saying, ‘We want to hear the stories and tell the history now.’”