What do Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and Robert De Niro have in common, besides being some of the most celebrated American film stars of all time?
They’re all disciples of the Method — the naturalistic acting style that originated in Russia and took root in New York City in the late 1940s with the founding of the now-legendary Actors Studio, which touted the approach in its courses.
In his new book “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act” (out Feb. 1), theater historian Isaac Butler reveals how the Actors Studio, under the direction of the acclaimed late acting teacher Lee Strasberg, went on to shape the modern world’s most influential performers.
Butler told The Post that despite what “method acting” has come to signify in pop culture — transforming yourself for a role, à la Daniel Day Lewis or Jared Leto, and living as that character for months or even years — it’s actually something entirely different. The Method, he said, “was driven by delving into the self, into your psychology and your emotions, and using that to build a bridge to the character.”
Still, it has yielded some pretty intense performances, including Dustin Hoffman’s in “The Graduate” and Al Pacino’s in “The Godfather.”
Read on for wild tales from the Method’s most famous followers.
Marlon Brando unnerved his co-stars
Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy (center) and Kim Hunter (right) in the stage version of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”Bettmann Archive
Eccentric Brando brought “unbelievable natural talent and genius” to his roles, Butler said — but that didn’t mean everybody liked working with him. His acting style — filled with luxuriant pauses and unpredictable, improvised flourishes — was downright infuriating to some of his co-stars. Take Jessica Tandy, who appeared opposite Brando on Broadway in a 1947 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Tandy, a classically trained English actress cast as Southern belle Blanche, was horrified by what she perceived as Brando’s on-stage indulgences. Butler, describing the two actors’ fundamentally differing outlooks in his book, wrote how “Brando refused to abide by one of the basic demands of professionalism in theater … that you must freeze your performance so that it remains close to identical night after night.” Brando would instead impulsively change up the rhythm of the dialogue, even altering its emotional cadences from one evening to the next, causing a frustrated Tandy to call her handsome, scene-stealing colleague “an impossible, psychopathic bastard.”
Yet, when it came time to cast the film version of “Streetcar,” Brando was kept on as Stanley Kowalski while Tandy was replaced by Vivien Leigh. His performance earned him a Best Actor nomination at the 1952 Oscars; he would go on to win in that category just two years later for his lead role in “On the Waterfront.”
James Dean was notoriously thin-skinned
Natalie Wood (left) with James Dean (right) in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”Courtesy Everett Collection
It’s “shocking how gorgeous he was,” Butler said of Dean — which seemed to be his major selling point as an actor. Regarding his performances, Actors Studio founder and famed director Elia Kazan said that “‘he could either get it brilliantly right on the first take, or he couldn’t do it at all,’” as quoted in Butler’s book. Dean joined the Actors Studio to improve his craft, but he was so terribly sensitive that he only performed for Strasberg once. “Strasberg was famously brutal and blunt in his criticisms,” Butler said, “and James Dean was very famously insecure and shy and vulnerable and neurotic, it was like throwing a bucket of water on a cat.”
The troubled “Rebel Without a Cause” star wanted to mold himself after Brando, and pursued his slightly older idol for friendship and advice. But Brando wasn’t having it. “Marlon Brando put him off and recommended he see an analyst,” Butler said.
Marilyn Monroe hated playing ‘the girl’
Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”20th Century Fox Licensing/Merch
Monroe was already a movie star when she took up classes at the Actors Studio, having dazzled on-screen in hits such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Niagara” and “The Seven-Year Itch.” But Monroe — who captivated 1950s audiences with her breathy voice and hourglass curves — yearned to be seen as something more than ditzy eye candy. “She didn’t want to be a sex symbol,” Butler wrote. “She wanted to be a serious actress.”
To that end, she forged close friendships with Lee Strasberg and his actress wife Paula, both of who encouraged her to dig deeper in her roles. But, according to Butler, not everyone was impressed with Monroe’s artistic aspirations. She had had a rough childhood, was apparently all too familiar with Hollywood’s casting couches and struggled with addiction. Michael Kahn, a director who studied under Strasberg, summed up the entertainment industry’s collective thoughts on Monroe studying the Method: “You had to go to the darkest places of yourself to act [with Strasberg] … she had enough bad things to think about. Every time she had to act she had to think about how many b – – – jobs she gave.”
Dustin Hoffman found ‘The Graduate’ humiliating
Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 1967’s “The Graduate.”Courtesy Everett Collection
Method devotee Hoffman had already hit 30 when he auditioned for the role that would transform him from a quirky stage actor to a leading man of the silver screen. But the transition came with growing pains. When Hoffman — who lived in New York — arrived in LA to try out for the part of 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” he was immediately overcome with self-doubt. The feeling worsened when he sat down in the makeup chair to prepare for his screen test. “[Director Mike] Nichols walked in, flummoxed at the challenge of making the actor’s face more appealing for the camera,” Butler wrote of the incident in his book. “Could they do something about his unibrow?”
Given his ordinary appearance, Hoffman was shocked when he landed the role. But, on set, Nichols — who understood the mechanics of Method acting himself, and had paired Hoffman with fellow Strasberg acolyte Anne Bancroft — used Hoffman’s obvious insecurities as a way to coax out a convincing performance. Just before shooting Braddock’s infamous seduction by Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson, Nichols asked Hoffman to recount his earliest sexual experiences. “Hoffman told him a story of trying to feel up a ninth grade girl when he was in the seventh grade,” Butler wrote. “The story, of course, ended in humiliation” — a reaction invoking Hoffman’s character’s discomfort in the scene.
Al Pacino fought to have his acting teacher cast in ‘The Godfather’
Lee Strasberg and Al Pacino in 1974.Courtesy Everett Collection
Pacino studied under Strasberg at the Actors Studio, wowing his teacher and peers with intense, intuitive performances. He landed the role of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” but it wasn’t easy. Director Francis Ford Coppola had to go to bat for Pacino against studio execs at Paramount, who worried that Pacino lacked leading-man good looks and the kind of obvious, sparkle-eyed charisma that won over audiences.
But they were wrong, and when it came time to cast “The Godfather Part II,” Pacino had clout. He used it to persuade Coppola to cast Lee Strasberg in the part of Jewish gangster Hyman Roth. At first, both Coppola and Strasberg — who was by then in his 70s and hadn’t acted professionally since the 1920s — resisted the idea. But Pacino wouldn’t back down, and the casting turned out to be brilliant. As described by Butler: “Even in scenes where they plot to kill each other, their interactions were so warm, so like a father and his son, that Michael’s hurt at Roth’s betrayal felt all the more vivid.”
Robert De Niro frequently insulted his co-stars
Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in 1982’s “The King of Comedy.”©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett C
De Niro had an unconventional acting style, even among Method-heads, and his scene partners just had to roll with it. For instance, during the filming of an argument with Joe Pesci’s character in “Raging Bull,” De Niro continued provoking Pesci between takes to keep him riled up. Jerry Lewis, who starred alongside De Niro in 1982’s “The King of Comedy,” described working with the actor as “mak[ing] a deal with the devil,” claiming that De Niro battered him with anti-Semitic slurs to prepare for scenes in which Lewis, playing a talk show host, was supposed to get angry at De Niro’s obsessive-fan character.