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From the Short Stack: Ray Carney on John Cassavetes and The Method

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From the Short Stack: Ray Carney on John Cassavetes and The Method

Apropos of nothing but affection, here are some snippets from Cassavetes on Cassavetes, a book about actor-filmmaker John Cassavetes by Boston University professor, graduate studies director and film historian Ray Carney. Despite the straightforward title, it’s not a collection of transcripts and articles, but sort of a mosaic biography that fuses interviews from various sources (including Carney) with a candid assessment of Cassavetes the actor, writer, director, small businessman, theater impresario and barroom philosopher. Cassavetes’ first feature, 1959’s Shadows is generally thought of as the first modern American underground indie, a stateside cousin of such pioneering French New Wave features as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Breathless. His filmography would grow to include Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Gloria.

The following is drawn from Chapter 2, which covers Cassavetes’ transformation from rising theater turk to working film and TV actor and struggling filmmaker. He hadn’t yet directed Shadows, and he’d only recently married his favorite leading lady, Gena Rowlands. But even then, Cassavetes’ hunger for significance was palpable, his confidence staggering. By the mid 1950s, Cassavetes had cofounded a theater workshop with his friend, theater director Burt Lane (future father of Diane Lane), called “The Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop.” Thanks to Cassavetes’ disinterest in the day-to-day hassle of running a theater company, and his tendency to be clownish and disruptive during workshops, the experiment did not fulfill its original goal, which was to build a stable of new talent, put Cassavetes and Lane on the map as important theatrical figures and lure casting agents, directors and producers looking for fresh faces. (“So we said, all right, actors, come on in and work, do your scenes, and we’ll invite the casting directors, writers, producers and directors along to see you,” Cassavetes said later. “But everybody wants to discover for himself, nobody takes anybody else’s word…Nobody showed up.”)

The workshop was successful in one respect, though: it helped Cassavetes work through his notion of good acting, and define it in opposition to other popular approaches, including The Method, which had only been well-known for about a decade but had already hardened into a formula. Carney writes: “To an interviewer who visited the workshop, Cassavetes somewhat vaguely tried to describe the classes as being designed to teach students to ’act naturally,’ so that their work didn’t look ’staged’ or ’artificial.’ He said his goal was to bring ’realism’ back to acting, and that the highest compliment that could possibly be paid to one of his actors was to say that he or she didn’t appear to be ’acting,’ but simply ’living’ his character. The journalist regarded the explanation as fairly trite until Cassavetes added that the ’artificiality’ of the expression of emotion was more than a dramatic problem. It was a problem in life. The young actor argued that most lived experiences were as ’staged’ and ’artificial’ as most dramatic experiences, and that the real problem ’for modern man’ (as Cassavetes inflatedly put it) was ’breaking free from conventions and learning how to really feel again.’ It was a daring leap: lived experience could be as much a product of convention as dramatic experience, and in fact one sort of convention could be the subject of the other. it was the first and most succinct statement of the subject of Shadows and of all Cassavetes’ later work.”

Among other things, Cassavetes hoped to offer young actors an alternative to the Method, a sensory- and memory-centered approach that was taught, in personalized form, by Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg (whose students included James Dean, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Elia Kazan, Shelley Winters and many others). Variants of the Method encouraged actors to draw heavily on their own experiences and feelings, and to treat hesitancy and inarticulateness as gateways to truth rather than obstacles to clear expression. A number of Method actors personalized this approach and had great success. But Cassavetes felt that the Method, and Strasberg’s Studio in particular, had become a different sort of factory, and he was “…resentful about the power the Studio exerted over casting directors, which he felt was what had held him back early in his career,” Carney writes. “He was scornful of what he called the ’guru’ aspects of the Studio and pointedly described his and Lane’s school as ’anti-guru.’ He felt that the Method was more a form of psychotherapy than acting, and believed that although figures like (Montgomery) Clift, (Marlon) Brando and Dean had had a salutary effect on acting in the late ’40s and early ’50s, by the mid-’50s the Method had hardened into a received style that was as rigid, unimaginative and boring as the styles it had replaced ten years earlier. The slouch, shuffle, furrow and stammer had been turned into recipes for profundity. The actor filled the character up with his own self-indulgent emotions and narcissistic fantasies…Normal, healthy, extroverted social and sexual expression between men and women dropped out of drama. Inward-turning neuroticism became equated with truth. The result was lazy, sentimental acting.”

Of course if we take the anti-guru at his word, we cannot uncritically accept every unkind word Cassavetes said about the Method. Even he conceded that when absorbed by an imaginative, disciplined actor, Strasberg’s techniques could be—and still can be—a springboard to brilliance, a theorem proved not just by Strasberg’s own pupils, but by future generations of actors who learned the Method by watching Strasberg’s pupils. But one of Cassavetes’ gripes still has teeth: The Method encouraged actors to get lost in their own mental space, lose touch with their fellow castmembers and the audience, and turn acting into a kind of joyless private experiment. “The Studio’s sense of acting was that it was something serious, labored and earnest,” Carney writes. “Cassavetes’ understanding was that acting was fun. It could be zany, comical and madcap. In Strasberg’s vision, the theater was a church; in Cassavetes’, it was a playground.”

For more about John Cassavetes and Ray Carney, click here.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.