- Beyond Method: Stella Adler and the Male Actor by Scott Balcerzak
Scott Balcerzak. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018, 272 pp.
Scott Balcerzak’s Beyond Method: Stella Adler and the Male Actor adds substantially to the growing, significant scholarship analyzing acting theory and performance choices. In six insightful chapters, Balcerzak differentiates Method from Modern acting, scrutinizes Marlon Brando’s acting in several films, and describes Robert De Niro’s script analysis, Henry Winkler’s appeal, and Mark Ruffalo’s CGI performance choices. Balcerzak presents his analysis through the lens of Stella Adler’s methodology as it impacted Brando, De Niro, Winkler, and Ruffalo, all students at different times in Adler’s Philosophy of Acting classes at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, founded in 1949 in New York, with a Los Angeles branch added in 1985.
As Balcerzak states in his informative introduction, “[b]y examining the influence of Stella Adler on popular male actors, Beyond Method provides a documented link between traditions of acting instruction and the changing image of white maleness on screen” (10). Particularly striking are the informative sociohistorical contexts provided for each actor and the decisive ways the time periods influenced minute details that actors incorporated into their performances in the film or television program scrutinized—for Adler’s “approach removes the actor from the ‘self’ and forces us to consider the performances as matrixes of social determinants rather than a form of psychological determinism” (10–11). In other words, Adler, as opposed to Strasberg, promoted “sociological observation and social engagement” (10) as an approach that “disrupts the notion of a psychologically unified ‘self’ promoted by Strasberg” (17), and herein lies the primary distinction between Method and Modern acting.
Chapter 1, “Strasberg and Adler: Reconsidering the Method Male,” lays the foundation for the following application of Stella Adler’s methodology. Balcerzak presents a clear, comprehensive differentiation between Method and Modern acting, adopting the useful term “Modern” as proposed by Cynthia Baron in Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter of American Film and Theatre (33). In fact, “Adler’s teaching career [should be seen] more as a continuation of Modern techniques during the rise of Strasberg rather than a counterversion of the Method” (34). To substantiate this, Balcerzak details the misinterpretation of Constantin Stanislavski’s original system, writing, “In their original Stanislavskian contexts, concepts such as ‘affective memory’ (sometimes translated as ‘emotional memory’) and ‘sense memory’ were not so much about ‘unblocking’ an actor’s true emotions as creating an understanding of the characters’ responses to the ‘given circumstances’—the situations as defined by the play text” (20).
Following late-career Stanislavski tenets, Adler emphasized three areas: technique, characterization, and script analysis (38; all italics here and following in the text), directing actors to find doable actions to reveal character, “a more external approach in contrast to Strasberg’s interior approach” (39). After the first chapter lays out the theoretical framework, Balcerzak explicates each of these three concepts.
Chapter 2, “Technique and Doable Actions,” focuses on Marlon Brando’s iconic performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, the 1951 film directed by Elia Kazan. Integrating a thorough knowledge of the scholarship on this film, Balcerzak applies what Adler writes in The Technique of Acting to the minutiae of Brando’s verbal and nonverbal choices. Balcerzak quotes Adler—“In life, as on the stage, not ‘who I am’ but ‘what I do’ is the measure of my worth and the secret of success. All the rest is showiness, arrogance, and conceit” (49)—and pursues the idea that, again quoting Adler, “[e]ffective or [End Page 98] emotional memory is dangerous for the actor, as well as cruel . . . Once you find the do-able part, throw out everything else” (49). As carefully delineated here, Balcerzak proves that “performed actions give us more insight into Stanley than the written dialogue” (61), including the revelatory exposure of this post–World War II man in all his “desirable sexuality and undesirable aggressive immaturity . . . encompassing the conflicted nature of masculinity in postwar society” (67). Balcerzak mounts an argument as psychologically astute as it is historically discerning.
Chapter 3, “Characterization and Types,” contextualizes Adler...