The Actors Studio: The Genesis of Freudian Theory Applied to Theatre and Film
This article was inspired by an conversation I had with my friend, who will be attending the prestigious screen writing program at USC film school this fall. Our mutual love for film and theatre reminded me of my own personal endeavors in the history of film and theatre. A few years ago, I had done a lot of reading (film theory, biographies, literary criticism, etc.) which had sparked my appreciation for the art. One of my all time favorite films is A Streetcar Named Desire, because I find it to be the paragon of the philsophies in which the Actor’s Studio embodied, reflecting the significant changes in the film and theatre production of the early 1950’s, that again peaked again in the 70’s, and are still used today. (I’ll explain later in the article..)
During the early 50’s, the aftermaths of World War II significantly altered the study of psychology, which in turn was largely reflected in the arts. Specifically, Freudian theory is responsible for the genesis of method acting. A departure from traditional theatre—where histrionic performances and classical styles were celebrated—method acting challenged obsolete traditions of theatre, channeling the interior psychology of the actor in order to accurately portray purity, honesty, and human vulnerability in performance. Some of the most venerated actors, such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, are celebrated for pioneering method acting in a world where acting was still very much rooted in classical theatre (a la the Trans-Atlantic Accent). Method Acting refrained from the romantic narrative, in favor of emphasizing the fragmented reality of that romantic narrative through the fragility of human emotions.
The Actor’s Studio and its founder, the esteemed Lee Strasburg, became the names and mentors of these new styles. Characteristic of these idiosyncratic methods, Francis Ford Coppola, a director who used many actors from the Actors Studio throughout his film career (including Pacino, DeNiro, and Brando), would manipulate his actors to get the performance he desired, even if they were sometimes offensive. Once while filming a fight scene, he asked an actor for his darkest secret was and scream it on a megaphone, provoking the actor to act violently out of anger. Despite the cruelty, Coppola was able to effectively receive the performance he desired in its rawest form of rash—a pure human emotion.
Similarly, we can see characteristics of these changes especially well in the casting of A Streetcar Named Desire. In Streetcar, every actor and actress was a method actor, except for Vivien Leigh. Even the director, Elia Kazan, came out of the Actor’s Studio. Leigh’s styles of performance contradicted those of the method actors. Leigh, who had come out of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was taught the disciplined and highly demanding techniques of classical theatre. Moreover, Leigh was also married to the most celebrated Shakespearian interpreter of the 20th century, Sir Lawrence Olivier. In her youth, Leigh had earned her fame playing the young capricious Southern belle Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone With the Wind. She was a stunner, a real celebrated exotic beauty. It was these very qualities that her character used to manipulate her suitors in Gone With The Wind. Certainly, Leigh’s casting in Streetcar may seemed to be an obvious mistake on Kazan’s part. But in fact, the casting was genius.
Leigh’s casting affirmed the intellectual depth of A Streetcar Named Desire. The director, Elia Kazan, saw the oppurtunity to make Blanche DuBois the sort of rogue continuation of Leigh’s character in Gone With the Wind. By 1951, Vivien Leigh was already a middle aged fading beauty, and her character Blanche—a deeply troubled Southern Belle—suffers a Freudian struggle of her own reality. Coincidentally, Leigh had also started to suffer from early symptoms of bipolar disorder. Her manic depressive behavior, ironically, was only worsened after the film caused by her obsession with playing the role of Blanche Dubois, even in real life.
Thus, the intellectual depth in which these films, their processes, and acting methods in which the actors take on are responsible for my fascination with the Actor’s Studio.
The Actor’s Studio is an Aristotelian paradise, where all types of people in the industry would go to share ideas and exercise their talents. It was the first real democratic discourse, and what I think is the reason why film became so successful through the 50’s and again in the 70’s (we skip the 60’s because television had distracted the flow of success in the film industry). It is very similar to the Modernist art scene in Paris in the 1920’s where Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Méret Oppenheim, and Dali would congregate at Gertrude Stein’s house exchanging new information across various disciplines, inspiring each other’s work. It is when artists are engaging in these types of honest discourse that they learn and produce their best work.