As with so many subjective “things” in life, there is a great deal disagreement over who are the best method acting greats in the acting business and in movies. A good place to start in a search for the best of the method acting greats is the famed Actor’s Studio in New York City. Run for fifty years by the imitable Lee Strasberg, the Actor’s Studio turned out some of the great method acting legends in movies of the 20th century.
Acting greats that were part of the Actor’s Studio and who were instructed by Lee Strasberg include:
1. Marlon Brando. Brando necessarily must be on list of any great method actor. Particularly in his early roles, Brando breathed a believability into his work that truly transcended the movies he appeared in and made it seem as if he were the living and breathing character he portrayed.
2. Sidney Poitier. No actor in the 20th century broke down more barriers in Hollywood than did Poitier. And, he accomplished so much because of his ability to inhabit the souls of his characters and bring them to life on the big screen
2. James Dean. Although his life tragically was cut short, Dean’s short passage across the cinema screen and in movies is remarkable. Serious thinkers in the world of film credit Dean for cutting a believable stride in the few roles that he did play on the screen before his untimely death. There is near universal agreement that had Dean lived beyond his youth, he would be one of only a few actors who dominate the business, even today.
3. Robert de Niro. De Niro remains one of the hottest properties in movies today. Whether playing the role of a dangerous psycho-path to a silly, paranoid father in a happy comedy, de Niro’s work is shaped by his work with Strasberg. Indeed, the typical movie-goer forgets de Niro’s prior characters in movies each time they view him in a new film.
4. Marilyn Monroe. Certainly, some people scowl when Monroe’s name is mentioned as a great method actor. But, Strasberg himself considered Monroe to be one of his greatest pupils of all time. (Indeed, Monroe lived with Strasberg and his wife during her time at the Actor’s Studio.) Most people fail to remember that Monroe abandoned Hollywood at the height of her fame in movies to study under Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, so intent was she on becoming a fine actor. According to Strasberg himself, Monroe succeed as a method actress, particularly in comedic roles. He maintained until his death that no actor had comedic timing and a method-based screen presence that could challenge Monroe. Like Dean, had she survived, she would have developed into one of the most formidable screen actors of the 20th century.
Beyond the Actor’s Studio alumni, there are numerous other strong method actors that have established a sense of greatness through their careers and work.
5. Rod Steiger. Steiger’s career in movies spanned over fifty years and included roles that brought him three Oscar nominations and one Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in “In the Heat of the Night” in 1967 opposite Sidney Poitier. He filled his roles in such a way that the characters he played on film will long be remembered and his personal essence is a bit misty.
6. Martin Landau. Landau has mastered some of the most complex roles in theater and motion picture history. He has been described as not only playing a character in movies or on the stage -- but assuming and becoming the character through and through.
7. Dennis Hopper. Perhaps some consider the Wichita, Kansas, resident an unlikely choice for one of the great method actors of the 20th century, but Hopper’s turns on the screen have been phenomenal. From his early roles through his most recent fare, Hopper has fashioned characters that are now etched on the psyche of filmgoers the world over.
8. Charlize Theron. Women are noticeably a rare breed on lists of great method actors. While there are many formidable women on the screen today, very few of them have involved themselves in the method school as part of their training. With that said, one of the most extraordinary actresses in movies of the 20th and 21st century is Theron. Perhaps no actress in decades has so assumed a role than has Theron in “Monster” in which she actually seems to become the psychopathic, real life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron won critical acclaim and an Academy Award for her work on this film.
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