Hollywood still matters. This year’s best actors have shown why.

That’s not it, but this usage is the opposite of what the philosopher JL Austin meant by “performative”, a quasi-technical term that he applied to a speech act that does what it says. Examples are rare and precise: when you say “I swear” in court or “I go to bed” at a poker table, you are using performatives. You can fold your cards reluctantly or by mistake, but not ironically. Words are the act.

These divergent definitions suggest an interesting tension in our understanding of what it’s like to perform, perhaps especially in a world where we assume everything is show-stopping. A performance is, by definition, something false, edited, artificial, self-aware. And also, by the opposite definition, something authentic, persuasive, organic, real.

The illusion they create is not that they really are who they play, but rather that, whoever they are, we know them.

In his book “The Method”, to be published early next year, critic and director Isaac Butler traces the history of this tension as it applies to acting. From pre-revolutionary Russia, a new approach to theater insisted on truth – as opposed to eloquence, bravery, or technical skill – as the highest value in acting. Its guru was Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Russian word perezhivanie, generally translated as “experience” and described by Butler as “a state of fusion between actor and character”, was key to Stanislavsky’s system.

The character experience is what the actor explores internally and communicates externally, such that the viewer accepts what they know is not the case. We don’t confuse Will Smith for Richard Williams, Kristen Stewart for Diana or Bo Burham for himself, but we believe them nonetheless.

The arrival of Stanislavsky’s teaching in America – where it was preached as the Method by teachers like Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler and practiced by artists like Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando and Kim Stanley – coincided with a renewed commitment to realism in theater and film. For the actors, the ever elusive standard of realism, you know when you see it, was not so much staunch mimicry as it was psychological truth. There were different ideas on how to achieve this, but a rule of thumb was that the feelings, memories, and impulses of the performer were tools for mastering the character.

The Method reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, but the mystique of authenticity remains. In popular culture, “method-acting” now refers to an extreme commitment to blurring the line between the character and himself, a sort of total identification that is in many ways the opposite of what Stanislavsky and his American supporters married. It is throwing oneself headlong into a character: speaking in dialect 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; gain or lose a lot of weight; behave in a strange way; neglect personal hygiene. Not to find the sources of the character in you, but to transform yourself, almost literally, into a character, to go so far in the performance that you are no longer playing.

About Laurence Johnson

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