Actors, Artists, and Aunts
It's Minnesota Alumni's quarterly books roundup
Most Americans with even a passing interest in popular culture have heard of Method acting, a system that actors use to get at a role’s emotional truth. Now there’s a comprehensive book that both explains what the Method truly is, as well as its beginnings in Russia and explosion in the United States—while also exploring its major teachers and most famous students.
The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act (Bloomsbury) by Isaac Butler (M.F.A. ’13) is an exhaustively researched volume (100 pages of footnotes and bibliography, anyone?) that takes the reader from founder Konstantin Stanislavski’s earliest days establishing what he called “the system,” through its heyday when it was the foundation of famous acting schools taught by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner.
Butler—himself a trained actor, now teaching theater history and performance at the New School in New York—describes the oft-misunderstood Method as a system in which actors “are instructed to delve into themselves, using psychologist introspection and the actor’s memories to find the emotional reality of the character and discover their own idiosyncrasies as a performer.” It is not, he adds, a process of intense research into a character, leading to an actor refusing to break character while on set. (One of the most famous adherents of this extremist style is Daniel Day Lewis, who built bark canoes while preparing for The Last of the Mohicans and insisted on being addressed as Mr. Lincoln while shooting that eponymous film.)
Notable mid-century devotees of the Method included Marlon Brando, Kim Stanley, Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach . . . the list goes on and on. Even Marilyn Monroe studied with Strasberg.
One significant—and welcome—change made by Method actors was to drop the annoyingly artificial “mid-Atlantic” accent that was a hallmark of early Hollywood movie speech, in favor of talking the way a real person does—including mumbling, throwing away sentences, and delivering lines whose emphasis was guided more by emotion than punctuation. Rod Steiger’s performance in Marty is a good example of this, as is Marlon Brando’s in On the Waterfront.
More recent advocates of the Method include Dustin Hoffman (who famously insulted Meryl Streep during the filming of Kramer vs. Kramer to provoke more heightened emotion in her), Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, and Ellen Burstyn. Most of the cast of The Godfather studied with either Meisner or Strasberg.
Since the 1970s, the Method’s direct influence may have waned, yet its lessons have been folded into the curricula of many acting schools on both coasts. Butler believes its insistence on the self, the soul, and presence can still heighten performances.
And the rest . . .
Seven Aunts by Staci Lola Drouillard (University of Minnesota) is part memoir, part cultural history—and is the second book by Drouillard, who still lives in her hometown of Grand Marais, Minnesota. Her first volume, the award-winning Walking the Old Road: A People’s History of Chippewa City and the Grand Marais Anishinaabe, explored one aspect of her family history: that of her paternal grandfather, Fred Drouillard, a half Aninshinaabe northern Minnesota fishing guide. In this book, Drouillard turns her attention to the lives of her seven aunts—four maternal, three paternal—which together span most of the 20th century and address many of the challenges faced by women, especially working class and rural women, of those years. Early and disastrous marriages and alcoholism are part of these stories, but so too are fragrant baking days, the joy and freedom of growing up on the North Shore, and the life-saving nature of what Drouillard calls “mothersistering,” in which young women act as surrogate mothers to their younger siblings. Another version of this, which might be called “aunt-mothering,” went on in her own generation, when the seven women described here helped raise the author as her mother struggled with mental illness. “I write about each of my seven aunties with . . . unconditional love in my heart,” she says in her prologue. Doing so makes for a moving book.
The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives is by Linda LeGarde Grover (University of Minnesota), professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. LeGarde Grover is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe and author of several other books, including Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year. This volume of poetry—written in both English and Ojibwe—is a revised and expanded version of one first published in 2016 by Red Mountain Press. It’s a sort of collective memoir in poetry form of the Great Lakes region’s Anishinaabe/Ojibwe people, shaped by the seasons and stages of their lives. Here you’ll read of Ojibwe animal tales, beading, and baking lugalette bread, but also of the terrible boarding schools in which American Indian children were forced to forget their families, language, and culture.
Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress (Ballantine), is set in the fraught days of Occupy Wall Street and in the rarified atmosphere of an elite East Coast art school. Angress’s (M.F.A. ’21) first novel brims with competition, romantic entanglements, political painters, and their critics—even an art hoax. A coming-of-age novel in which heroines Katrina and Louisa are talented artists and lovers hailing from two very different worlds, Sirens & Muses never slows down and never fails to hold the reader’s interest, all the while painting an evocative picture of a high-stakes creative world.
Happy for You by Claire Stanford (Viking) captures the increasingly dystopian world of the internet as it takes a particularly intrusive turn. Stanford’s (M.F.A. ’12) first novel, the book opens with heroine Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto ready to throw aside her long-struggled-over philosophy dissertation in favor of a researcher job at the country’s “third most-popular internet company.” She’s been hired to help them measure happiness. Things get weirder and more complicated from there, but it’s an amusing and thought-provoking read.
Minneapolis writer Lynette Lamb (MA ’84) is the author of Strokeland, a Memoir: My Husband’s Midlife Brainstorm and Its Ambivalent Aftermath (available on Amazon)