Writing in the midst of the Method’s postwar ascension within the public consciousness, Philip Hope-Wallace observes that “it is fair to remember that the public mind is generally in a great state of confusion on the subject of film acting—as well it might be, what with the old categories seemingly breaking down…[and] acting is the only term available” (1). Though his subsequent prescription presupposes a dubious dialectic of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ performance, Hope-Wallace’s underlying critique remains as prescient now as it was then. The mere conversation surrounding ‘acting’, he reminds the reader, is at a perpetual loss for a critical metric—although he concedes that it is neither explicitly qualifiable nor quantifiable—and is too often inattentive to the convergences of performance and other factors, such as stardom. Setting his sights on acting awards, Hope-Wallace proclaims that “generally deciding whether so-and-so is better than so-and-so…is like trying to decide whether brown ale is better than Coca Cola. You cannot compare incomparables”(2).
Such have been the historical tendencies—and obstacles—presented within film studies. Pamela Wojcik astutely points out that screen performance has been fundamentally severed from the performer and rendered “an aesthetic component of mise-en-scène, a cinematic effect… [leading] to the perception that acting is not really acting” (3). This is not to suggest that commentators have completely ignored the question as to what acting does or means. In fact, scholars and critics before, during, and after Hope-Wallace have contemplated the paucity of theoretical frameworks and critical vocabularies for addressing screen performance. Still, the otherwise capacious and compelling landscape of historical media studies has repeatedly neglected acting and (pardon the pun) cast it as a secondary—or even tertiary—site of signification, a symptom of modes of production, directorial or editorial discretion, and the ideological apparatus of cinema. It is no coincidence, then, that efforts to revisit film performance and so-called ‘Method’ acting have emerged in recent decades alongside cultural studies; the latter has repeatedly provoked the former to consider how textual, extratextual, and non-textual objects and practices—performance can be found within all of these—attain, undermine, and re-affirm other sites of meaning, and how these all participate in the processes of cultural production.
Wojcik and Hope-Wallace are therefore not alone in tracing the epistemological gaps that surround acting, John O. Thomson’s ‘commutation test’ and James Naremore’s ‘performance frame’ have been joined by the heterogeneous scholarship of Philip Drake, Pamela Wojcik, Richard Dyer, Richard DeCordova, Cynthia Baron, Sharon Carnicke, Diane Carson, Frank P. Tomasulo, Lisa Bode, and many others in a concerted effort to both congeal text-based recuperations of film performance and to map distinctions between—and convergences of—acting labor and star signification on screen and beyond (4). Though they sometimes vary dramatically, these projects share a common interest in making legible the performer’s relationship to meaning. Such is the fecund, yet complicated, terrain of text and context upon which George Kouvaros situates Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves, and his insights into postwar images of performance are worthy additions to arguably one of the most vexing questions with regard to both screen acting and star scholarship: how does the so-called ‘Method’ accrue meaning in the postwar moment? What does it do?
Perhaps a more appropriate phraseology for Famous Faces (as I will now refer to it) asks what the Magnum photographs from the set of The Misfts (Huston, 1961) ‘want’ from their beholders. Indeed, Kouvaros’s methodological approach to the 1961 film and the representations of Method acting attributed to it hinges on the appropriation of WJT Mitchell’s provocative entreaty to reframe the image’s correlation to value. By reconstituting the line of inquiry from a matter of meaning to wanting, Kouvaros seeks—like Mitchell—to sidestep prevailing analytical approaches that presuppose a master interpretation and thus risk foreclosing alternatives. Following Mitchell, then, Kouvaros employs a framework focused on the “relationality of image and beholder” (5). In other words, Famous Faces asserts that the Magnum photos are looked at and look back at their viewers, necessitating the consideration of not only the images but the contexts in which the very ideas and iconographies of acting shift. “This is not about turning images into ciphers for our own personal histories,” Kouvaros cautions, but “it is an attempt to understand how these histories have become implicated in the histories and circulation of images” (6).
This is one of Kouvaros’s most important interventions, for the dialogues surrounding the Method—though critical to the recuperation of the actor and film performance—still tend to isolate its significance within pre-existing theoretical precepts (e.g., the teachings of Stanislavsky, Boleslavsky, Strasberg, Adler, etc), screen-specific incarnations (e.g. Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954)), or historical studies of its stars’ socio-semiotic relevance to postwar America (e.g., Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, etc.). To be clear, this argument is not entirely without precedent. In his study of Brando’s sensual body control—cited in Kouvaros’s own analysis of the Method actor’s play with temporality—James Naremore intimates that an incongruity exists between discourses surrounding the so-called ‘Method’ and its actual philosophical tenets. Others similarly acknowledge an epistemological gap between theory, practice, and culture, but few seek to theorize the conditions out of which such disparities can arise or—to put it more pointedly—conceptualize how the Method takes shape in the complicated relations among actors, their representations, and their audiences.
Famous Faces constitutes a dramatic intervention in addressing this continued elision. Kouvaros contends that transformations in various image-centric industries play an integral role in the postwar looking relations between viewers and photographs of stars which, he astutely concludes, lend added credibility to preexisting frameworks for understanding both acting-as-labor and the Method performer as intense, naturalistic, and authentic. In other words, Magnum’s on-set photographs during the production of The Misfits are not unique, but are instead indicative of the systematic convergence of Euro-American visual styles—including absorptive painting, 20th century European modernism, and New Deal era U.S. vernacular photography—and structural transformations in both the post-Paramount Decree studio system and the magazine industry. Resulting strains of candid, on-set images by Magnum photographers like Eve Arnold and Dennis Stock thus accommodate the deterioration of studio control over actor labor and publicity at the same time that they mobilize more intimate representations of stars, through emergent publications like Life, to viewers whose evolving demands and alternative avenues of leisure threaten Hollywood with the further contraction of its audience. That the popularity—and ideological grip—of the postwar Method actor springs in part from this relationality among text and context is a compelling departure from more finite—and historically entrenched—analyses that attribute the Method’s meteoric ascendance to the purported symmetry between its intrinsic characteristics and the cultural appetites and anxieties of the atomic age.
By addressing film studies’ pervasive iconophobia, Famous Faces seeks to stimulate—through alternative methodological approaches—the existing dialogues regarding the Method and its practitioners’ literal and symbolic work. By linking transformations in representational modes to industrial shifts and new consumer demands, Kouvaros cogently proposes that the photographer, the actor, the magazine, the studio, and the reader (of the publication, of the image, of the film) create meaning collectively through moments of exchange. The so-called ‘Method’ thus constitutes an idea in flux, linked to material sites (e.g., the Actors Studio, etc.) but bound up in the ever-changing orbits of star personae, industrial prerogatives, audience subjectivities, reading contexts, and so forth that are neither explicitly top-down nor bottom-up. As these factors all participate in the public imagination of what constitutes ‘Method’ acting in the postwar moment, Kouvaros’s intervention compels us to re-imagine the iconography of postwar stars and modes of performance as interrelated and impermanent.
In opening up the so-called ‘Method’ to new analytical frameworks, Famous Faces provokes alternative ways of seeing and lines of inquiry that it cannot, of course, summarily address. If, for example, such candid photographs “brought the star down to Earth” by lending their actions an increasingly individuated private-in-publicness (7), then how does such newly imagined intimacy confirm and complicate the subject position of a celebrity like Monroe? What becomes of her femininity and her whiteness in subsequent moments of cultural exchange? How do contextual and contingent forces work to make such exchanges unequal between ‘Method’ stars, producers, and audiences? Furthermore, what becomes of Method practitioners who are not stars? How does the convergence of ‘Method’ acting, stardom, and photography affect character actors who have and have not studied the so-called ‘Method’? Does the emphasis on stars’ labor accentuate their own performative work through shared philosophical approaches? Does the star eclipse the non-star, and thus efface their labor and subjectivity? How may temporality—which concerns the image’s haunted relation to the subject as well as the Method actor’s value-laden appearance of absorption—function beyond the text and the archive? Could such images transcend the lives of their subjects yet still perform and transmit the same forms of knowledge?
Kouvaros is not entirely immune to the prevailing ‘Method’ narrative, and Famous Faces to some extent neglects the historical long view accorded the photographic traditions informing the work of Magnum artists on the set of The Misfits. Moreover, the causal narrative of Famous Faces relies upon simplistic correlations between The Group Theatre and The Actors Studio, thus risking the reproduction of the very same epistemologies that Kouvaros sets out to complicate through the on-set photograph. Of course, Kouvaros’s project is not as interested in re-imagining the theatrical roots of the ‘Method’—or disentangling the philosophical tenets of the numerous Method’s—as it is in foregrounding the discourses and representations of anti-theatrical absorption that inform the iconography of postwar acting for (and between) producers and audiences alike. Still, Famous Faces curiously effaces the question of subjectivity and does not address how the gendering and racialization of screen labor impacts the crystallization of postwar performance in images of Monroe, Clift, Dean, or Brando. In fact, race and gender are largely absent here, prompting questions about how normative representational regimes and broader cultural subjectivities are possibly rewritten—or, I fear—re-inscribed through the celebrated ‘authenticity’ of the laboring ‘Method’ performer. This oversight is actually quite common, and remains one of the most urgently needed—and elusive—areas of exploration for scholars interested in the role of the ‘Method’ within U.S. cultural production.
Still, Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves remains an impressive and compelling addition to the critical literature in film studies for, among many reasons, attending to performance as a node within the matrices of U.S. postwar culture rather than merely being a symptom of it. Kouvaros forces us to confront our curious aversion to the still image and to re-consider how representations of Method acting ‘look back’ at their viewers and participate in process of meaning-making. This project is ambitious and much-needed, and even in its shortcomings it cogently reminds us that the ‘Method’—and screen performance generally—remain fecund sites for provocative interdisciplinary explorations into the myriad forms of work that constitute acting both within and without the frame.
- Philip Hope-Wallace, “Films of the Month: Acting.” Sight and Sound 18:71, p. 22.
- Philip Hope-Wallace, “Films of the Month: Acting.” Sight and Sound 19:4, p. 167.
- Pamela Wojcik, “General Introduction.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader, New York, Routledge, p. 2
- This literature is quite extensive, and between anthologies, special journal issues, and dedicated journals, “acting,” “star,” and “celebrity” studies have grown exponentially within the last two decades. Notable entries include John O. Thomson, “Screen Acting and the Commutation Test.” Screen 19:2 (1978), 55-70; John O. Thomson, “Beyond Commutation.” Screen 26:5 (1985), p. 64-77; James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988; Philip Drake, “Reconceptualizing Screen Performance.” Journal of Film and Video 58:1-2, p. 84-94; Cynthia Baron, “Acting Choices/Filmic Choices: Rethinking Montage and Performance.” Journal of Film and Video 59:2 (2006), p. 32-40; Richard Dyer, Stars, London, British Film Institute, 2004; Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, New York, St. Martin’s, 2004; Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1990; Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, and Frank P. Tomasulo, eds. More Than a Method, Detroit, Wayne State Universiy Press, 2004; Cynthia Baron and Sharon Carnicke, Reframing Screen Performance, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2008; Lisa Bode, “No Longer Themselves? Framing Digitally Enabled Posthumous Performance.” Cinema Journal 49.4 (2010), p. 46-70;
- WJT Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 9. See also George Kouvaros, Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: The Misfits and Icons of Postwar America, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, p. 5.
- Kouvaros p. 5.
- Edgar Morin quoted in Kouvaros p. 56.