Acting is all about bodies, and Christian Bale wants us to watch his transform. In American Psycho, he is 90 kilos of muscle flexing in the mirror. In The Machinist, he is all sharp bones and a hollowed out stomach. In Vice, he is carrying an extra 20 kilos of fat—concentrated mostly in his neck via the help of a nifty three thousand dollar machine. But, of course, Christian Bale isn’t just a fat guy or a thin guy: his body, he tells us, is a shrine to his craft.
In a culture preoccupied with bodies, a famous actor gaining or losing weight is sure to lend hype to their upcoming film. Articles pop up about them either passing out or guzzling melted butter for three months, and we wonder out loud whether they’ve taken it all too far. It’s a mix of outrage and awe at the actor’s commitment, all with hush-hush descriptions of “going method” mixed in.
Method acting, known as “the method”, is a theory of acting that aims to dig deep into an actor’s psychology and produce authentic emotions. The method is an Americanisation of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s famous “system” of acting — a series of exercises that helped actors prepare for performances in a naturalistic style. Developed by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Richard Meisner in the 1930s, it was popularised in the decades to come. Amongst the followers of the method are some of the most critically acclaimed actors of the last hundred years, including Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, but the practice remains highly controversial. In method acting, the goal isn’t just to convincingly play a part, it is to actually embody it, which is where the danger comes in.
Any form of acting, by definition, makes demands on the body and mind of the performer — and few make more demands than the method. Many people, including method acting’s co-developer Stella Adler, have criticised branches of the method (particularly Strasberg’s) for straying from Stanislavsky’s vision and introducing exercises designed to dredge up an actor’s emotional traumas. In Richard Horby’s words, the method’s “fetishisation of emotion” and authentic experience gets in the way of the actor’s ability to, well, act.
However, it is hard to imagine that Strasberg could have foreseen the way that his acting philosophy would combine with our culture of individualism and media saturation. Today, the method carries cultural baggage with it in the form of stories, of actors like Heath Ledger whose deaths are synonymous with the extremes of authenticity to which they took their performances. Rather than repel, these stories serve to titillate, and our media ecosystem chomps at the bit for more stories of actors suffering in the name of their art — particularly if they can be published beside a bikini picture. When Lily Collins risks re-triggering her own eating disorder and loses 10 kilos to play an anorexic teenager, she’s rewarded by articles celebrating her bravery, alongside plenty of pictures of her emaciated body for readers to stare at. For readers, her decision to toe the line of her own health and sanity is a testament to the authenticity of her performance, and her transformation satisfies our desire to consume images of the bodies we consider as ‘other’: invited by Collins herself to look upon hers with horror.
This problem exists in higher-brow discussions of acting, too. At awards shows, actors are celebrated on the basis of their individual achievements, and the condition that their performance reaches a higher level of authenticity than that of their peers. And, for this benchmark of authenticity to be achieved in the eyes of the image-hungry audience, there is no clearer way than for it to be literally manifested in the body of the actor.
As David Krasner points out in his book Method Acting Reconsidered, it has become trendy for scholars to criticise the method despite its deeply embedded role in our culture. This year, Brendan Fraser took home the Oscar for his starring role in The Whale, but his performance drew criticism from activists because of his lack of lived experience in a fat body. We can’t deny that our culture values lived experience in its storytellers, but we haven’t yet paved the way forward for actors who do more than flirt with the idea of living in marginalised bodies: actors in these bodies, particularly fat actors, find it harder to break into the industry and escape being typecast for their body shape and size.
Casting actors who don’t simply try on these bodies satisfies the method’s demand for authenticity but not of the demands of the Hollywood apparatus at large. After all, part of a celebrity’s job is to sell the clothes they wear on the red carpet and pose on magazine covers; the purpose of these images is to appeal to Westernised beauty standards, so participation becomes fundamentally inaccessible to actors whose bodies aren’t considered conventionally attractive. To change the status quo, we need to challenge why these bodies are othered, and to challenge why we see adopting them for a short period of time as a sign of an actor’s self-sacrifice.
Behind every shocking body transformation onscreen is a desire to consume images of marginalised bodies, and to court the danger that temporarily adopting these bodies presents. To create change, we need to interrogate why we find these bodies so shocking in the first place.