Method acting is an art form largely associated with well-known male actors, but Keri Walsh *09, who was recently named one of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Fellows for 2018-19, hopes to change that.
The fellowship will support Walsh’s work on a book titled Stella’s Claim, about the history of women method actors. The title references method actor Kim Hunter’s 1951 performance as Stella in the film remake of Tennessee Williams’s Broadway hit A Streetcar Named Desire, alongside the more well-recognized Marlon Brando. Walsh points out that Hunter, like Brando, was a student of method acting.
“Most people think of method acting as associated with males because of Marlon Brando,” explained Walsh, an associate professor of English at Fordham University. “They’ll say [method actors] wear white undershirts and have violent outbursts ... . It has a reputation as a sexist and emotionally volatile acting style because of the extraordinary influence of that particular performance.”
Walsh, who graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in English after completing her B.A. at the University of Saskatchewan and masters degrees at Queen’s University in Canada and at the University of Oxford, hopes to shed light on some of the many women who have employed method acting on the big screen, including Hunter, Julie Harris, Geraldine Page, and Shelley Winters.
The acting technique was adapted by actor and director Lee Strasberg from the teachings of turn-of-the-century Russian acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski. Strasberg taught method acting for decades at The Actors Studio in New York, a workshop where actors learn to become the character, rather than just play the character, through techniques that include personal memories, physical senses, and immersing oneself in real life experiences that help to replicate the character’s life.
Walsh said female actors have been trained in and employed method acting techniques for as long as men, but “women got famous less.” She believes their accomplishments deserve as much recognition.
“I argue that the style of women [method actors] challenged gender norms as much as men did,” Walsh said. “Men challenged the idea of masculinity before them. Men before were suave while these men were emotional basket cases. Women also challenged gender stereotypes ... . They resisted glamour.”
Hunter’s performance in Streetcar exemplifies this, Walsh said: “She’s tackling a situation of domestic violence and how a woman copes within it, and I argue that her performance is actually quite sensitive and feminist.”
Walsh believes this is an especially relevant time to be shining a spotlight on these women, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, ushered in largely by women in the film industry coming out of the shadows with their stories of sexual assault and harassment. The selection of her project “shows that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is ready to connect with the history of women in cinema and to address the status of women in the industry,” she said.
“Method acting draws on the personal experiences of the actor, and often asks actors to revisit painful memories of the past as part of their creative preparation,” Walsh said. “The question is, might the testimonies that emerge through these exercises move beyond the acting workshop and into the public sphere? Perhaps they have already done so in the #Me Too movement.”
Walsh credits the fluidity of her experience at Princeton for enabling her to carve her unique intellectual path. Even though Walsh studied English, she also took classes in comparative literature, audited courses in the classics department, and served as a teaching assisant for P. Adams Sitney, a prominent professor, now emeritus, of film studies.
“He’s a legend,” she said of Sitney. “He’s very knowledgeable about American avant- garde film and European cinema, [including] the classics of Italian neorealism.
“I almost feel like I got a film studies degree just from being his T.A. … We didn’t talk about method acting, but I can see now how the Italian neorealism films that came out in the ’40s and ’50s were a huge influence on the films I’m looking at now.”