{No. 62: Method Acting} [1979] Kramer vs. Kramer

Unless it’s the editor’s intent, an audience shouldn’t notice cuts between shots or transitions between scenes. Think: the wipe edit in A New Hope; or, the match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the dolly zoom interspersed with the violent action shots in Raging Bull. These edits are iconic for adding style and substance to their respective films. They’re integral to the success of telling the story.

Unless it’s the editor’s intent, the audience should not notice transitions between characters in a dialogue scene or quick fades that flow as effortlessly as the narrative itself. Editing, we learn by studying editors, is method. Editors learn by immersing themselves in the script and in the daily shots and in the dark rooms with hundreds of terabytes of film that would run miles long (sometimes it does). A good editor makes a director’s vision shine. A great editor’s director gets them the shots they need to build the story.

Acting is different than editing, he writes, seriously. Great acting, as with great editing, should lift a script into the stratosphere. It should inspire! What, then, constitutes great acting: technical touchpoints; a “feeling?” Is it how and how much an actor appropriately emotes? Is it the ability to recite long lectures of soliloquy, or to spit lines ticky-tacky with one or more scene partners? Is it, “you know it when you see it?”

Actors engage in method, too. This immersion technique is meant to cut the distance between the character and the performance. Perfect method acting aims to remove the human from the performance entirely, as if the person were to be a vessel for lines and blocking. It’s not a new technique, but it’s rarely practiced anymore, if it ever was at all (known cobbler and part-time actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, is a famous, noted exception). Anecdotal evidence points to words like “arrogant” and “self-indulgent.” If the “point” is to immerse oneself so deeply in character study that the performance feels “real,” can it ever? If one was not a soldier in World War I, should one attempt to achieve appropriate levels of shell shock to play a soldier with smoldering PTSD? Should a man who hasn’t experienced loss and death fake it for real?

Do we care that Dustin Hoffman immersed himself in the world of Ted Kramer for his titular role in Kramer vs. Kramer? His method was to torture the crew and cast with Kramerlike hassle and hustle, especially his co-star, then a relatively unknown, but also titularly adorned, Meryl Streep. This history is well-known and has been documented a bunch, both by investigative journalists and accounts from actors and crew present during Kramer‘s filming. It doesn’t matter if Hoffman could have just read the lines as written and the blocking as staged, because that’s not what happened. This movie’s story is strong enough to cajole a great performance out of a mediocre actor. It’s nuance didn’t require Hoffman to learn Inuit and seclude himself in a masochism chamber to accurately portray struggle and suffering.

Let’s definitely not try to unglue the award from the performance. Streep, too, won an Oscar for her performance, one might say, for tolerating Hoffman. This is not to take away from the nuance with which Streep played a mother struggling with identity and kinship to her own child. There’s a pitiable quality Streep found playing this part, but it was her relationship with the director that allowed the character to emote effectively. This was her editing; unnoticed, but frame-by-frame fine-tuned. The audience wouldn’t know she’s been suffering from unthinkable tragedy in her personal life. But once it’s known, there’s an unspeakable grasping for anything in Streep’s performance. Hoffman slapped a glass against a wall and smacked Streep a little. His method editing was being a Big Man when tackling the Big Theme of men can be daddies, too. The editing equivalent of puncturing the film at intermittent intervals with a rusty scissor. The petulance ultimately cheapens the performance for which he won the first of his two Oscars for acting.

Had this movie been made a year or two later, Hoffman could have used the history from his real life, having divorced his then-wife in 1980. Is it not method if the history that’s emulated is, in fact, true? Is there too much characteribus in res? Boy, interrupted?

Kramer vs. Kramer is a delicate exploration of gender roles and the veritable humanity behind ambition and family, bookending a generation of, quite frankly, ridiculous norms, including “tender norms,” which assigned the mother as the more important caregiver, almost regardless of circumstance. It showed divorce as complicated but reconcilable for the sake of a child and for sanity. Kramer vs. Kramer was a harbinger for more tender exploration of human tenderness and compulsion, first explored a decade earlier in Midnight Cowboy, a movie in which Dustin Hoffman prepared for by (probably*) hanging out with male prostitutes and conning his way through New York, “I’m workin’ here!”

Kramer vs. Kramer did in fact win Best Picture in 1979, beating out All That JazzBreaking Away, Apocalypse Now and Norma Rae. For its cultural impact and lasting significance this was probably the correct choice, though most average movie-goers would be quicker to recognize Coppola’s Vietnam War hagiography. I guess we’ve solved divorce; thanks Kramer!

*not really

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