Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Strasbergs

Many actors learned their craft under the spell of Lee Strasberg.  On the news, Ellen Burstyn was distraught over Lee Strasberg's death.  Strasberg liked Al Pacino but never saw much in Dustin Hoffman.  Hoffman stunned Strasberg when he took on character roles, like Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.

The Strasbergs taught the Stanislavsky Method of acting.  Accordingly, the actor needed to develop "sense memories."  She needed to explore her past and remember a similar experience she underwent to embue her character.

Everything was analogy.  You just didn't walk on stage like Laurence Olivier, all prepared to ACT.  Olivier portrayed his characters from the outside in.  Yet Olivier was a great actor.  He just didn't suffer as much as Strasberg's students did.  Olivier assumed his roles naturally, without the likes of Lee or Paula Strasberg.

Strasberg told actors they needed to go through psychoanalysis, as this was a good source of sense memory.  Basically he wanted you to re-enact your own life.  In the case of Marilyn Monroe, this proved lethal.  Someone who had such a terrible young life.  And bad Hollywood memories.

Strasberg had his detractors.  One was playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman).  Miller said Strasberg was trying to make acting secret, when it was the most communicative art of all.  Miller felt this may be all right on screen, where the camera gets close, but not on stage.  Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe, who also fell under the Strasbergs' spell.  They gave her confidence as an artist.  She played the first scene of Anna Christie with no make-up on at the Actor's Studio.  Paula Strasberg, Lee's wife of the time, was heard telling Monroe she was as important to the world as Jesus Christ.

And then there was Miller's charge of usury, well founded.  The Strasbergs robbed Marilyn Monroe blind.  They took large sums of money from her.  The next I find hard to believe but apparently it's true: Paula Strasberg in 1962 was charging Marilyn $5000 a day for coaching her at acting.   These highly regarded people, the Strasbergs, pulled Marilyn under their spell.  They compared her to Marlon Brando, and here is what angered Brando:

Lee Strasberg frequently mentioned Brando, giving the impression that Brando studied under him.  Marlon Brando practiced his craft under Stella Adler, and Brando was her favorite and most talented student.  Brando also accused the Strasbergs of usury.  He was aware of how much money, enormous and unwarranted, they were robbing from Monroe.  When she died, her estate was very small for a woman of her stature.  (As was her house, a sad, shadowy place at the end of a cul-de-sac; affording some privacy but no security measures besides a locked door.  She could not live that way today.)  And of course, she left money to Lee Strasberg.  (There was talk that she wanted to change her will, but she never got around to doing it.  She died kind of suddenly.)

So some people felt Strasberg was a clever fraud.  He spewed banality to his actors rather than insight; according to Norman Mailer, who sat in on some classes.  And Strasberg never directed a successful play.  His son committed suicide.  His wife, Paula, died 2 years after Monroe.  And his daughter, Susan, herself an actress, died from breast cancer.

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