Of all the stories surfacing about the new DC Comics film Suicide Squad—from the dismal reviews to the box-office reports—the most disconcerting are the ones that detail how Jared Leto got into his role as the Joker.
Watching Leto tell one disturbing tale after another makes one thing abundantly clear: Method acting is over. Not the technique itself, which has fueled many of cinema’s greatest performances and can be a useful way of approaching difficult roles.
Leto was, of course, following Heath Ledger’s towering, Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in 2007’s The Dark Knight, so he had to differentiate himself not just stylistically and on screen, but also in the press.
So it isn’t surprising that Leto and his castmates used shocking stories to help build a mythology around the movie. The director David Ayer, who went so far as to have his actors punch each other as preparation for their roles, gushed about Leto’s devotion.
Leto’s approach proved divisive among the cast and crew, and it didn’t exactly translate to a good performance (the Joker plays a surprisingly small role in Suicide Squad). But method acting of this sort couldn’t exist without the culture of permissiveness and indulgence Hollywood has fostered over the years.
The approach traces its origins to the early 20th-century teachings of the Russian theatrical realist Konstantin Stanislavski. His work later influenced Lee Strasberg, who’s known as the father of method acting in Hollywood and who trained some of Hollywood’s greatest stars beginning in 1951.
Of course, you can’t talk about method’s present-day allure without mentioning Marlon Brando. To this day, he’s exalted by actors and critics to such an extent that it’s almost as if film acting wasn’t good until he hit the scene. In 2014, James Franco wrote for The New York Times that “Brando’s performances revolutionised American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be ‘performing,’ in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being.”
Brando never went to the extremes of those who came after him, but his career and outlook provide the template for those who see themselves as his successors. Beyond his obsessive dedication to the form, Brando was self-deprecating about his choice of career.
It isn’t a coincidence that many matinee idols see method acting as a time-honoured way of shedding their image as sex symbols. In his post-Titanic career, DiCaprio has been outspoken about wanting to be viewed as a real artist rather than as just an object of female desire.
If history is any indication, the techniques of men like DiCaprio, Bale, and Gosling aren’t necessarily destined to be the future of critically acclaimed film performances. The prevalence of the Brando-inspired approach obscures the fact that Hollywood’s best method actor is arguably a woman: Gena Rowlands.
Actors like Leto could take a cue from Rowlands. Her work is proof that performers don’t need to suffer so pronouncedly to move audiences, and, ultimately, to be remembered. Fellow modern method actresses like Tilda Swinton, Marisa Tomei, and Scarlett Johansson—along with non-method actors like Pitt—prove that grace and power can be found in acting without torturing their co-stars or themselves.