Why Don’t You Try Acting Like A Woman?

This essay has been reprinted at Ms. in the Biz.

When I read in The Atlantic that Jared Leto, in preparation for his role as the Joker in Suicide Squad, sent his fellow castmates used condoms, a dead pig, and a live rat, I literally guffawed. What an attention seeking child, I thought. Acting like a douche isn’t acting. It’s just douche-ery. 

I firmly believe that acting–for both genders–does not have to be soul-excoriating. To be an actor or an artist of any kind does not require that you abandon your humanity, your family, or your actual identity as a person outside the limited work which you are temporarily creating. And it certainly doesn’t demand that you inflict your own techniques on your castmates.

Bastien’s piece, entitled, “Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting,” makes a good case that method acting in America, with all its permutations over the last 60 years, has mostly been reserved for the boys willing to crawl into horse carcasses, swim with actual piranhas, or nearly starve themselves to death–all in pursuit of a trophy. And what do all these daring feats of method acting have in common? Hypermasculinity.

Charlize Theron in MONSTER
Charlize Theron in MONSTER

When women go for EGOT, their performances, like Charlize Theron in Monster, are often critically noted because these women have allowed themselves to–gasp!–look ugly.

There’s a strange conflation between ugliness and real-ness, as if beautiful women are somehow always wearing masks, and this rewarding of “ugly roles” asks women to strip away female artifice by eschewing their attractiveness and playing characters who behave in a typically masculine fashion. A lack of femininity somehow signals more gritty, honest acting. Even the language used to describe these performances reek of machismo: these actresses are brave. It takes balls for a woman to be as anything other than an object of beauty and fragility. In other words, good acting for a woman means acting like a man.

Charlize Theron for Dior
Charlize Theron for Dior

I’ve experienced this sort of bias first hand. A couple of years ago, I went to a workshop with a casting director who worked on an Aaron Spelling-esque TV show, and I had dressed appropriately in a skirt and heels. For some godforsaken reason, he gave all the women a scene where they were playing a 60-year-old diabetic amputee who kills herself by throwing herself down a flight of stairs. No joke.

Beyond the fact that none of us were 60, that we only were given 10 minutes to prepare this very difficult scene, and that it was wildly off-base from the genre in which he could potentially cast us, what became apparent was that he wanted all of these actresses–who were dressed for a teen drama reading–to stop worrying about being beautiful. That was really in his only note to me: “I think you’re afraid to be ugly.” No, sir. I just don’t feel like tearing my pencil skirt as I throw myself to the ground, all for the slim chance at making my AFTRA day rate with a one-liner on your show. 

From this, I must conclude that the most daring thing a woman could do is not be beautiful. And if a woman in Hollywood is willing not to be beautiful, then she must be insane; ipso facto, she’s method acting. But contrary to the aforementioned logic, if a woman were to do something as batshit crazy as Leto, it would serve as proof that all women are hysterics and can’t act if they’re on their periods.

How women approach roles is simply not spoken of. They’re too busy fending off questions about their breast size or why they’re not having children. And if they do have children, then they’re expected to party with the guys and simultaneously cook dinner for their kids. It’s a zero sum game.

But perhaps this double standard gives female actors a superpower. Thanks to their role as caregivers, women often have a greater capacity for empathy, and this quality might make it easier to imagine what it’s like to be someone other than themselves.

Take, for example, Meryl Streep’s iconic creation of Joanna Kramer. Michael Schulman writes in his biography of Streep, “She sat in a playground in Central Park and watched the Upper East Side mothers with their perambulators, trying to outdo one another. As she soaked in the atmosphere—muted traffic noises, chirping birds—she thought about the ‘dilemma of how to be a woman.'” Streep found Joanna by imagining what it must be like to be torn between motherhood and independence.

That wasn’t enough real-ness for her co-star, Dustin Hoffman, who, like his Leto, applied his destructive method acting techniques not only to himself but also to Streep, slapping her in the face, shattering glass in scenes without giving her advanced notice, and, perhaps worst of all, tormenting her with the recent death of her lover, John Cazale. Hoffman did such awful things, according to Richard Fischoff, in order “to get the response that he thought she should be giving in the performance.” After all, father knows best.

Kramer v. Kramer began shooting in 1978, at the height of second wave feminism, and in many ways, the film embodies the societal discomfort with a change in women’s roles. Schulman writes that feminism became “inseparable from [Streep’s] art, because both required radical acts of imagination,” and in winning her first Oscar, she proved that women’s stories and women’s performances cannot be derived from men’s ideas about women. Her empathy for Joanna proves that violence is not verisimilitude, that imagination is not sissy.

We act in plays (or modern extensions thereof); play is diametrically opposed to the phallic flagellation so prevalent in method acting. Leave hair shirts to the monks, friends, and try acting like a woman.

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