Vital Signs

James Stewart

James Stewart was born 100 years ago, on May 20, 1908, the same week that Constantin Stanislavski published his “grammar” of acting at the Moscow Arts Theatre, essentially an effort to formulate a codified, systematic approach by which the actor psychologically wrenches himself into “becoming” his fictional character.  There is no doubt in my mind that it was Stewart, not Stanislavski, who got things right, and that Stewart’s unpretentious approach to his craft has made for the more enduring art.  However, Stanislavski’s reputation remains as great today as it was in the 1950’s, when performers such as Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Vic Morrow, James Dean, and Paul Newman brought variations of the so-called method (routinely illustrated by the totemic ripped T-shirt) to American screens.  The idea of the tortured anti-hero has long since entered the culture, as has a critical disdain for the sort of picture even notionally family-friendly studios such as Disney refer to in their internal memos as brazenly playing to “the great average”—notably It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  While allowing that some of its exponents may be very fine performers, I quail before the method and its many modern counterparts, which collectively seem to be a catch-all for everything that is labored and self-regarding and insufferable about contemporary film, or at least...

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