Needless to say, observing other actors working at the top of their game is both an enjoyable and potentially inspirational activity, one which can provide insights that students may use to inform and improve their own acting skills. As actors, we are trained to observe carefully, to analyze every choice a fellow actor makes with meticulous attention.
But notice, too, that truly great performances inexorably draw you in. Ideally, they make you forget that you are watching a performance at all. When watching a powerhouse actor at work, we aren’t focused on their performance as an assemblage of conscious choices, but feel rather that we are witnessing a genuine person engaging in their private struggles and experiencing their own unique triumphs.
At it’s best, a superior performance will offer us a view of seemingly private moments, of spontaneous actions and reactions, of raw and unfiltered emotions. As an actor, of course, you know well that such performances are not in fact completely spontaneous and unfiltered. Rather, the accomplished actor makes specific choices and calls upon their past experiences, creating the illusion of true spontaneity. Here, we assemble ten must-watch Hollywood movies out of the many thousands readily available for viewing, all starring alumni of The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. They offer inspired performances that draw you in, leaving you in awe of their technical sleight-of-hand and emotional resonance, and give you just a taste of what a Method Actor can do.
1. Dog Day Afternoon — Al Pacino
While his unforgettable role in 1971’s The Godfather arguably put Al Pacino’s star on the map, this riveting and tense film solidified his reputation as one of the greatest young actors of his generation. Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon has been called one of the best bank robbery films in history. Pacino – who trained with Lee at the Actors Studio – tackles the challenging role of Sonny, an anti-establishment bank robber trying to save money for his partner’s gender reassignment surgery. In so doing, Pacino successfully delivers one of the most complex and compelling performances of his career.
2. Steel Magnolias — Sally Field
This classic hit from the ‘80s featured a stellar cast of new stars and acting veterans alike, including Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacClaine and Sally Field. Field, who trained with Lee Strasberg himself, received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her role as the matriarch at the center of an endearing and steely group of women. Field has received countless awards for her work on screen – including two Academy Awards, three Primetime Emmys, and two Golden Globes – but her grief-stricken “I Wanna Know Why” speech in Steel Magnolias has been called one of the greatest film monologues of all time.
3. Marriage Story — Scarlett Johansson
This story of a marriage — or rather, the dissolution of one — features powerhouse actors Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a couple coming undone. At the 2020 Academy Awards, Johansson was recognized for her work in both Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit. She made history by becoming the eleventh actor in history to receive two nominations in the same year. If one Method Actor wasn’t enough, Marriage Story also stars Strasberg aluma Laura Dern, who walked away from the 2020 awards season with both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
4. Blue Velvet — Laura Dern
If you finished Marriage Story wanting more from Laura Dern, you’re in luck. Dern has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Hollywood with nearly sixty films under her belt and continues to delight audiences with ongoing projects. With recent hits including Little Women and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Blue Velvet is largely considered her breakthrough performance. While the film initially received a divided response due to its objectionable and violent content, it ultimately won David Lynch a nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards. Since, Blue Velvet has become an American cult classic.
5. The Social Network — Armie Hammer
Born the year Blue Velvet premiered, Armie Hammer is an accomplished young actor who holds dozens of works on screen and two Broadway credits to his name. Of his many notable hits, The Social Network is the film that put Hammer on the map. In the film, a biographical drama about the invention of Facebook and subsequent lawsuits, Hammer plays not one but two characters – Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, a pair of identical twins. According to the Washington Post, “for 10 months of production, [Hammer] enlisted in twin boot camp, working with acting coach Cameron Thor to drill the subtle movements and speech patterns that the Winklevosses would have developed over two decades of genetic equality.” Now that’s dedication!
6. Pulp Fiction — Uma Thurman
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is yet another cult classic, starring John Travolta and LSTFI alumna Uma Thurman. Thurman’s performance as Mia Wallace, an aspiring young actress, earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 1994 Academy Awards – just one of the film’s 48 nominations from 11 different award shows. Film critics, fans and professionals alike have praised Thurman for her performance. A riveting and complex femma fatale, Mia Wallace is now considered one of the most iconic female film roles of all time.
7. Carrie — Sissy Spacek
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Carrie follows a young woman struggling to come to grips with her untested supernatural powers. Now considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made, Carrie shocked audiences and brought Sissy Spacek wide acclaim. Although she first received attention for her performance in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Carrie – and its unforgettable bucket of blood – put Spacek on the proverbial map and earned her first nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
8. A Star Is Born — Lady Gaga
With three successful versions since the original A Star is Born in 1937, many accomplished actresses have tackled this film’s challenging leading role. Joining the ranks of Judy Garland and Barbra Steisand, Lady Gaga stars in the 2018 remake as Ally, a struggling singer who reaches stardom as her famous boyfriend loses his own place in the firmament. The film made excellent use of Gaga’s powerful vocal abilities and touching vulnerability. Aside from her incredible career as a singer and performer, Lady Gaga studied at LSTFI and has made a name for herself as a successful actress in recent years as well.
9. Taxi Driver — Harvey Keitel
This gritty drama from the mid-‘70s featured a young Robert DeNiro and an even younger Jodie Foster. But it also starred Strasberg alum, Harvey Keitel. Keitel plays a ruthless pimp to Foster’s underage prostitute, and DeNiro’s character, Travis Bickle, ultimately engages in a gun battle with Keitel’s character. Although his screen time is limited, Keitel has riveted audiences for decades since, in projects ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to The Irishman (2019). For more than two decades, Keitel served as co-president of the Actor’s Studio.
10. Some Like It Hot — Marilyn Monroe
Considered one of the greatest comedies of all time, Some Like it Hot film features two men on the run, forced by circumstances to pose as young women in a traveling band. While the men do get their fair share of laughs, it was Marilyn Monroe, as a sweet singer named Sugar, who undoubtedly stole the show. The men are caught in an intense competition for Sugar’s affection, all the while attempting to maintain their disguises as female band members. The 1959 comedy highlighted Monroe’s legendary charms, showcasing her not only as a “blonde bombshell” but as a skilled and technical comedic actress. The film was both a critical and commercial success – and won Monroe a Golden Globe for Best Actress!
BONUS: Mike Nichols’ The Graduate
If you’ve blazed through all 10 films in quarantine and are looking for more, this one’s for you! This 1967 romantic comedy features the work of not one but three talented Method Actors. Dustin Hoffman stars in the film as Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. A true Method Acting movie, both Hoffman and Bancroft – as well as the film’s director, Mike Nichols – all studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio! The comedy was a smashing success and became the highest grossing film of 1967 worldwide, an incredible feat given that the year is widely considered one of the most ground-breaking in film history. In total, the film amassed an impressive 41 award nominations, even nabbing an Academy Award for Best Director.