We’ve all heard or used the old cliché, “He/She really WAS (fill in the blank)!” when praising an actor’s portrayal of a person that is so genuine you actually almost forget it’s not real. Although this “method acting” trend has become more popular in the past few decades, Marlon Brando was hailed as one of the first to instill his character with stark authenticity for his role in the 1950s movie The Men. Dustin Hoffman went to extreme lengths to prepare for his star character portrayal in Marathon Man 26 years later.
Sadly, these physical and mental sacrifices and dedication to craft aren’t typically honored with prizes such as Academy Awards or even hailed by many critics as exceptional. Nonetheless, actors who go that extra mile to deliver outstanding performances continue to shine at the box office and gain the adoration of movie goers – and a few even get the brass ring for their efforts.
Marlon Brando – The Men
In 1950, the end of WW II was still lingering in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. While lots of people were embracing the emerging economy, age of automation, and pursuit of the American Dream, many were still recovering from the ravages of war, including massive injuries that left soldiers paraplegic or quadriplegic. Marlon Brando was a virtual unknown when he landed the lead role of a recovering WW II infantry lieutenant in a wheelchair in The Men.
To prepare for the challenging part, Brando spent weeks wheelchair-bound at Birmingham Army Hospital, shadowing real-life paraplegics in their day-to-day activities to ensure his performance was realistic without being maudlin. Brando’s performance was the first glimpse of his imperceptible depth of talent, which burst onto the screen full force in A Streetcar Named Desire the next year and in On The Waterfront in 1954.
Dustin Hoffman – Marathon Man
Dustin Hoffman was hell-bent on proving his versatility as an actor from the time he rocked the movie world with his portrayal of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Nine years later, with blockbusters Midnight Cowboy, Lenny and Papillion added to his list of credits, Hoffman starred in Marathon Man, a tense thriller that plays on the strength of fear and paranoia. One of the key scenes has Hoffman’s character Babe Levy struggling to survive ghastly deeds and make life and death decisions after three days of no sleep. To make the portrayal as realistic as possible, Hoffman actually went sleepless for three days prior to shooting the scene. The scenes turned out to be one of the movie’s most critically acclaimed parts and added another notch to Hoffman’s growing list of talents.
Christian Bale – The Machinist
Many people associate Bale with his depiction of a perfectly toned Batman, where he was ripped from head to toe in the movie Batman Forever. But before that role, he starred in the tormenting character study called The Machinist, for which he lost 63 pounds, dropping him to an emaciated 121 pounds on a 6 foot frame.
It was a grueling process, with Bale cutting himself off from friends and family and staying alive for 4 months on a diet of coffee, water and an apple a day. While The Machinist wasn’t a box office hit, Bale’s depiction of the mentally fragile character was spot on and truly memorable.
Robert De Niro – Taxi Driver; Raging Bull; Cape Fear
From his first scene in Taxi Driver, most viewers looked at Robert De Niro and said, “Yep, he’s crazy.” Although he’d been a major force playing Vito Corelone in The Godfather: Part II two years earlier, De Niro’s title role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver elevated him from threatening gangster to an enraged and dangerous cabbie. For one of the most pivotal roles of his career, De Niro procured a New York City taxi cab driver’s license and actually picked up and delivered fares all over the city to get in character.
When De Niro portrayed notorious boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull four years later in 1980, he once again immersed himself in the coveted role, gaining 60 pounds to reflect La Motta’s beefy physique. Along with the weight gain, De Niro trained like a mad man. He competed in three authentic Brooklyn boxing matches – and was the victor in two of them.
By the time the role of Max Cady became available for the smash hit Cape Fear in 1996, De Niro had 17 more movies under his belt. Cady’s character had spent most of his life in prison for sexual assault. It was important to De Niro that his physical appearance genuinely depicted lengthy incarceration, including teeth that had not been cared for. He reportedly paid a dentist $5K to grind down his teeth and destroy them to add realism to his character. When the movie wrapped, it cost him $20K to have his teeth restored. Not a bad investment for a role that resulted in nominations for both Golden Globe and Academy Awards.
Daniel Day-Lewis – My Left Foot; The Crucible; Lincoln
Day-Lewis has been known for his devotion to method acting from early on, long before anyone knew who he was or he became a movie star. He “became” his characters in early films such as A Room with a View and The Unbearable Lightness of Being through psychological and personality transformations but starring in My Left Foot, where he played a cerebral palsy victim in a wheelchair, he ended up with broken ribs from extended periods curled up in a wheelchair during shooting. As John Proctor in the 1996 movie version of The Crucible, Day-Lewis chose to etch tattoos into his chest to become more attuned with his character’s physical and psychological leanings.
Lewis landed the plum title role in Lincoln in 2012, a movie that depicted a small but significant period in the president’s life. Rumor has it he immersed himself in the role, going so far as to signing his text messages with the moniker “Abe.” Director Steven Spielberg egged on Day-Lewis by proposing the actor be adamant that the cast and crew address him only as “Mr. President” during shooting.
All the antics surrounding the filming of Lincoln paid off. Day-Lewis won an Oscar for the role, becoming the first male to win a Best Actor Academy Award three times. It was also a big day for Spielberg: no actor had ever before won an Oscar for a film he directed.