Method acting is a serious craft. It requires you to commit completely to a role, to surrender to it, to take on every quality and mannerism of the character you're playing - in essence, you "become" the character, inside and out. Developed by Konstantin Stanislavski during the years 1911-1916, then later cultivated by "star" practitioners such as Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, "The Method," as it's called, emphasizes the importance of emotional truth, conveyed internally and externally by the actor. Yet the demands of immersing yourself that deeply into the mind of a character can also have its negative effects, often to the detriment of your own health or sanity. Famous examples of actors taking their "Method" to the extreme include Marlon Brando, who confined himself to a hospital bed for an entire month to prepare for his role as a paraplegic in The Men (1950); Robert De Niro, who gained a whopping 64 pounds to play aging boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980); and Daniel Day-Lewis, who never moved from his wheelchair during the entire six-week shoot for My Left Foot (1989), learned how to track and kill his own food for The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), and caught a slight case of pneumonia while shooting Gangs Of New York (2002) because he refused to wear clothes that were untrue to the period.
The authenticity of these performances aside, there are limits, of course, to how much an actor is willing to sacrifice for his art. To play a character who returns from the dead, for example, it's probably unnecessary for anyone to die and be resuscitated in order to achieve the "emotional truth" of the moment (that's what the Internet was invented for, people!). The same goes for trying to relive a past sexual or childhood trauma, or resorting to actual drug use for a part, which any medical processional will tell you, is likely to cause more psychological and physical damage than it's probably worth. (I am reminded of a scene from 1976's Marathon Man, in which Dustin Hoffman kept himself awake for three days straight to accurately portray his character's disorientation and terror. When co-star Laurence Olivier heard this, he told Hoffman, "Why don't you just try acting?")
And what about films featuring amputees? Characters who've lost limbs or appendages, either during on-camera exploits or off? Luckily, history records no cases of actors deliberately deforming their bodies for the sake of a part, though some - like De Niro paying an actual dentist to file down his teeth for Cape Fear (1991), or Jamie Foxx doing the same for The Soloist (2009) - have come uncomfortably close. And while actors with disabilities have famously starred in motion pictures before (Harold Russell, a double amputee who lost both hands during World War II, won an Oscar for his work in The Best Years Of Our Lives ), examples of this are few and far between.
So when a script literally calls for a character to lose an arm or a leg, what options are available for filmmakers? Well, if you're Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), Danny Boyle (127 Hours), or Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer), you resort to the latest in revolutionary digital effects - green screens or complex computer graphics to help "erase" limbs from the film frame. If you're John Carpenter (The Thing), Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), or Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 3), you hire actual amputees as stand-ins or extras. Or if you're Guy Hamilton (Live And Let Die), Robert Clouse (Enter The Dragon), or Bobby and Peter Farrelly (Kingpin), you simply do what the rest of us did when we play acted as children - have your actors tuck their hands inside their shirt sleeves and walk around as if they'd just been lopped off their bodies.
Like it or not, decapitations and dismemberment have always been a part of our cinematic language, from the days of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1919) onward. But the crudeness of that violence - cutting away, say, from a live actor to a mannequin during a public execution scene, at the exact moment the guillotine pierces flesh - that keeps us distanced from it, outside of it, reminds us that what we're watching is only a movie. The same goes for the hand-inside-the-shirt-sleeve trick, a crude yet effective tool for getting the point across... or would be, at least, if the actors themselves weren't so consistently bad at giving the game away. In Live And Let Die (1973), for example, Julius Harris plays Tee Hee Johnson, right-hand man (sorry) to the movie's big bad, Mr. Big. He's mean, he's menacing, he's got a mechanical pincer for an arm, and at 6'3", would be considered quite a threat in any situation. But it's hard to feel threatened by Mr. Harris when he's constantly doing this:
You see how the claw keeps bending where his wrist should be? Now take a moment and do the same with your own hand. Bend it, flex it, rotate it. Moves pretty much the same way, does it not? Imagine, though, you had no hand at the end of that wrist. Would you still have the same flexibility there? Of course not: because your forearm is made up of two bones, the radius and the ulna. No joints, no flexors, just plain, immovable bone.
The big bad in Robert Clouse's Enter The Dragon (1973), meanwhile, Mr. Han (Shih Kien), is a vicious drug lord and sex trafficker by trade, who hosts a tri-annual martial arts tournament on a secluded island as cover for his evil doings. He's also missing his left hand for unspecified reasons, and can replace it with a prosthetic cast iron limb, a bladed limb, or a bear claw, depending on his penchant for violence at the time. During Han's climactic battle with Bruce Lee, Han loses his bear claw attachment and reacts like many of us would, with self-righteous shock and wrist-bending indignation:
Not even Star Wars, it seems, is immune from this sort of phalangical flub. In Return Of The Jedi (1983), after getting his hand lopped off by Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader fulfills his destiny by saving his son and flinging the evil Emperor deep into the bowels of the Death Star. Afterward, Vader reflects upon his actions, peering into the shaft with his stumped arm draped - yes, draped - over a barrel (or is that a Shop-Vac?) for support:
Granted, it's easy to spot a fake once you know what to look for. For Total Recall (1990), director Paul Verhoeven decided to pull no punches at the climax of his film, by completely severing the forearms of one of the characters. It's a grisly, gross-out image to be sure (in a movie chock-full of grisly, gross-out images): While duking it out with good guy Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a moving freight elevator, bad guy Richter (Michael Ironside) gets both his arms sliced off as he's tossed over the side, leaving Quaid holding the bloodied body parts in his hands. But the impact is severely lessened once we get a shot of Richter as he falls, and can clearly see the stuntman's arms folded neatly into the sides of his shirt. (I've removed the "offensive" bits from the shot below, even though it's clearly nothing more than latex and colored corn syrup.)
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), it's Arnold who loses an arm during his battle with the bad guy - but with significantly less gore, since the Austrian Oak is technically playing a robot. Yet in a movie loaded with state-of-the-art special effects, how do you pull off the illusion that Schwarzenegger has lost an all-important appendage? Simple: you pull a Total Recall, and tuck his arm inside his shirt down the back of his pants. Which makes it just the slightest bit awkward when that arm is roughly the size of a tree trunk:
At least in The Fugitive (1993), the filmmakers had the good sense to hide actor Andreas Katsulas's "missing" arm in plain sight. Hid it so well, in fact, that the movie actually fooled me into thinking they hired a one-armed man for the part... until the end, that is, when Katsulas finally faces off against Harrison Ford on a Chicago el train, and then this happens:
Look closely, and you can clearly see the fingers on Katsulas's left hand flex for a moment as he's kicked backwards. Turns out his mechanical arm was his actual arm the entire time - painted to look like a prosthetic!
Of course, you can hardly fault the filmmakers (or, for that matter, the actors) for trying to pull off the impossible - especially during the pre-CGI days, before fancy schmancy computers made it much easier to portray peg-legged or hook-handed characters onscreen. (It's also comforting to see that our favorite actors prize their precious body parts over their paychecks.) Even all these days afterward, when budget constraints and paucity of imagination run rampant, it's good to see so many comedy directors, at least, taking such a thing in stride.
Happy Gilmore (1996)
Arrested Development (2013)