Ah, good ol' Jimmy Stewart. Always the one with the sage wisdom. Actually, Stewart cribbed that line from another acting titan, Laurence Olivier, he of the infamous line to "Method" actor Dustin Hoffman: "Dear boy, it's called acting."
"You play yourself--in deference to the character."
That line sums up my view on the kind of acting I love best. To me, acting isn't always about the becoming of the character, but rather the characteristics of the performer that are revealed in that performance. Make sense? I hope so. Let me know if it doesn't, as I try my best to avoid pretentious talk. What follows is most likely obvious to everyone else, but I feel the need to tell myself this.
Movie stars like Stewart, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and Burt Lancaster all act brilliantly within the parameters of who they are. Now don't get me wrong, I treasure the work of Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and James Caan--always have; but I don't think they're any better or worse than their Golden Age predeccessors. James Stewart didn't need to gain sixty pounds or wear a digital "fat suit" to play Jefferson Smith, and John Wayne didn't have to hang around tormented war veterans to "get a handle" on Ethan Edwards, yet these performers managed to create two of the greatest characters in cinematic history. They tapped resources within themselves and the likes of Wayne and Stewart revealed more about the spectrum of their personalities--and without all of that Strasberg baggage. I love seeing the individual's personality come out in a performance, that's what makes a movie star an artist--their very individuality in a role. That's their personal charisma that comes out of the actor whether they want it to or not.
"I don't act; I react."--John Wayne
Atta boy, Duke. There's a lot more to Wayne's quote than his dismissing the criticism of his acting ability. I take that statement as being a personal one, as in how John Wayne himself would answer another actor's line. That's the acting within one's parameters that I've been going on about.
"Learn your lines and don't trip over the furniture."--Spencer Tracy
It's that simple. If you know what's being said, you'll know how to say it, and say it like it's supposed to be. Besides that, everyone watching a movie is a co-creator of the art, in that we all filter art through our own experiences and opinions, and that's what Golden Age giants like Grant, Wayne, and Stewart do, too.