So why are the Brits, pound for pound, far better actors than their American cousins? Over a hundred years ago Edwin Booth and other greats toured England performing Shakespeare. The idea of American actors touring England these days, performing Shakespeare--or any of the classics---is about as far fetched as as a rap group, a mariachi band or The Dixie Chicks touring Rome performing Verdi.
What went wrong?
Why did critics give James Earl Jones good reviews as the judge in an Ibsen play but felt compelled to inform you that, just in case you didn't know it, there were no black judges in 19th century Norway---and yet felt no need whatever to point out that, just in case you didn't know it, they spoke (unlike Jones and the other actors in the play) Norwegian, not English?
Hornby examines conventions so ingrained in American acting training, that we're not even aware they're conventions any longer.
His main target is the indubitable Lee Strasberg and his followers. Hornby is not so much anti-Method as he is pro-Stanislavsky. Using examples and photos from actors as varied as Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart and W.C. Fields; his section on 'Stanislavsky's Basic Theories' is worth the price of the book alone.
Hornby's critique against Lee's guru/teacher offsprings is that among many sins, they 'train' actors in the manner of a football coach who runs all sorts of endless exercises but never actually lets the team play in a real game.
If they did reality would set in and the con-job would be over. Actors are of course equally guilty in perpetuating the con out of their own fear--if they actually had to audition, get hired and depend upon the audience's pleasure to earn a living in the theater--Gee, they'd be rather like the English wouldn't they?
As it is they can stay in the sidelines and talk forever as they examine all their 'flaws' in labs/studio/workshops, but do not have to dirty their hands battling in the arena.
Equally guilty, in his eyes, are the pundits that run American Theater Arts departments at universities. Even those who are not the offspring of Lee & co, encourage actors to 'play themselves' to such an absurd degree that Hornby notes that the late Peter Sellers could not have passsed the audition for an entrance exam. he could not 'play himself'. Olivier would have probably fared equally badly, and of course Meryl Streep regularly gets put down for using accents, i.e; for ACTING. Even if the accent is required in the role.
The book begins with a section entitled the psycho-sexual basis of acting, which quotes Freud extensively and is a bit long winded. Not badly written by any means, just that the points that acting is fun because the lines of ego are not so rigidly drawn as one thinks, that actors are considered 'childish' by those who hate their own jobs (Oh, 90% of the public), The common distrust towards people who pretend to be someone else--all this was better stated in David Mamet's "True and False", when he observed that, in the Middle Ages, actors were buried at a crossroad---with a stake through the heart. "An awesome compliment"
Nevertheless, this is truly a 5 star book, and contains more constructive critique than Mamet's.
Absolutely required reading for any actor or director.