Why the void?
So often, the conversation turns to movies. Well, at least around my house it does. A casual comment from Jen (my son’s fiancé) spurred a flurry of discussion and name-calling. No, we weren’t verbally assaulting each other; rather we were reacting to her casually wondering aloud where all the actors with great voices have gone. Perhaps you have noticed the void … more likely you haven’t. The previous abundance of golden voices on the silver screen has devolved into a mass of nondescript, sometimes unrecognizable voices that rarely dominate a scene or command an audience.
My initial response to this conundrum was to note that today’s movie stars spend little or no time on stage in front of a live audience … the ultimate training ground for impactful voices. Sure, a few big time actors will take on a limited run for a play, but nothing like the years of consistent stage work from many of the stars of yesteryear.
Deeper analysis, a little research, and conversations with some people whose opinions I value, has led me to a more sociological-related conclusion. Our “ideal man” has changed. Corresponding to that change was a distinct transition in the type and style of voices sought for acting roles. For decades (and even longer), the ideal man was often described as “the strong silent type”. Being heroic meant not just fighting for our country in the string of wars (WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, et al) but also carrying the burden of family bread-winner and protector, even during the Great Depression. A real man’s actions spoke volumes, while his words were spoken rarely. When he did have something to say, his words cut straight to the point and were delivered with a strong, deep voice that commanded, even demanded attention. The example would be Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. This was the image of man which every boy strived for and most women expected.
Then, along came the late 1960’s … hippies and rebellion … and a new movement. Authority figures were no longer above reproach. Every societal norm came under scrutiny, and with this came a different style of role model. The ideology of the strong silent type was being challenged by the intellectually vociferous types … the skeptical, quick-witted ones who poetically debated for a more equal and open society. When 1970 rolled around, “The Phil Donahue Show” was unleashed nationally. In 1971, “All in the Family” introduced us to Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) as the grumpy “old school” man struggling to hold onto his traditional world that was being overrun by idealists (Meathead). And then in 1972, “M*A*S*H” hit TV. Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce showed us what the new ideal man was … unafraid to question authority, driven to expose system inequities, void of any desire for heroics, and above all, not just unafraid, but actually anxious to share his emotions. Archie Bunker became the butt of jokes. Alan Alda’s charm and often whiny voice was winning over women and taking macho men off the hook. Phil Donahue was invoking his harried, high-pitched plea to guilt his guests into conveying the emotions necessary to publically open the long-closed lines of communication between men and women. The world had changed and there was a new definition of “man” … and he was expected to talk a lot!
Movies are a reflection of the times, so Hollywood’s leading men have been evolving and transitioning ever since Alda and Donahue raised the pitch of their voices to rip down the old façade of what makes a man. Where once we had High Noon with Gary Cooper standing tall and delivering his sparse dialogue with a deep authoritative voice, we soon had Sleepless in Seattle and the ultimate sensitive single dad (Tom Hanks) speaking gently and kindly to his young matchmaker son atop the Empire State Building (yes, it’s a remake … compare Cary Grant’s 1957 voice in An Affair to Remember to that of Hanks in the 1993 version). The changing ideal of manliness corresponded to the dramatic shift in the screen voices of men. Rather than leading men in the mold of Charlton Heston and Richard Burton, we were seeing and hearing the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino (pre-bellowing years), Robert Redford and even Woody Allen. This is probably the most opportune time to point out that this comparative analysis is, by nature, a sexist undertaking. This is not meant as a slight on actresses, it’s simply a focused look at the dramatic and distinctive changes in the voice of male movie actors over the past few decades.
Of course, judging the “great” voices is a combination of opinion and general perception. An attempt was made to not simply be fooled by an elegant British accent, a charming Aussie mate, or a distinguished Frenchman. Vocal resonance, timbre, tone and screen impact were the keys. Debate is encouraged in regards to those included, as well as those omitted. What is clear is that the imbalance between the “Over 50” and “Under 50” would be comical, if not so startling … and believe it when I say that another twenty names could easily be added to the older group, while the younger group failed to produce any others that were even borderline.
GOLDEN VOCAL CORDS – this is the group of actors who have a voice that resonates and becomes part of their character and persona. The list is broken into age groups and includes some of the all-time greats (some no longer with us), as well as some still working today:
Golden Voices, age 50 plus: Yul Brenner, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Kirk and Michael Douglas, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sam Elliott, Morgan Freeman, James Garner, John Gielgud, Cary Grant, Fred Gwynne, Richard Harris, Dennis Haysbert, Charlton Heston, Anthony Hopkins, John Houseman, Rock Hudson, James Earl Jones, Boris Karloff, Ben Kingsley, Kris Kristofferson, Frank Langella, Christopher Lee, Dean Martin, Lee Marvin, James Mason, Malcolm McDowell, Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, Leslie Nielsen, Leonard Nimoy, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Christopher Plummer, Vincent Price, Jason Robards, George C Scott, Robert Stack, Patrick Stewart, Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow, Denzel Washington, Orson Welles, Paul Winfield
Golden Voices, under age 50: Benedict Cumberbatch, Armie Hammer, Hugh Jackman, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
If you believe I am discriminating against the younger group, here is a list of some of the top actors in the under-50 age group. I look forward to hearing which of these you believe belong in the GOLDEN VOCAL CORDS group:
Other Actors under age 50: Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Christian Bale, Javier Bardem, Jay Baruchel, Michael Cera, Bradley Cooper, Daniel Craig, Russell Crowe, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Andrew Garfield, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hutcherson, Shia LaBeouf, Tobey Maguire, James McAvoy, Clive Owen, Robert Pattinson, Joaquin Phoenix, Chris Pine, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Jeremy Renner, Chris Rock, Ryan Reynolds, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Michael Shannon, Channing Tatum, Mark Wahlberg
What I noticed about this last group, is that rather than possessing a booming stage-ready voice, many fall into the “Mumbling” category made famous by the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood, and Sean Penn. The italicized names in the group above are those that I believe easily fall into “Mumbling”.
At this point, you may be thinking exactly what I was … there are still some very recognizable movie voices that have not been mentioned. This worthy of attention group has been labeled “DISTINCTIVE”.
DISTINCTIVE VOICES: Ed Asner, Antonio Banderas, Humphrey Bogart, Powers Boothe, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan, Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, James Cagney, James Coburn, Peter Falk, Clark Gable, Samuel L Jackson, Peter Lorre, Matthew McConaughey, Groucho Marx, Walter Matthau, Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Edward G Robinson, Al Pacino, Arnold Schwarzenegger, William Shatner, Jimmy Stewart, George (“Oh my”) Takei, Christopher Walken, John Wayne, Hugo Weaving.
Taking a look at the “Other Actors under age 50” group, it seems that Chris Rock and Jesse Eisenberg are really the only ones who belong in the “Distinctive” group, unless you include Keanu Reeves’ trademark “Whoa” or Mark Wahlberg’s highly recognizable Southie use of the “f-word”.
What all of this means is still a bit cloudy, but it’s clear that neither a great nor distinctive speaking voice is critical to earning a nice living as an actor these days. Heck, we haven’t even categorized Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro, Tom Cruise, Daniel Day Lewis or Dustin Hoffman … five of the most successful actors of the last 40 years. What’s also clear is that a transformation has occurred in the acting world. The age imbalance for “Golden” and “Distinctive” voices is proof … what’s not quite so clear is exactly WHY.
Using your best Don LaFontaine (the late, great voice actor known for movie trailers) voice, let me hear you say … “In a world where … the golden voices of the silver screen seem to have disappeared” …which actors under age 50 would you include on the list? (You’ll have to use the comments section for me to really “hear” you)
Here is a little inspiration to get you in the Golden Voice mood. It’s a mash-up of Don LaFontaine’s trailer work: