May 16, 2013

Hearing His Master's Voice

'I’ve long held the view that too much attention is paid to the way movie actors look, and not enough to the way they sound. Of the two senses we use to take in cinema, or apprehend an performance, sound accounts for a full 50%, maybe more. "The ear goes more towards the within,” said Robert Bresson, “the eye towards the outer”. An actor’s voice can be the most distinctive thing about them, whether that of Marilyn Monroe, which was variously compared to    “cotton candy, smoke, wind, lollipops and velvet”, “Champagne lava,” and “the slow folding and unfolding of a pink cashmere sweater,” or the strange transatlantic locution of Cary Grant, neither quite English nor quite American, but some strange place in the middle where men in top hats did backflips and leopards interrupted your golf game.  
Then there is Bogart. “They all said he lisped,” wrote Kenneth Tynan of the actor, whom he could imitate perfectly. “He did nothing of the sort. What he did was to fork his tongue and hiss like a snake.” As Bogart’s latest biographer, Stefan Kanfer recently pointed out, nobody “does” Di Caprio or Gosling they way they tried to do Bogart or Cagney. Such idiosyncracy seems to be a hallmark of the 1902 and 30s, when that first generation of Hollywood actors attempted to gain a foothold, or earhold, in the brand new landscape of sound cinema.   In a post at her indispensible movie-blog savoring the “delicious purr” of Sydney Greenstreet, the “somber, nun-at-vespers intonation” and the “silky” growl of Robert Mitchum, The Self-Styled Siren argues that  
“Early talkies did the human voice no favors, hitting the squeaky high notes with a frequency that gelded male stars and made female ones sound like Kewpie dolls. Once technicians got the sound more under control, though, performers began to stand out on the basis of their voices. Vaguely aristocratic tones like that of Ronald Colman were especially coveted. You strove for that mid-Atlantic accent, meaning not Delaware and Pennsylvania but somewhere in the middle of the ocean, between England and the former colonies. Eventually individuality blossomed, and the full spectrum of American accents was heard. The Siren thinks you hear a much wider variety of dialects in 1930s movies than you do in modern ones.” 
Who these days can compare? There is always Christopher Walken, of course, who reportedly taught himself his halting manner of speech by deleting all the punctuation from his scripts and who continues to sound as if recently arrived from the outermost ring of Saturn. There is Alan Rickman, who always manages to sound like a python halfway through a protracted process of digestion. But while I am second to none in my admiration for Di Caprio, particularly in the latest Gatsby, the only thing holding him back in other roles — particularly Eastwood’s J Edgar and Scorsese’s The Aviator — has been his voice, which plays much younger than his characters. Imagine him with Kiefer’s Sutherland’s sand-and-molasses murmur, or Alec Baldwin’s mink-lined fondle, or Sam Eliott’s resonant cello — sweet Jesus. Truly, we would have the new Orson Welles on our hands.' — from my Guardian column


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