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The sound of great drama: An actor’s voice can shape performance and, ultimately, career

SHARE The sound of great drama: An actor’s voice can shape performance and, ultimately, career

Pierce Brosnan had the looks and the attitude, but as James Bond he always came up a bit lacking. The problem was his soft, whispery voice. His "Bond, James Bond" came out like a caress, not a punch.

His successor, Daniel Craig, was initially derided for lacking some essential hunky or dashing qualities, yet when he hit the screen, he dominated.

His musculature got much of the attention, and his steely blue eyes didn't hurt, but the key, again, was the voice: low, clipped, blunt, commanding.

Craig was instantly hailed as the best Bond since Sean Connery, whose deep Scottish brogue, one of movie history's most distinct voices, delivered zingers like daggers. It's no coincidence that Connery and Craig are considered the toughest, most charismatic Bonds while Roger Moore and Brosnan, with their more genteel British deliveries, are known as the softies.

The voice is such a basic element of acting yet one rarely discussed. It's easier to reprint a photo of Humphrey Bogart or to describe his droopyeyed glower than it is to capture that unique vocal quality that made him Bogart.

Yet if you played recordings of history's greatest movie stars delivering a sentence, you should be able to identify just about all of them: Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Jodie Foster, Robert De Niro ...

"It's partly because we live in a world of media where the photographic close-up is so much easier to convey that we tend to think it's just a visual medium, but in my opinion every star we remember, every star we love, the voice is vital," says David Thomson, author of " 'Have You Seen ... ?': A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films."

What makes a movie voice great isn't easy to pinpoint.

Welles may have a classically powerful baritone, but Nicholson's sly, nasal rasp or John Malkovich's insinuating purr is equally indelible.

Some actors work hard on their voices' tone; others accentuate different aspects.

"I have been told that it's very difficult to imitate me, for mimics," Hoffman says. "What's really important is rhythm. If you can get the rhythm of the character or just get the rhythm of the film, it's hugely important. Where our timbre may be different, each of us individually, what's really different is our own rhythm, and I think that's very revealing."

Craig says he doesn't consider voice to be "a conscious part of my performance," but "I've been acting for long enough, and I've done enough stage work to be lowering my voice" — he demonstrates — "to make it sound deeper."

As a successful movie actor with theatrical roots, Craig is in good company.

"All the actors whose work I ever admired came out of the theater," says Jeffrey Wright, whose resonant, sandpapery voice has animated complex characters in "Angels in America" (on stage and screen), "W" and "Cadillac Records."

"That was just the way it was. Paul Newman. Brando. Adolph Caesar. It's all theater training where the voice is more central to the communication of story than is the face. On film it's the face, but at the same time, if you forsake the voice for the body, I think you lose out on an opportunity to shape a character."

Since the talkies' early days, many theatrical actors have made the transition to film, but other forces have been at work as well. "When sound came along, all of a sudden the movies needed very strong, articulate voices because the sound recording was not great in those films," Thomson says.

"Very pronounced, slightly exaggerated voices like Cagney's excelled because you got them right away."

Another major factor in the '30s and '40s was radio.

Before his 1941 debut with "Citizen Kane," Welles had become famous through his Mercury Theater on the Air, and performers such as Bob Hope and George Burns also were radio fixtures. The Lux Radio Theater, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, adapted films as well as stage works for the airwaves, often with the original stars re-creating their roles.

"So the ability to speak clearly and to get identity across was tremendously important," Thomson says, adding that actors were so strongly associated with their own voices that when the makers of "Gone With the Wind" tried to give Clark Gable a Southern dialect coach, the actor refused. "He said, 'What the hell, I'm not going to deal with this. You want to hear Gable.'"

History has proved him right. Can you imagine "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," in a put-on twang?

Yet fast-forward to present day, and Tom Cruise, who has a distinct, authoritative voice, is getting grief for not trying on a German accent as the would-be Hitler killer of "Valkyrie." Acting has become less about trademark voices, more about verisimilitude. Meryl Streep is one of the most gifted actresses around, but for years she was known for her uncanny way with an accent; she would lose herself in the voice rather than push that self to the forefront.

Streep's dedication had a sort of fun-house mirror reflection in Peter Sellers, whose radio training on "The Goon Show" presaged a career in which he constantly disappeared into various voices and accents.

As he told none other than Kermit the Frog on "The Muppet Show" in 1977, "There is no me; I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed."

In contrast, James Earl Jones is so famous for his booming voice that he's best known for a role in which he isn't even seen: Darth Vader.

Most current actors, including an assortment of would-be next big things, lack voices of such distinction. You can identify George Clooney, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman when they perform voice-overs, but could you describe how Jake Gyllenhaal sounds? Would you recognize Lindsay Lohan's voice without seeing her? Is Leonardo DiCaprio's voice as immediately recognizable as Pacino's?

Matthew Broderick, who voices the title mouse of "The Tale of Despereaux," admits to approaching his own voice with the self-consciousness of someone hearing himself on an answering machine for the first time.

"Normally I wouldn't be really thinking about my voice," he says. "There have been some parts (where I have), like in 'The Producers' a little bit, but usually I try not to be too aware of the sound of my voice."

"I spent my first certainly 10 years being so embarrassed and afraid of hearing my voice," says Keri Russell ("Bedtime Stories"). "It's sort of a giveaway a lot of times of people's age, like the older they are, the more steady and deep their voices. I don't know if it's just part of aging, but it certainly is a part of finding the character."

Sigourney Weaver, who narrates "Despereaux," may have a pleasingly velvety, precise voice, but she nonetheless admits: "When I hear myself on the answering machine, I just go, 'Who is that dreadful woman?' I never really liked my voice. Katharine Hepburn's voice makes me whinge, and sometimes my voice has that kind of slight — not accent but is it a quality, a nasal quality? I don't know what it is, but anyway, I go, 'Ecch.'"

Yet the 59-year-old theater veteran says she still is learning how to use this essential, often overlooked instrument. "I'm just beginning to understand how much the voice is the beginning," Weaver says. "I've never paid much attention to it, and I really want to give it some stuff to do."