This week, Benedict Cumberbatch has been basking in praise for his portrayal of the villain, John Harrison, in JJ Abrams' new film, Star Trek Into Darkness – more particularly, his voice has been drawing raves.
"So sepulchrally resonant that it could have been synthesised from the combined timbres of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Alan Rickman holding an elocution contest down a well," sighed The Independent's Jonathan Romney. "The deep-voiced Cumberbatch asserts fully self-justified treachery", asserted The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane launched a career-overview of Cumberbatch's "honeyed mellifluous voice", concluding: "The timbre remains in Abrams film." The Daily Mirror judged its readers so in need of a top-up of Cumberbatch's Burtonesque baritone, it linked to a video in which he intoned the line "I will walk over your cold corpses" on The Graham Norton Show.
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 a performance, sound accounts for 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 from 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, points 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 1920s 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 on her indispensible movie blog, savoring the "delicious purr" of Sydney Greenstreet and 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 Leonardo DiCaprio, particularly in the latest Gatsby, the only thing holding him back in other roles – particularly Clint Eastwood's J Edgar and Martin 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.
Most of today's stars came to the world's attention as teenagers, and have yet to rack up the wear-and-tear that renders them vocally interesting – that allowed Debra Winger, say, to provide early tests for ET, who sounded as if his first act, upon reaching earth, had been to develop a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. No wonder today's actors put such store in accents, betting the house on the cult of "immersion" – but chameleons can also be flavorless. When Pixar employed John Ratzenberger and Don Rickles to lend their voices to the cast of Toy Story, there was precision and cunning in the casting. When Dreamworks forked over however many millions it took to employ the vocal services of Brad Pitt for Megamind, it seemed like celebrity casting taken to nonsensical extremes. Whatever can be the point of not looking at Brad Pitt?
It's one reason I am such a fan of Elizabeth Olsen and Carey Mulligan, who both have wonderfully low vocal registers, allowing them to project a gravity beyond their years. It was the paradox that drove Mulligan's performance in An Education, that while she had the face and body of a young girl, she spoke with the unexpected sanguinity of Jenny Agutter – the moral growth plotted by the film was there in her voice. And then there is Patricia Clarkson, whose voice, like that apprehended by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, is "like the music which seems Murmur'd low in our ears by the Angel of dreams".
So let's be grateful for Cumberbatch, Clarkson, Olsen and Mulligan; for Baldwin and Brian Cox; for both Sutherlands, father and son; for Judi Dench, Michael Madsen, Will Arnett and Jeremy Irons. And let us not forget He whose voice rings, like Swinburne's Villon, "athwart the sea whence no man steers / Like joy-bells crossed with death-bells in our ears".
I refer, of course, to Morgan Freeman, whose voice has its own Facebook page, with 953,000 likes. It was also the subject of a 2008
satirical cartoon about a medical condition known as Freeman Paracusia which causes the sufferer to read everything in Morgan Freeman's voice.
Condition or cure-all? There is now a Facebook page called "I want Freeman Paracusia."
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