Not long ago, I read that Hollywood is worried about a shortage of
young male stars who can play big roles. I’m not surprised.
And I think I can give the chief reason in a single word: voices.
Think of the great male stars of the past: Humphrey Bogart, Edward
G. Robinson, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Fredric March,
Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, William Powell, Cary Grant,
Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Richard Burton, Kirk Douglas,
Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Montgomery Clift. They weren’t
all pretty boys, though Cooper, Grant, Colman, Olivier, Peck, and Clift
were extraordinarily good-looking; but they all had memorable voices.
You can’t picture them without recalling how they sounded. Nothing
conveys personality so fully as the voice.
Burton’s and Welles’s resonant voices are legendary;
but, as with the others, what was distinctive was less the timbre than
their delivery. They put their stamp on every line they spoke. All
these old stars did. Mimics loved them.
And today? There are plenty of handsome, ingratiating young stars — Tom
Cruise, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell — but
few of them have either good voices or recognizable styles of speaking.
Their speech can only be called forgettable. That’s why they
can’t play heroic roles convincingly; they can only play kids.
You can hardly imagine them in serious conversation. Can you imagine
any of these hunks carrying Casablanca, Rebecca, or From
Here to Eternity, or holding his own with actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis,
or Myrna Loy? The mimics must be starving.
A notable exception is George Clooney, who combines good looks with
a fine voice and real wit. He may be the best-equipped actor in Hollywood
today, equal to both serious drama and romantic comedy. He knows what
to do with a good line. Still, he lacks the special touch of the great
old stars. Maybe it’s that the scripts aren’t what they
used to be.
Another exception is Hugh Grant, who also has looks and voice and
is probably the most charming actor in films today. It may help that
he comes from England, where people tend to speak in complete sentences,
sometimes without obscenities.
For the most part, only a few aging stars have riveting manners of
speech that force you to listen: Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Michael
Caine, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Clint Eastwood, and above all
Jack Nicholson. Give Nicholson a decent script, and he’ll still
bring down the house. Just by talking. Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman
also bring a measured conviction to every word they speak.
Ah, those scripts. In the old days, and let us not hesitate to call
them the good old days, literate men like Morrie Ryskind, William Faulkner,
Scott Fitzgerald, James Agee, and Raymond Chandler wrote screenplays
worthy of the best actors. Today’s writers are a pretty sorry
lot, and anyway dialogue now plays a smaller part than violence and
special effects. By the time the script reaches the screen it has been
worked over by so many hacks that any inspiration in the original has
usually been edited out. Many of the wittiest scripts in Hollywood
today are written for animated films — Toy
Story and Shrek, for
Many of the old stars also moved with a physical grace that is now
rare. Cary Grant had been an acrobat, and it showed in his moments
of slapstick; he brought consummate skill to looking awkward. Cagney
started out as a dancer, and his agility made him exciting in his violent
roles. Burton had been a star athlete. Olivier was the most charismatic
stage actor of the last century; Agee wrote of him, “No actor
since Chaplin has been so complete a master of everything the body
can contribute to a role.”
Brad Pitt beefed up impressively as Achilles in Troy, but it takes
more than muscles to make a powerful screen presence; an actor has
to be able to suggest danger even in repose. Marlon Brando could be
ominous when he was merely chewing a matchstick — or just listening
quietly. Pitt never conveys heroism except in a few violent moments;
he doesn’t grasp the truth of Artur Schnabel’s remark that
you have to play Mozart between the notes. A real artist knows how
to use silence.
But the most popular male star in film history remains the one who
captivated the world without speaking a word: Chaplin.
Copyright © 2012 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on April 3, 2005.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
Learn how to get a tape of his last speech
during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
To subscribe to or renew the FGF E-Package, or support the writings of Joe
Sobran, please send a tax-deductible donation to the:
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
or subscribe online.