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TODAY contributor

Explainer: Let us now praise the best voices in Hollywood

  • Half of what makes any movie star a movie star is delivery. An actor’s voice is what remains when Hollywood stops calling with young-sex-symbol roles, and it’s what keeps many actors employed when the next generation of power players forget that they were once able to open a movie with just their face. Just watch the trailer for the new movie "Unknown," featuring that raspy purr of Liam Neeson, and see if you don't want to keep on listening to him talk.

    If you’re listening carefully, you find that the voices we gravitate toward, the most appealing to our ears, fall into a handful of camps.

  • The Oracle

    Most notable: Liam Neeson

    This is the old sage, the gentle authoritarian, the kung fu master, the wise grandfather or God. He can boom omnisciently when he needs to but generally he gives off solid comfort and warmth. Neeson in particular is so authoritative that he never has to trade in his Irish accent to be another nationality. He’s the perfect avenging power dad in schlock like “Taken," a distraught doctor in the upcoming “Unknown," and he’s got Aslan down tight in the “Narnia” films. His vocal performance offers the perfect combination of warm, Jesus-like assurance and moral certainty with the power to roar if the forces of evil rise.

    Hear Also: James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, James Hong, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins

  • The Man's Man

    Most notable: George Clooney

    He’s confident, traditionally masculine and his voice is there to remind you that he’s got it all under control. It scratches but doesn’t growl. Grills steaks outdoors but never wears a “Kiss the Cook” apron. He doesn’t have to yell, but he can menace you easily just by getting a little stern and maybe dropping a register. More importantly, men want to be him and women want to be with him. Clooney wins this one because he’s also capable of conveying an occasional vulnerable streak. Of course, ultimately that’s a seduction move and it gets the characters he plays just about anything they want. (Exception: “The American,” where he barely speaks at all and spends two hours building a gun.)

    Hear Also: Edward James Olmos, Sean Connery, Keith David, Patrick Warburton, Alec Baldwin

  • The Ruler of the Manor

    Most notable: Judi Dench

    This voice is precise. It is correct. It is to be respected and, if you’re the downstairs cook who accidentally salted the dessert, feared. It’s the reason you want chocolate-covered biscuits with your afternoon tea and the reason you loved “The King’s Speech” and only strongly liked “The Social Network.” Dench is masterful in this regard. You recognize her immediately because, even though she’s only now in her 70s, it feels as though she’s been playing that age, disapproving of almost everyone and everything around her, since she was 30. If something is “just not done,” she will tell you about it first with a glance, then by clearing her throat and, finally, because you are too dense to have noticed the first and second warning, she will speak. And you will change your ways.

    Hear Also: Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, all British actors of a certain age

  • The Concerned Mom

    Most notable: Loretta Devine

    This voice soothes and tucks you in. She can shriek but most of the time she coos and suggests that every trouble you just poured out was listened to attentively before advice was given in return. Devine is great at this — and has made her recent career out of mom roles, so casting directors must agree. She injects a high-pitched nervousness that can be unsettling when it needs to be (see the otherwise regrettable “For Colored Girls” for a good example of her skills), but more often she delivers a gently worn and lovingly weary tone, the kind that reminds you that she’s been doing your laundry for 18 years and she’s tired of it.

    Hear Also: Phylicia Rashad, Julia Roberts, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Annette Bening

  • The Funny Weirdo

    Most Notable: Seth Rogen

    When these actors find their on-camera careers on the wane, they can always live comfortably voicing cartoons. These are the voices that are distinctive to the point of distraction. They’re high-pitched or nerdy or sassy or villainous or, in Rogen’s case, the product of bellowing angrily between bong hits. It’s a gruff growl that no one is scared of, a comically grumpy woodland creature with a thorn in its paw. As long as there are talking animal films, this voice always has a job to do.

    Hear Also: Paul Reubens, Seth Green, Wanda Sykes, Christopher Walken, Whoopi Goldberg, Emma Stone

  • The Chicken Fried Steak With Biscuits

    Most Notable: Sam Elliott

    This voice is like the Man’s Man or the Concerned Mom, but Southern. It’s a tough voice to pull off when the actor isn’t genuinely from the southern half of the country, which makes Elliott's feat even more amazing: He was born in Sacramento and raised in the Pacific Northwest. And somehow he manages to turn this voice into something other than a terrifying “Winter’s Bone”-style hick or a Larry the Cable Guy punchline. You laugh in that man’s face and he’s likely to pull out a shotgun he’s managed to hide somewhere on his body.

    Hear Also: Lucas Black, Matthew McConaughey, Holly Hunter, Dolly Parton

  • The Temptress

    Most Notable: Scarlett Johansson

    Does this one need any explanation? She’s sheer sex, and she sounds like bourbon-soaked cashmere. She might have a husky smoker’s throat, or a “Maxim” cover babydoll pout, she might be a wealthy socialite having an affair with the gardener or she might be a straight-up scary maneater. But she’s getting what she wants and you know it just by the way she asks you to pass the salt. Johansson grew into her smoky alto and learned how to use it without becoming a parody of herself. It’s a tough voice to maintain into middle and late-middle age, particularly if actual alcohol and cigarettes are used to amplify its qualities, but for now she’s the most effective purveyor of that particular brand of breathy seduction.

    Hear Also: Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox, Tilda Swinton, Helen Mirren

Discuss: Natalie Portman

She dazzled in "Black Swan," but not all her roles were Oscar-worthy. What's your favorite Portman part? Any roles she should have rejected? (Queen Amidala, perhaps?)

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Photos: Natalie Portman

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  1. Straight arrow

    Portman plays a warrior princess in 2011's "Your Highness," starring alongside James Franco and Danny McBride. The film has been called "a medieval stoner comedy." (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Megawatt smile

    Portman arrives at the premiere of "No Strings Attached" in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. The film received mediocre reviews but did better than expected at the box office. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mismatched couple?

    In 2011 comedy "No Strings Attached," Portman plays a doctor who tries to keep her relationship with Ashton Kutcher purely physical. The film topped the box office on its debut weekend, beating Seth Rogen's "The Green Hornet." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. He does want to sleep with me

    While accepting her best actress Golden Globe for "Black Swan," Portman thanked Millepied, who plays a small role in the film as a dancer with no sexual interest in the neurotic Nina. "It's not true! He totally wants to sleep with me!" she said. Her nervous laugh after delivering the joke was repeated and drawn out into a viral video that quickly made the rounds on the Internet. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Parents to be

    Portman and Millepied arrive at the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 16, 2011 in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was born in France and raised in Senegal, beginning ballet training at age 8 with his mother, herself a ballet dancer. He reportedly left the ballerina with whom he was living when he and Portman fell in love on "Black Swan." (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Beauty in black and white

    Natalie Portman won the best actress award at the Critics' Choice Awards on Jan. 14, 2011 in Los Angeles. She thanked "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky, joking "You made me very skinny and you ... made me fat," referring to the workouts she took on for the role and to her eventual pregnancy with and engagement to choreographer Benjamin Millepied. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Dark side

    In 2010's "Black Swan," Portman plays nervous and naive ballerina Nina, who can play "Swan Lake's" innocent white swan easily, but struggles to understand the role of the sensual black swan. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Bringing hope to the world

    Portman speaks at the 25th anniversary of the Foundation for International Community Assistance in November 2010. She is an ambassador of hope for the group, which promotes the use of micro-finance to provide financial services to the world’s lowest-income entrepreneurs. Portman has visited FINCA programs in Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Uganda and often speaks on its behalf. (Joe Corrigan / Getty Images for FINCA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. War story

    In 2009's "Brothers," Portman plays a mom and wife who's suddenly left a widow, or so she believes. But her husband, played by Tobey Maguire, makes an unexpected return, only to find that his brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) has fallen for Portman's character. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Giving out the gold

    Ben Stiller, dressed as Joaquin Phoenix, presented an award with Portman at the 2009 Academy Awards. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The city that never sleeps

    In 2009, Portman starred in "New York, I Love You," a collective work of 11 short films about the city. It's the second in a series called the "Cities of Love" franchise. 2006's "Paris, je t'aime" was the first. (Vivendi Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Putting her best foot forward

    Portman was a vegetarian since childhood and became a vegan in 2009, reportedly after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book, "Eating Animals." The year before that, she launched a line of vegan footwear, seen here. (Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Losing her head

    Portman played the famous Anne Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson her lesser-known sister Mary in 2008's "The Other Boleyn Girl," based on Philippa Gregory's novel. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Bluer than blue

    In 2007, Portman starred with Norah Jones in "My Blueberry Nights," the first English feature film directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai. Portman plays a poker player who's lost all her money gambling. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Going ape

    In 2007, Portman teamed up with wildlife expert Jack Hanna to make "Gorillas on the Brink," a TV special about the plight of gorillas in Rwanda. (Animal Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Double role

    Portman plays two characters in 2007's "Goya's Ghosts," set in Spain in the 1700s. She portrays both a young model and her lookalike, a prostitute. (Samuel Goldwyn Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. World of 'Wonder'

    Portman plays an employee in a magical toy store run by Dustin Hoffman in 2007's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." She told the press she was excited to make a movie for children. (Fox-Walden) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rap it up

    In 2006, Portman spoofed herself in an SNL Digital Short on "Saturday Night Live." She turns her good-girl image on its ear by playing herself as an angry gangsta rapper, saying when she was at Harvard she did drugs constantly and cheated on every test.

    Hulu.com: Natalie Portman raps on "SNL." (Hulu) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Who needs hair?

    Portman wasn't afraid to shave her head for 2006's "V for Vendetta," an adaptation of the comic book series of the same name. Her character joins an underground anti-government group. Jerusalem-born Portman has been quoted as saying "being from Israel was a reason I wanted to do this because terrorism and violence are such a daily part of my conversations since I was little." (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Close to you

    Portman and Clive Owen starred in 2004's "Closer," often mentioned as one of the actress' best films. Both Owen and Portman were nominated for supporting-acting Oscars for their roles. Neither won, but they did win Golden Globes. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smile for the cameras

    Portman poses for pictures during the New York premiere of "Garden State" in 2004. (Stephen Lovekin / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. 'Garden State'

    Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, left, and Zach Braff, right, starred in 2004's "Garden State." Portman's character was an epileptic and a pathological liar. Braff wrote and directed the film, which had only a limited release in theaters but gained more attention on DVD. (Fox Searchlight) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Giving birth at Wal-Mart

    Portman starred in the 2000 film "Where the Heart Is," based on the best-selling Billie Letts novel. She plays Novalee Nation, who is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Wal-Mart and decides to live there, even giving birth to her baby in the store. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Luke, I am your mother

    Portman gained real fame in 1999 when she played Queen Padme Amidala in the first of the three "Star Wars" prequels, "The Phantom Menace." Her marriage to Anakin Skywalker, who later becomes Darth Vader, produces twins Luke and Leia, but she dies giving birth to them. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. You are so 'Beautiful'

    In 1996's "Beautiful Girls," Portman plays a young girl who describes herself as "an old soul." Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton and Rosie O'Donnell also star. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Working with Woody Allen

    Portman also had a role in the 1996 Woody Allen film "Everyone Says I Love You." (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Getting her start

    Natalie Portman was just 13 when she made her feature film debut, as a child who befriends a middle-aged hitman (Jean Reno) in 1994's "Leon: The Professional." Born Natalie Hershlag, she took her grandmother's maiden name, Portman, for her stage name. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Universal Pictures
    Above: Slideshow (27) Natalie Portman
  2. Image: 83rd Academy Awards Nominations Luncheon - Arrivals
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    Slideshow (14) Oscar nominees luncheon

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