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.
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
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
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Video: Watch the 'Unknown' trailer
Discuss: Who has the best Hollywood voice?
Liam Neeson, Judi Dench, Scarlett Johansson -- they have some of the best voices in the business. Who owns your favorite movie voice?
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