Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 10 Best Voice-Over Performances of All-Time

Over at The Film Experience, we had another of our monthly Team Experience Polls in which this month we chose the 10 Best Voice-Over Performances in film. Although animated movies are the first thing that come to mind, it was open to all vocal performances in which the actors themselves do not appear on screen. We also ruled out the use of stop-motion performances in which the actor actually performs the entire performance on green screen to be turned into a CGI creation later (otherwise Andy Serkis as Gollum would've certainly made my list). Six out of the ten performances I chose made their way to the final list which you can read here.

Creating remarkable performances with only the use of their voice, these 10 actors prove that even without the full use of their bodies and image, they can can still create complete characters using only a single element of their actorly tools. The voice is a powerful instrument that was the original method of storytelling, so it's only right to highlight 10 cinematic performances that carry on that oral tradition.

Honorable Mentions (I could've probably created an entire other list with any of these actors): Paige O'Hara Beauty and the Beast, Eartha Kitt The Emperor's New Groove, Christine Cavanaugh Babe, Jennifer Cody The Princess and the Frog, Jeremy Irons The Lion King, Minnie Driver Tarzan, Brad Bird The Incredibles, George Sanders Shere Khan, Jimmy MacDonald Cinderella, Douglas Rain 2001: A Space Odyssey

10. Alec Baldwin as the Narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums

"All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster."

Before we became more familiar with the deadpan comedic delivery of Baldwin, thanks to his weekly adventures as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, we got a taste when he played the brilliantly droll narrator for Wes Anderson’s film about a family of eccentrics. Everything in an Anderson film is a carefully calculated creation and Baldwin’s voice – deep, soothing, with just the right amount of sarcasm coming through- is equally precise, providing the perfect narration for Anderson’s curio.

9. Geraldine Page as Madame Medusa in The Rescuers

"Adopted? What makes you think anyone would want a homely little girl like you?"

Madame Medusa never really gets the same sort of attention that bigger Disney villainesses like Cruella De Vil and Maleficent receive. And originally, the studio had even toyed with the idea of bringing back Cruella as the baddie in The Rescuers. Luckily they decided to create a new evil creation otherwise we would’ve missed out on the unforgettable voice work of Oscar-winning actress Geraldine Page. Marrying beautifully with Milt Kahl’s animation (her look apparently based on his ex-wife), Page would even act out the entire performance in the recording studio. But what sets her voice work apart from the other evil women mentioned is her unique delivery – totally unexpected choices and vocal variations. My sisters and I still quote her distinct line readings years after watching the film.
8. Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in her

"I want to learn everything about everything. I want to eat it all up. I want to discover myself."

Scarlett Johansson's performance as the iOS system programed to have a personality and think for herself may be the most recent entry on my list, but I have no doubt that her vocal performance, in which she delivers a fully-developed, fleshed-out, and completely touching character - all with just her raspy voice - will stand the test of time. When director Spike Jonze recast the actress originally hired to voice Samantha (Oscar nominee Samantha Morton, who was deemed too cold and robotic during the editing process), he certainly made a wise decision when he chose Johansson. Her natural warmth and girlish eagerness give Samantha a purity that make the audience fall in love with her just as much as Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore does in the film.

7. Jean Shepherd as the Narrator in  A Christmas Story

"My mother was about to make another brilliant maneuver in the legendary battle of the lamp. The epic struggle which follows lives in the folklore of Cleveland Street to this very day."

Most holiday films have a tendency to be overly sentimental and sappy, which is probably why A Christmas Story with its biting humor and skewed sensibility has emerged as one of the truly great holiday classics (There's a good reason it's run 24 hours on cable in December). And that's all thanks to its creator, Jean Shepherd, (the film is based on his short stories about his own childhood) and his narration as the older Ralphy looking back on his troubled youth. Lending his voice to his own words, the story becomes even more personal and more specific in its comedy. Just don't shoot your eye out...

6. Lucille La Verne as the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

"Slave in the magic mirror, come from the farthest space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak! Let me see thy face. "

A life-long actress (she was doing Shakespeare at the age of 14 and made her Broadway debut in 1888), La Verne delivered her lines as the haughty and beautiful Evil Queen in Disney's first animated film with the skill and aplomb that only a seasoned stage veteran could deliver. Her rich tones and regal vocalization make the Queen memorably chilly and heartless. But what's even more impressive is that La Verne was able to show off her versatility by also supplying the voice when the Queen transforms herself into the hag to temp Snow White with the poisoned apple. Altering her queenly voice into an old crone's crackle (she took out her dentures to help give the hag an added note of authenticity), La Verne gives two great performances in the same character and set the blueprint for all future Disney villains. 

5. Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

When a woman looks as flashy and larger-than-life as Jessica Rabbit, she needs a singular voice to match her exaggerated feminine figure. Luckily the filmmakers decided against the obvious choice of something overtly girly and breathy (like a Betty Boop or Marilyn Monroe) choosing instead the sensuously husky voice of the Oscar-nominated Turner. And a legend was born. Turner, taking inspiration from the femme fatales of the 40s like Lauren Bacall, knows how to make Jessica's lines seductive and mysterious, but what really takes it to icon status is the unexpected humor she's able to infuse into the character. Taking what could potentially be a one-note, walking sexual innuendo, Turner fleshes her out (ahem...) completely. 

4. James Earl Jones as Darth Vader in The Star Wars Trilogy

"The Force is strong with this one."

Darth Vader has been so throughly integrated into pop culture and his voice one of the most recognizable in all of film, that sometimes it's easy to take for granted just what a perfect union vocal work and image can be in shaping a legacy. The evil black gas-mask appearance of Vader needed the commanding boom that only a James Earl Jones could bring. Would we still be remembering how he shockingly told Luke Skywalker that he was his father if James Earl Jones hadn't brought as much authority as he did? Which is why it was always so disappointing to see the actor that they used behind the mask in The Return of the Jedi, stripping Vader of the power he had over us for decades. We choose to only remember him as he should be  - with the assertive bass of Jones.

3. Pat Carroll as Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid

"You'll have your looks. Your pretty face and don't underestimate the importance of body language."

Even though the part was originally offered to Bea Arthur and Elaine Stritch was cast and left production after clashing with lyricist Howard Ashman, it's impossible to imagine anyone else bringing to life Ursula in the same way that Pat Carroll was able. Making every single line her own  (her entire performance is quotable and she's given one of the best songs of any other Disney villain), Carroll makes the most of every moment and made Ursula one of the most memorable Disney characters in the process, which is no small feat when she's up against such fan favorites as Ariel and a Caribbean-accented crab. 

2. Ellen DeGeneres as Dory in Finding Nemo

"I shall call him Squishy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Squishy"

A lot of times animated films get hijacked by an unforgettable sidekick that steals the spotlight from the main characters. But when they're as hilarious as Ellen DeGeneres voicing the forgetful Dory, the overt scene-stealing is more than welcome. And DeGeneres' work in the film is what turned Finding Nemo from a cute film about a clown fish trying to find his missing son and turned it into a run-away success, even named one of Time magazine's 100 Greatest Films of All-Time. DeGeneres' good-natured, wholesome comedy could've had the potential to be old-fashioned and square but her work is just as laugh-out-loud funny in its silliness as it was a decade ago. And she expertly handles the emotional moments as well, proving that she's just as skilled as an actress as she is a comedian. Her Dory is certainly not dumb as she seems. Now has anyone seen little Fabio around...

1. Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin

"What would you wish of me?

For better or worse, he's the reason that every animated film since has utilized big-name stars to voice its characters. (I'm looking at you, Dreamworks.) But what Williams does with the Genie is not just stunt casting to get people in seats (okay, it may have started off that way). He simply is the Genie. The character is so enmeshed with who Williams is as a performer that it may just be the comedian's best work. Free from the confines of live-action and utilizing the limitless possibilities that the medium of animation is capable of (where you only have to dream it to achieve it), his breakneck energy and rapid-fire delivery is free to explore and create.  And Williams takes full advantage of his freedom. Ad libbing for hours and shaping the entire structure of the film around his delivery, his was the first vocal performance that I remember people seriously campaigning to get an Oscar nomination. The film simply wouldn't exist without Robin Williams and you couldn't wish for a better performance.

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