A voice that could melt film


In "Singin' in the Rain," Stanley Donen's brilliant spoof of old Hollywood, a squeaky-voiced, platinum-shagged silent film goddess named Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen) is faced with a terrifying reality: sound.

Movies are starting to talk, and she's got a voice that pops light bulbs. "I ceeeeeen't steend 'im!" bleats Lina in her strangled helium soprano, as her voice coach reacts with stoicism and dismay. Gently, she corrects her: "I caaaahn't staaahnd him."

Finally, after weeks of struggling, Lina says on screen: "I caaaahhhhn't steend 'im!"

It's a great moment in film, hilarious because it captures the dilemma facing actors at the advent of sound in the late 1920s. Stars with good voices survived the transition to talking pictures. The Linas of the world did not.

But movie history is crammed with little ironies, and lovely Lina could well have her revenge: Were she flesh and blood and making films today, she might be starring for a few cool mil in a flick with Harrison Ford. These days, bad voices are making good money.

Skeptical? Talk to James Spruill, an associate professor of theater at Boston University and an acting pedagogue who has taught the likes of Angela Bassett.

"Talent and training often have nothing to do with [an actor's] work, because casting is done cosmetically," said Spruill. "The most important thing is 'the look.' "

He didn't name names, but two words spring to mind: Renee Zellweger (the cheeping star of "Jerry Maguire"). And three more: Joey Lauren Adams (the shrilling star of "Chasing Amy"). And another two: Anne Heche (the whining star of "Six Days, Seven Nights"). Not to mention Maria Pitillo (peep), Rosie Perez (squeak), Jennifer Jason Leigh (drone) and Fran Drescher (squawk).

Nor are men excluded from the club of tweedlers and yawpers. Chris O'Donnell projects his tenor directly through his nose. Tom Cruise, certified hunkdom notwithstanding, has one of the most nasal voices on the planet; his scenes with Zellweger in "Jerry Maguire" are enough to frizz your eyebrows. There are still a few good voices out there. George Clooney has the raw material for a gorgeous, rolling baritone. Bassett can soothe or sing, Susan Sarandon fells men with her breathy delivery, and James Earl Jones' deep, shuddering boom could possibly rouse the dead.

And it's worth remembering that Humphrey Bogart had a triumphantly awful voice, scabrous and flat, yet he used it to woo babes, and moviegoers, for close to three decades.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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