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 example.
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.
[This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on April 3, 2005.]
The Reactionary Utopian by Joe Sobran is copyright (c) 2012
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