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  • Philip Bryer

Acting Up

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

A nod and salute to The GLW, Mrs B, The Sandratollah, whose original idea has seen the birth of this week's piece. Here goes, don't blame her though, eh?

Way back when, alright I’ll say it, when films were any good, one of the things you could be sure of was this – actors had distinct and original voices, and of course, you could also hear what they were saying, but perhaps that subject is one for another day.

The tough-guy urgency of James Cagney couldn’t be confused with anybody else. There were other cowboys, but nobody had the big-guy, loping drawl of John Wayne, or the sleepy, cool-cat delivery of Robert Mitchum. Bogart’s fizzing lisp was both menacing and memorable, and part of the whole Bogie image. Clark Gable was known as The King of Hollywood, and quite right too, because that’s what he sounded like. Jimmy Stewart’s warped and bumpy wah-wah might not have been for everyone, but nobody ever asked, “Who’s the bloke who sounds like a moody jalopy engine on a frosty morning?”

You could close your eyes in front of any one of their films and identify each and every one of the above in seconds.

Stewart, Bogart, Cagney

As you could with the go-to biblical bloke Charlton Heston. Burt Lancaster, was another big chap, and one who managed to squeeze out his lines through a most impressive set of tombstones. His fun and games with the sinewy, gurning, Spartacus, Kirk Douglas are beautifully realised here by Alec Baldwin in Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee – and after seeing this, I challenge you not to drop into either character without invitation and at every opportunity.

In the unlikely event of you not yet being convinced by my argument, may I be allowed to hit you with a trio of guided missiles in the form of James Mason, Cary Grant, and Richard Burton? Mason, whose smooth, yet expertly clipped, delivery could speak of either romance or danger. Grant, the insouciant master of the verbal double-take (and not half-bad at the visual one either), and Burton, of whom the term ‘honeyed tones’ doesn’t quite do justice, unless he was delivered of this gift by giant, handsome bees of the valleys who drank the finest whisky like nectar, and had the resultant golden brew signed off by the gods before dripping it down his throat while he slept. While he slept, so as not to get in the way of his interests in Elizabeth Taylor and the ciggies, and, quite frankly, who could blame him?

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor

There’s Tony Curtis, of course, wonderfully jumpy, although he could do relaxed – most often when involved in scenes of seduction, and, let’s not forget, he did a wonderful Cary Grant turn in Some Like It Hot. Peter O’Toole, who, whatever he said, said it with such elan, that he not only got away with it, he won you round. Assuming those blue eyes or the greatest chat show entrance in history hadn’t already done so.

To develop the point without bashing the reader over the head until they beg for mercy for the adjacent dead horse, the Hepburns – Katharine and Audrey – had very different styles but were as memorable as any of the chaps. Here’s Audrey. She’s just washed her hair and feels like delivering an acoustic ballad on the fire escape. As you do. Sometimes, I think this may be the greatest marriage of film and song in history. Betting without the cartoon version of Jungle Book, of course.

Vivien Leigh’s spectacular, self-pitying turn as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind is right on trend. Because in the Moaning Minnie stakes she’s right up there with the current batch of grizzle-guts chart-botherers: those with the lungs of leather, the guts of misery, the soaking hanky, and the phone that never rings.

We can’t get through this without mentioning Marilyn Monroe - I get breathless on the stairs these days, but unlike Norma Jean, there’s nowt sexy about it – and, fasten your seatbelts, the mad-scary, acid-tongued Bette Davis.

The mumbling, monotone whisper seems to be the favoured method of delivery nowadays. My theory is that this is a definite ploy, an attempt to disguise the paucity of the scripts. I can’t distinguish between the bland, limp, and listless, and they surely must know who they are. Them and whoever is next off the studio production line. I may not have known what Brando was saying, but at least I knew it was him.

You protest? There are actors with firm vocal characteristics, you say? You mention Stallone, Willis, and Arnie? I ask the court to consider the word ‘actors’.

No further questions.

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