Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Lauren and her sisters...

They growl, they purr, they whisper, they murmur, they sigh, they intone, they inflect, they modulate, they enunciate, they deliver.

They have voices, great voices, and while movies themselves may vary wildly, their voices guarantee something special, something forbidden.

I'm talking about actresses who talk to us in the dark.  Not all actresses, but the ones with those voices that stir impure thoughts.  I can imagine any one these women whispering, "I want you, Joe."  And that's what movies and movie stars are supposed to be about - fantasized relationships with teasing, arousing shadows on a screen, imperfect men and women who may not be good for anyone and who seem to be talking directly to each of us in the audience. It's intoxicating. A little sinful.


The 1940s had Lauren Bacall, already dangerously confident at 19 (the age when she made her film debut in Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not" in 1944) - always a woman, never a girl.  Her deep, smoky voice stood seemingly miles apart from Bette Davis' brittle snap and certainly Katharine Hepburn's yankee lockjaw (never a turn-on).

By the time we reached the 1980s, we had Kathleen Turner, Bacall's unofficial heir, who brought a robust, near-athletic quality to her line readings, often camouflaging plots we've seen 12 times before.

Actresses with voices that equal the mystery promised by Bacall and Turner have never been in the majority and, in recent years, seem to have become increasingly rare. With that in mind, a casual celebration is in order - a quick, scratch-pad tribute to those women with irresistible seen-it-all, done-it-all voices. Here's the deal:  I'll toss out the names, in no particular order.  You just have to sit back and imagine their individual sounds. And, with any hope, no one great voice will be inadvertently muffled.  (If I do miss one, remind me; I'm ready to hear suggestions.)

Kim Novak. A haunted beauty with a haunted voice that set her apart from other Hollywood blondes of the 1950s (Monroe!  Mansfield!).  Her voice projected an aching sadness.

Barbara Feldon.  Forever Agent 99. She spoke with a languid sexiness that brought grown-up thoughts to a silly sitcom.

Elizabeth Ashley. Her rasp is boozy and enticingly threatening.  Vocally, she's Bourbon on the rocks.

Debra Winger.  She of the great honking voice, almost nakedly forceful - enough for late-night stimulation.

Audrey Hepburn.  She looked like an elf but that voice was something else.  Indescribable. Absolutely singular.  That's why it was so ludicrous to dub her singing (with  Marni Nixon's pitch-perfect but soulless voice) in "My Fair Lady."  So what if she hit a bum note or two.  At least we would have known exactly whose voice was singing Lerner and Loewe.

Daryl Hannah. A tall, blonde, lanky beach girl whose unexpectedly scratchy voice makes her unexpectedly accessible.

Suzanne Pleshette. She had a husky voice that matched her dark, dusky beauty - and that came with a sneaky taunt.

Joan Crawford.   The Grande Dame of movie voices.  Ambitious and driven, she taught herself how to be a star and, more to the point, how to speak like one.

Piper Laurie. Her porcelain beauty - white, white skin and soft orange hair - is offset by a commandingly deep voice.

Hermonie Gingold. Need I say anything?  She spoke with a haughty impatience, underlined by perfect elocution and what sounds like a slight lisp.  When she concocts an anti-love potion for Jimmy Stewart in Richard Quine's "Bell, Book & Candle," she urges him to drink it "before it loses its strengthhhhh!" Priceless.

Zooey Deschanel. The new girl on the block.  Her voice is like sandpaper, only less abrasive. The apathetic, blasé intonations that she brings to her line readings make her a natural comedienne.

Diana Sands. Her unique voice somehow melded a gravel with a purr, a powerful combination that was put to superb use during her seduction of Beau Bridges in her greatest screen role in Hal Ashby's "The Landlord."  She left us too soon, way too soon.

Vanessa Redgrave. Her marvelously sonorous voice, made to recite Shakespeare or Joan Didion is tempered ever so slightly by a subtle out-of-breath quality.  Consequently, she brough an orgasmic rush to the dancer Duncan in Karel Reisz's "Isadora" and to the songs she sang as Guenevere in Josh Logan's "Camelot.". Best. Actress. Ever.

Demi Moore.  Rarely has the sound of congestion been so fetching.  Yes, congestion.  You want to feed her chicken soup but you don't want her to get better because the sound is so mesmerizing.

June Allyson.  She had adorable cracks in her voice.

Katherine Heigl. Seemingly punished by the media and her peers alike for being outspoken and having standards, Heigl comes with a focused, straight-shooting voice of a serious woman.  Formidable.  I like her. And the fact that she's a tireless animal advocate doesn't hurt.

Catherine Deneuve.  Thick, creamy, Gallic and rich.  Just like French cuisine.  She always spoke flawless English (at a time when colleagues such as Depardieu couldn't), with just enough of an accent. And she's aged beautifully, naturally. (Below with Daniel Auteuil in André Téchiné's excellent 1993 film, "Ma saison préférée.")

Sissy Spacek.  That homespun rasp is never less than endearing.

Ginger Rogers.  Arguably the screen's most versatile actress.  She could mold her voice to any role she plays - a serious woman, a gum-snapping chorine, a child-brat. For for some bizarre reason, I think of her voice in black-&-white, surrounded by Art Deco trimmings.  The mere sound of Rogers stimulates the imagination.

Whoopi Goldberg.  Dreadlocks and a cultured, velvety growl.

Janet Leigh.  Her voice changed with time.  As a young actress, it was very light, girlish. You could imagine her sipping a milk shake. But as she matured, it took on a deep womanliness.  She was someone you could meet for drinks.  Scotch, definitely.

Emma Stone.  Another new girl.  A child-woman whose voice is as assertive as her jut-out chin.  And she speaks with knife-edge timing.

Jacqueline Bissett/Charlotte Rampling. No-nonsense British women whose all-business, supple voices have an underlying tenderness. And admittedly, I'm a sucker for the precise diction.

Rosalind Russell.  Russell had muscle in that voice.  She would gladly compromise her naturally patrician inflections for mile-a-minute screwball comedy. 

Kim Basinger. A good-old-girl with a charming drawl, as comfortable as a porch hammock. Powerfully affecting.

Mary Boland/Lee Patrick. No one could do "high-society" as well as Boland (check out "Ruggles of Red Gap"), but Patrick did an amazing impersonation of her in "Auntie Mame."

Annie Potts. Other comic actresses would kill for her Looney-Tunes peep.

Glynis Johns. Yes, yet another Brit.  But different.  She speaks with a girlish gravel.  Unique.

Blythe Danner. Her honey-blonde hair always matched her voice, which flows like butterscotch through vanilla ice cream.

Betsy Drake.  aka, Cary Grant's third wife and his best match. Her sandy voice equaled her disarming down-to-earth looks and bearing.  A British tomboy.  Everything about her was appropriated by Julie Andrews for her role in "The Sound of Music."

Tippi Hedren/Melanie Griffith.  A mother-daughter team who share the same little-girl voice that has a naughty, sexed-up edge to it.

Kay Kendall. She spoke with the hauteur of a society dame.

Julie Christie. Her voices comes with an earthy majesty. Another word comes to mind, too.  Breathy.

Christine Lahti.  A real, unpretentious woman whose vocal flirtiness seems to come easy.

 JoBeth Williams and Sigourney Weaver always conveyed the same intelligence, experience and earthiness.

Dixie Carter.  The name says it all.  There's more than a bit of reveille in that voice.

Sally Kellerman.  That voice fairly drips with spaciness. There's a reason she was so wildly popular in the '70s.

Irene Dunne.  The unsung heroine of screwball comedies of the 1940s. (Forget Hepburn.)  I'm not exactly how to put it but when I think of her voice, the now unsued word "flibbertigibbet" comes to mind. Also, great singing voice as evidenced in the better version of "Show Boat."

I guess there are male actors who also come with an assortment of terrific voices, but they interest me less.  Nevertheless, if I had my choice and could handpick any voice I wanted, I would go with Herbert Marshall's, hands-down.  He had a voice of mellifluous maleness.  Dulcet-toned.  Resonant.  Rich.  A voice of "style," not "class" (horrible word).

Oh and how I wish that I sounded exactly like him. one gentleman

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous."  Thank you.

Ooops! I've been remiss. I completely overlooked an actress whose voice never fails to leave me spellbound. That would be Susan Sarandon. Even as a starlet, her voice came with a worldly, womanly timber. Heck, I even stop whatever I'm doing to listen to her intonations on those TV ads for Tylenol.

(from top) 

~Lauren Bacall in a publicity shot for her first film, "To Have and Have Not"
~photography: Warner Bros.1944©

~Kim Novak and Pyewacket in "Bell, Book & Candle" 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1958©

~Debra Winger in "Mike's Murder"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1984©

 ~Suzanne Pleshette in "The Birds" 
~photography: Alfred Hitchcock Productions/Universal  Pictures 1963©

~Diana Sands in "Doctor's Wives"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1971©

~June Allyson in a publicity shot for "The McConnell Story"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1955©

 ~Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil in "Ma saison préférée"/"My Favorite Season"
~photography: Les film Alain Sarde/Filmopolis 1991©

 ~Janet Leigh in "The Manchurian Candidate" 
~photography: United Artists 1962© 

~Glynnis Johns in a publicity shot for "Shake Hands with the Devil"
~photography: Warner Bros.1959©

~Julie Christie in "In Search of Gregory" 
~photography: Universal Pictures 1969©

~Herbert Marshall in a publicity shot for "Trouble in Paradise"
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1932©

~Susan Sarandon in a publicity shot for Paul Mazursky's "Tempest"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1982© 


Chad said...

Joe. There's a saying about movie stars that goes, They used to have faces. No, they used to have voices. The voices are so untrained today. Even Streep's. Sure she can do dialects but the voices itself is rather tinny (in my opinion). Anyway, great piece.

Samantha said...

Well put. Producers are always looking of a new face, the right face. They should listen to the voice instead. It'll tell you something.

Alex said...

I agree with Chad. Despite her formidable talent, Meryl Streep has a rather weak voice. It's to her credit the list of assorted characters that she's been able to tackle despite it.

Jamie said...

Gloria Graham! I've always been fascinated by how her mouth looks paralyzed when she speaks.

Sheila said...

I love Maggie Smith's dithering voice.

dick said...

They don't make them like this anymore. And, I've had a crush on Julie forever.

harry said...

Glenda Jackson!

Brian Lucas said...

I know her voice isn't smokey and sultry, but I always like listening to Mary Boland!

mike schlesinger said...

When the talkies came in, we got an entire generation of actors with immediately recognizable voices: Cagney, Robinson, Davis, Gable, Bogart, Cooper, Jolson, Garbo, Dietrich, Lionel and John Barrymore, et al, as well as the comedians: Fields, Groucho, Laurel & Hardy, Mae Weat, etc. That's all gone. Can anyone do an impression of Damon, Affleck, DiCaprio, Pratt, Cruise, Clooney, Pitt, Efron, Gyllenhall, ad infinitum?

Billy from Philly said...

I was ready to ask why Joe or anyone else hadn't mentioned Garbo. Thanks, Mike!

joe baltake said...

Yes, Mike, as Billy says - Thanks! The stars of the 1930s & '40s had spectaculr voices. They kept impressionists busy for decades. I can't even imagine what Rich Little could to with Pitt or Pratt or Gyllenhall. The thing for us to do is to come up with someone - anyone - in movies these days who has a distinctive voice. I'm talking actors. I've already come up with a handful of actresses here. -J

Pauline said...

Thanks for the nod to Herbert Marshall. I HATED that plummy voice Ronald Colman cultivated. I don't even think he was British! (or had a wooden leg like Marshall). Loved it - your post, that is!

just burt said...

Lizabeth Scott had a sultry voice perfect for noir. For men, can anyone equal Claude Rains?

joe baltake said...

Love Lizbeth Scott. Unique. Thanks, Burt. -J

Elise said...

I can hear all of these voices in my head now. Thank you for a wonderful and moving piece.

joe baltake said...

Wonderful and moving? Thanks, Elise!

Alex said...

Andie MacDowell!

joe baltake said...

Alex- Good choice. MacDowell's voice is certainly distinctive. I'm still a bit surprised that Hugh Hudson replaced her familiar twang with Glenn Close's generic patrician tones. -J

Jeremy said...

Suzanne Pleshette will always be my favorite.

bufffilmbuff said...

I would add Michelle Pfeiffer, especially in THE FABULOUS BAKER BROTHERS, where her insolence in both dialog and song equals Lauren Bacall. A highly underrated actress.

William Wolfe said...

Jean Arthur and Margaret Sullavan, for sure. Among the less well-known, I always enjoyed Joan Hackett's voice, which found a nice balancing point between cultured and pixilated.

joe baltake said...

Jim & Bill- Wonderful picks. Jen Arthur and Margaret Sullavan are certainly excellent examples of Mike Schlesinger's theory on the actors of the 1930s & '40s: They are both members of "an entire generation of actors with immediately recognizable voices." Of the relative "newcomers," Pfeiffer has and Hackett had seductive voices. God, I miss Joan Hackett! The mentiion of her name makes me want to watch "One-Trick Pony" again. -J

SteveHL said...

Excellent choices. May I add Tammy Grimes and Dorothy Provine?

joe baltake said...

Yes, Steve! Grimes and Provine - great voices and too often overlooked as actresses. -J

Nick Patterson said...

How could you forget Jean Arthur?

SteveHL said...

“Her voice was exquisite and far away, almost like an echo. She was an excellent actress, completely unique. That wonderful voice of hers — strange, fey, mysterious — like a voice singing in the snow.”
Louise Brooks on Margaret Sullavan

joe baltake said...

Great quote, Steve. -J

k.o. said...

I'm with Mike Schlesinger. I also remember back to a time of early TV when there were "impersonators" doing voices like James Cagney, Cary Grant, Jimmy Durante, etc.? Boy, talk about lost (and rightly so) arts!

Oddly enough, I remember people's voices more than I do faces. Yes, Herbert Marshall was grand . . . then there were guys like William Conrad and Lee Marvin . . .

I have fallen madly in love with guys by the sound of their voice (he could be 2 bag ugly but if he sounds like Donald Sutherland, I'm his) or desperately handsome but if it's a David Beckham voice -- forget it! The Brit guy I was married to in London was from Belfast -- he got me with that Liam Neesom "hello."

Another Simone said...

Oh, I loved your essay on voices! Ever since I read it, I keep hearing voices in my head that I love/hate, trying to figure out what makes certain voices so attractive to me (like the ones YOU mentioned) and others so repellent -- Barbra Striesand and Alan Alda come to mind immediately. Simone Signoret would have been in it for me!

William Wolfe said...

This is tardy, but I had to add one more voice I thought of after my earlier post: Wendie Malick. From HBO's "Dream On" to her current series on Hallmark, her voice has always offered an invitation into a world of intriguing, sophisticated experience.

joe baltake said...

Yes! Wendie Malick. Great, great choice. Another is Susan Sartandon who I somehow overlooked and just added to the essay. Thanks, Bill! -J

Near-Genius Nephew said...

Another voice in the Jean Arthur region: Julie Sommars, who might have been too close to Arthur to get a fair shake at a bigger career.

Here's an impossibly rare one that I stumbled across thanks to a long-time foray into the lost world of French film noir (the films "underneath" the so-called classics that have been hidden away for more than half a century). Her name is Andrée Clément, who had a meteoric career in the 1940s and early 1950s (she died young, just 35, of tuberculosis). Her breakout role was as a cunning juvenile delinquent in a venal little French town who idolizes a famous criminal in a film called FILLE DU DIABLE (DEVIL's DAUGHTER). Even though her character is prone to shrill outbursts, she has the voice of a dark angel, and it's used perfectly to convey the anguished inner life of a shunned, discarded girl. We were able to do a 100th birthday "rediscovery" show featuring her in SF a couple of years ago, and our "ahead of the curve" French noir fans were captivated by her acting and her voice. Truly one of a kind...

Best, Don Malcolm