Norma Desmond, referring to the icons of the silent screen, famously said, “We had faces then.” But when sound came in, the stars had voices, too. There aren’t so many now; the more naturalistic style of film acting that has held sway since the 1950s is antithetical to the distinctive, sometimes affected speech patterns we associate with the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age. There are exceptions, of course — without the sonorous, instantly identifiable vocal instrument of actor James Earl Jones (who turns 85 on January 17), what kind of impact would Darth Vader have? But in compiling a list of some of cinema’s most iconic voices, the emphasis is definitely on the classical era:
1. Katharine Hepburn
This most enduring of Hollywood icons is such a given of classic cinema that it’s easy to overlook how strange she seemed in A Bill of Divorcement, her 1932 film debut. Part of that was Katharine Hepburn's unusually sharp-boned look, but a lot had to do with her voice. The Hepburn sound was undeniably patrician, and often attributed to her schooling at Bryn Mawr College. Yet one suspects the voice was mostly her own invention (and coach Frances Robinson-Duff’s), crafted to perfectly match the Hepburn persona. Key to delivery: Lock your jaw, aim for mid-Atlantic vowels, and drop the R at the end of Spencer.
2. Humphrey Bogart
Actually part of a tough-guy triumvirate (along with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson) that collectively buttered the bread of Rich Little-style impersonators, Humphrey Bogart was also his own vocal beast. Like Cagney and Robinson’s, Bogie’s sound was rooted in New York, if further uptown. There was a slight nasality to its tone and a faint lisp that countered his characters’ tough talk with a hint of vulnerability. Key to delivery: Speak with precision and purpose, and put a little whistle in your S’s. You know how to whistle, don’t you?
3. Bette Davis
Much more vocally volatile than fellow New Englander Hepburn, Bette Davis let the words fly as dramatically as the emotions. But her enunciation was possibly the most idiosyncratic of all movie stars’, making her an impersonator’s darling. Key to delivery: Extend the vowels to the breaking point, and cut the consonants with an ax.
4. James Stewart
You can take the boy out of Indiana, Pennsylvania, but you can’t take the Indiana, Pennsylvania out of the boy. Or so the laconic style and vocal delivery of Jimmy Stewart seemed to indicate. Actually, the young Stewart was more urbane of manner and snappy of speech than the later, folksier version. Hepburn’s delivery loosened as she aged; Stewart’s cemented, as did fellow middle-American John Wayne’s. Key to delivery: You know how to drawl, don’t you?
5. John Wayne
Speaking of the Duke, what list of iconic voices would be complete without him? The deliberate intonations, the gruff vocal quality that could turn unexpectedly tender and rise surprisingly high in pitch, has rooted itself in our collective movie unconscious. For a recent attempt to mimic it, listen to Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight. Key to delivery: It’s all about the flow of the sentence, the pauses and the up-and-down cadences.
6. Mae West
Pitching her sound somewhere between a purr and a growl, Mae West supplied sexiness with the vocal equivalent of a wink. Like the physical form, the voice is a caricature of feminine allure, and catnip for female impersonators. Where Marilyn was breathy and vulnerable, Mae was always in charge. Key to delivery: It couldn’t hurt to sashay around and roll your eyes seductively.
7. Bugs Bunny
Okay, so that’s Mel Blanc’s voice actually supplying the indomitable rabbit’s resplendent Brooklynese, but isn’t Bugs as big an icon as Kate and Bogie? Key to delivery: Chomping a carrot might help, although Blanc was known to expectorate a mouthful after each take.
8. James Earl Jones
He stuttered as a child, but Jones’ naturally rich timbre and training as a classical actor resulted in a vocal instrument of great authority. This was just what Darth Vader needed; David Prowse, who suited up as Vader on set, had the physical size, but the voice didn’t match the picture. (Examples of Prowse’s delivery of the dark lord’s dialogue can be found on YouTube.)
Star Wars creator George Lucas supposedly considered Orson Welles (who should also be added to this list), but ultimately turned to Jones and his deep, persuasively sinister sound for the task. The actor remained uncredited until the third film in the first trilogy. Jones was never really a movie star, but his iconic vocal embodiment of Vader (and of Mufasa in The Lion King) earns him a special place in the pantheon. Key to delivery: Use every recess in your skull for resonance and combine with respirator sounds. And good luck with that.