Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 96: The voice of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

This article takes you where we've never taken you before -- into Ed Wood's larynx.

DISCLAIMER: This article is strictly for fun. Apart from one linguistics class in college, I have no training in any of what I'm about to discuss. If you want or need to correct me, please get in touch. This is meant to start a discussion, not settle one.

Performance or party trick?
When an actor portrays a real-life figure from history, he must decide whether or not he is going to do an impression of that person. Audiences have come to expect actors in biopics to mimic the vocal and physical mannerisms of the people they're pretending to be. And it's well known that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a weakness for uncanny impressions. A few weeks ago, for instance, Renee Zellweger brought home an Oscar for her studied portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy, just as Rami Malek had done a year earlier for channeling Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

A lot depends, I suppose, on whether the subject of the biopic is a celebrity (or at least a public figure) and whether there are sufficient audio and video recordings of that person upon which to base a performance. As an example, people know what the real John F. Kennedy looked and sounded like, so an actor portraying JFK is obliged to study the man's speeches and press conferences.

But at what point does this leave the realm of acting and simply become a party trick? If you slavishly imitate every little tic of a real life person, you don't have much opportunity to make the character your own.The great thing about Shakespeare's historical plays is that the people being portrayed in them are long dead. Who's to say what the real Richard III sounded like? The actor, then, has a little more breathing room when it comes to inventing the character.

The question of imitation is one that must have faced nearly every cast member of Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood. After all, this is a film about people in show business -- public figures, each and every one -- and there is sound footage of just about all of them. A couple of supporting characters, including Eddie's grouchy boss Mr. Kravitz at Universal and skeptical Mr. Feldman at Warner Bros, are fictional. But just about everyone else is based on an actual human being.

Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.
Martin Landau faithfully impersonated Bela Lugosi and won an Oscar for his troubles. Lugosi must be one of the most mimicked actors in Hollywood history, so Landau's path was clear when he took this iconic role. The miracle of that performance is that it does transcend the status of party trick. Even within the confines of doing a Lugosi impression, with his face slathered in makeup by Rick Baker, Landau manages to imbue his character with genuine pathos and vulnerability.

But what of Landau's co-stars? With the exception of George "The Animal" Steele as unintelligible Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, most of the actors in Ed Wood basically use their own, natural speaking voices. The infamous prognosticator Criswell spoke with a breathy, slightly sing-songy Indiana drawl, but actor Jeffrey Jones simply gives him a deep, stentorian tone. Late in the film, Burton uses some archival audio from Plan 9 from Outer Space and we get to hear the melodious voice of the real Criswell. The difference is a little jarring. If you'd only seen Ed Wood and not Plan 9, you might not know this is supposed to be the same guy.

Similarly, when Sarah Jessica Parker says the name "Glen," she doesn't elongate it to "Glee-yun" the way Dolores Fuller did. Notoriously, Parker opted not to spend any time with Fuller while preparing for Ed Wood. But I can't say that it would have mattered much. Max Casella did meet Paul Marco, yet it didn't really affect Casella's performance in any noticeable way, at least not audibly. Elsewhere in the film, Lisa Marie and Bill Murray sound more like themselves than they sound like, respectively, Vampira and Bunny Breckinridge.

A special exception must be made for Vincent D'Onofrio as Orson Welles. His entire performance was post-dubbed by cartoon voice mainstay Maurice LaMarche, whose Welles impression is legendary. Burton must have felt that this was a case in which the public would expect a spot-on impersonation of a celebrity's voice. For what it's worth, D'Onofrio reprised the role of Orson Welles in a 2005 short called Five Minutes, Mr. Welles and provided his own voice.

But at the center of this film is Johnny Depp in the title role. Johnny obviously found a voice for the character, but was it anything like Eddie's real voice? Well, let's refresh our memories a little. Here is the real Ed Wood talking for four and a half minutes straight. I've taken this audio from two sources: the 1953 film Glen or Glenda and the 1974 trailer for Fugitive Girls. This way, you get to compare and contrast Eddie's voice from two different eras of his life. I think that, in the Fugitive Girls voice-over,  you hear the accumulative effects of 21 years of rotgut whiskey and California smog in Eddie's delivery.

So, having listened to that, how would you describe Ed Wood's voice?

 In the Glenda excerpts, he sounds low, smooth, and gentle. I'd say that Eddie's voice is oral rather than nasal and almost musical in nature, marked by occasional quick inhalations of air and a slight sighing tone. His accent is vaguely East Coast, but I don't hear any traces of the stereotypical "New York" accent. Ed is definitely a rhotic speaker, meaning he pronounces his r's in words like "before" and "after." If a word starts with h, he'll propel it forward with a little extra breath, as in "I hope not. I really hope not."

By the time of Fugitive Girls, Eddie's voice had a little more grit to it, and his diction was less precise. Most English speakers pronounce the word "girls" with a z sound at the end, i.e. "gurlz." When Eddie pronounces it, he ends the word with a hissing sound: "gurlssss." The musicality was still there in his voice, though, perhaps even more so than in Glenda.

The truly strange thing is that Ed Wood's voice is very recognizable to me by now, yet I'm having difficulty describing or categorizing it. If I were trying to do an impersonation of Eddie, I wouldn't know where to start. Ed's voice is tough to pin down, let alone mimic.

Given that, I'd say Johnny Depp captures the essence of Ed Wood's personality without doing a precise imitation of the man. Depp has cited numerous inspirations for the voice he gives to Eddie. In this interview, he describes the character as an amalgam of Ronald Reagan, Casey Kasem, and Jack Haley's Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile, he denies the longstanding rumor that the voice is based on Jon Lovitz's lying "Tommy Flanagan" character from Saturday Night Live. "I wouldn't be that blatant," Depp explains.

I'd like to suggest another, perhaps subliminal influence on Johnny Depp's performance. Obviously, in prepping for this film, he must have watched Glen or Glenda numerous times. About six minutes into the film, there's a voice-over monologue delivered by Patrick/Patricia, the suicidal cross dresser played by Walter "Mr. Walter" Hadjwiecyz. ("The records will tell the story.") I've assembled a brief side by side comparison, so you can hear how Johnny Depp talks in Ed Wood and how Patrick/Patricia talks in Glen or Glenda. Listen for the little tremble in the voice and the intimate, almost whisper-like tone.

I don't know if Walter Hadjwiecyz recorded that voice-over himself or simply played the part of the dead body. But I don't think it's too fanciful to suggest that the monologue had an influence on the way Johnny Depp played Ed Wood.

By the way, if any of this article interests you, I'd suggest you check out a series of videos made by Wired featuring Hollywood dialect coach Erik Singer. They offer a truly astonishing breakdown of various actors portraying real-life people. So far, Erik hasn't gotten to Ed Wood. Here's hoping, though.