Monday, September 27, 2010

8 Vocal Performances Worthy of an Oscar Nomination

Robby Benson in Beauty and the Beast - Benson, along with Paige O'Hara as Belle, created what was probably the two most complex, three-dimensional characters in the history of animated movies up to that point. If I single out Benson it's because he had such a tricky role, and so much of its success rests on his performance. Beast is at times depressed, frustrated, childish, desperate, and falling in love. Add to that he has to believably change over the course of the film from the self-pitying monster of the opening scenes to a person deserving of Belle's love at the end. If he had pulled off such a role under fifty pounds of make-up instead of in a recording booth he just might have taken the Best Actor award from Anthony Hopkins in 1991.

Kathleen Turner in Who Framed Roger Rabbit - Jessica Rabbit has to function as both a spoof of hard-boiled femme fatales and as a character who exists believably inside the story. Kathleen Turner finds just the right balance between the two, turning up the dial just the right amount on her own straight-forward role in Body Heat. Add to that Turner is just flat-out hilarious in the part. It is one of the great comic performances of the 80's, managing the impressive feat of making her voice over work as memorable as the character's attention-grabbing design.

James Gandolfini in Where the Wild Things Are - James Gandolfini has built a career, as well as stocked a bookcase full of awards, out of playing the heavy so he would seem a natural choice to play a monster. Yet when freed from his own bulky frame the role let Gandolfini emphasize his neurotic side, creating a monster that is more vulnerable than intimidating. His "Carol" is the hulking embodiment of childhood neediness and the voice over work let's Gandolfini show sides of himself that type-casting might never have given him the opportunity to play. 

Ellen Degeneres in Finding Nemo - I think a lot of people would agree with me that the character of Dory was largely responsible for pushing Finding Nemo from being just a hit film into being a bona fide blockbuster. The character is unthinkable without Degeneres's performance which somehow manages to be moving while being totally screwball.  When there is a break-out performance like that in a live-action monster money-maker it will usually grab a slot at the Oscars (think Capt. Jack Sparrow). Degeneres had to settle for being briefly mentioned as the darkest of dark horses before being laughed off as an impossibility. Luckily the Annie Awards were around to make sure her achievement did not pass unrecognized.

Peter O'Toole in Ratatouille - The man who holds the record for the most Oscar nominations without a win could have justifiably added one more to his tally with his performance as food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille. Even if time has stolen his famously delicate appearance, it hasn't yet taken his trademark whip-smart voice and he uses it to fantastic effect here. He makes a suitably threatening villain, but is just as convincing letting that edge soften. O'Toole, with help from the mature, heartfelt script, pretty much creates the definitive take on the snooty critic here, showing both the man with poison pen and the enthusiastic little kid buried underneath.

Douglas Rain in 2001: A Space Odyssey - The thing that amazes me about Rain's work as Hal 9000 is how subtle it is. Check that - it is beyond subtle, it's almost subliminal. Under Kubrick's direction, Rain never breaks from the maddeningly calm, faux-polite tone of Hal's programming --except --- he puts just the smallest, almost imperceptible spin on his lines. That note of fear when his memory is being removed. The tinge of menace when he refuses to open the pod bay doors. It's so slight you wonder if it's really there or if you're just projecting your own emotions on to him. Whatever the case, it's a performance as iconic as any in film history.

Pat Carroll in The Little Mermaid - The animators assigned to Ursula must have been ecstatic when they heard how much her performance gave them to work with. Does Pat Carroll have any lines in The Little Mermaid that she doesn't turn into a classic with her inspired delivery? None spring to mind. 

"Her daddy'll love that."
"One might question your upbringing."
"No more talking, no more singing, zip."
I think a good way to judge the greatness is to look back years later and see how fondly the work is regarded and how fully it has remained in the memory. By that standard is there any work nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1989 that comes close to Pat Carroll's Ursula? (Hint: Nope) Forget nominations. I would have given her the trophy.

Edward Brophy in Dumbo - Dumbo has long been my favorite animated film, and this is largely due to Edward Brophy's performance as Timothy Q. Mouse. Seeing as Dumbo is a silent character, Brophy carries large portions of the film all by himself, having one-sided conversations, although his performance is so energetic you barely notice. Brophy was a character actor in the 30's and 40's with an extensive filmography including titles such Freaks and The Thin Man but his work as Timothy has made him immortal to generations of children, even if they'll never know him by name. Honestly, I'd have put him in for 1941's Best Supporting Actor based solely on his delivery of the line, "What's the matter with his ears? I don't see nothing wrong with 'em."  Every kid should have a friend like Timothy.


  1. Wonderful list! I just re-watched Ratatouille and was struck (again) with how good O'Toole is. I wish he did more voice over work.

    Many of these performances are etched in my brain forever. Pat Carroll permanently scarred me as Ursula (The Little Mermaid was the first movie I saw in theaters); I can hear Robby Benson as the Beast right now: "...THEN GO AHEAD AND STARVE!" Chills.

  2. I don't know if I'd wind up giving the 1989 supporting actress trophy to Pat Carroll, but it would currently go to another non nominee: Penelope Milford for Heathers. "But you turned it into another round of 'Let's all laugh at the hippie'!"

  3. no Jeremy Irons for The Lion King?

  4. Though I realize he started the abominable trend of celebrity voice actors and pop culture references in animated films, I still maintain that the Genie was Robin Williams' best performance.

    Another I might throw in there is Bill Thompson playing five different characters in Lady and the Tramp, each with a different dialect.

  5. I'd definitely add Jeremy Irons in the Lion King, but otherwise this list is great.

  6. Jeremy Irons - that's a good one. I guess I was being a stickler with whether I could actually see myself putting his name on a ballot, plus I already had one Disney villain. But he certainly was great as Scar.

    As for Robin Williams, I think he was perfect in the role, but I wouldn't necessarily award his acting. Rather it was simply the perfect role for Robin to be Robin.

    Robert - Didn't know about Bill Thompson, and I consider myself an animation buff. I'm looking him up.

  7. I forgot, I'd also mention Jerry Orbach as Lumière in Beauty and the Beast. love him in that.

  8. Cinema-fanatic - Oh hell yeah. It was painful leaving Paige O'Hara off, for that matter, but I wanted to limit myself to one per movie otherwise half the list would have been Beauty and the Beast.

  9. Brad Bird in The Incredibles just kills me.

  10. <3 Pat Carroll <3 I've always said I would've given her the statue, too. Amazing, amazing, amazing.

  11. I agree with Jeremy Irons suggestion, one of the scariest voice performances ever!.

    Also one of my fave's Jennifer Saunders - Shrek 2
    I pretty much hated that movie, but she was just so delightful in the role.

    But most of all...DORY!!! (Everyone in Finding Nemo was pretty great though)

  12. Good choices, especially James Gandolfini in Where The Wild Things Are, Pat Carroll in The Little Mermaid, and Ellen Degeneres in Finding Nemo. One I would add would be Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mary & Max. I think his voice work in that movie was definitely worthy of an Oscar nomination. There were times I was watching Mary & Max when I forgot I was watching an animated character, because he seemed so real :)

  13. ELLEN DEGENERES: BIG yes on that one.

    Add Mercedes McCambridge (the Exorcist),
    Daveigh Chase (Lilo and Stitch), and
    Robin Williams (Aladdin).

  14. What are your thoughts on these two?

    Tina Fey in Coraline
    Gerard Butler in How To Train Your Dragon