While Joaquin Phoenix is in nearly every frame of the spike Jonze movie Her, Scarlett Johansson gives a stellar voice-over performance Phoenix’s A.I. love interest. She’s so good, in fact, that she put us in the mood to hat-tip other great vocal portrayals in live-action cinema – actors that we hear but do not see.
NOTE: Great though he may be, a talent like Andy Serkis doesn’t apply, here, as his body and movement are used to create characters like Gollum or Ceasar the ape. So who made the cut in our top ten? Read on to see our favorite picks for the 10 best off-screen performances in film:
Who can possibly forget the laconic, unwavering dulcet tones of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey? At first blush, Douglas Rain’s role here may not amount to much; his foremost task is to maintain a monotone in all of his spoken lines, something he succeeds at with ease.
But Hal, the sentient, devious artificial intelligence controlling the space shuttle Discovery One, ends up being so much more than one-note as he clashes with the ship’s crew – and that’s due to how much nuance Rain squeezes into his work. He never for a moment breaks his unrelenting calm, yet he instills Hal with a wealth of subtle emotion all the same.
Whether with menacing undertones or mild hints of fear, Rain makes Hal into something greater than the cool thrum of his voice.
The coolest part of being Tony Stark is being Iron Man; everything else after that, from dating Gwyneth Paltrow to hanging out with the Avengers and saving the world, is a categorical toss-up. However: someone needs to say something for the fact that he pals around with Paul Bettany all day, every day.
Maybe Stark wouldn’t consider that a bonus; as J.A.R.V.I.S., Bettany, perhaps drawing a bit of inspiration from Rain, happens to be just about the only person capable of cracking wise to the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist and getting away with it unscathed.
Then again, he’s also handy in a pinch, and Stark wouldn’t be much of an Iron Man without the aid of his armor’s snippy A.I.. Just A Rather Very Intelligent System, indeed.
There are two levels on which David Hyde Pierce’s participation in Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film are great. The first, naturally, is his actual vocal performance, which gives everybody’s favorite psychic fish-man a distinct aural texture in the movie.
The second is Pierce’s inimitable classiness. He famously refused credit for his involvement in the production as a nod to the physical contributions of Doug Jones, the man who gives Abe shape in Hellboy as well as Hellboy 2.
Going between both pictures, there’s something lost in Jones lending his voice to Abe after having Pierce do the honors in Hellboy – he’s not bad by a long shot, but Pierce’s refined diction and inflections make the BPRD agent stand out on a whole other level.
This entry should be counted as a pat on the back not simply for Henson’s performance in The Muppet Movie – though he is, unsurprisingly, great in the film – but for pretty much every Muppet-related enterprise he undertook in his career.
Basically, think of it as a Lifetime Achievement Award. The Muppet Movie stands out as arguably the best adventure Kermit and co. have had on celluloid, but Henson injected so much life into that beloved puppet, over so long, that it almost seems criminal not to honor the totality of the time he invested in the frog of our hearts.No one did it better than him then, or has done so since.
It’s a tie!
Look, everybody has their favorite between Yoda, bog-dwelling master of the Force, and Darth Vader, Sith Lord and complicated father figure – but nobody can dispute how immediately recognizable Frank Oz and James Earl Jones are in their respective roles in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Whether it’s Oz’s penchant for anastrophes or Jones booming, commanding bass, these two icons have both lasted for decades in our cultural consciousness through their respective embodiments of the Grand Master of the Jedi Order and the right-hand of the Galactic Empire. They’re both so good and so essential, in fact, that they both deserve to show up here.
Representing Jonze himself on this list is his 2009 adaptation of author Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s story, Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a film that met with a somewhat mixed reception, but no matter your takeaway, it’s hard to argue with the quality of the puppetry it displays.
Among the cast of Wild Things, though – which includes Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, and Forest Whittaker – it’s James Gandolfini who rumpuses best. The late, great, former Sopranos star might seem like an odd fit, but despite his tough-guy image, he blends childlike vulnerability and animal savagery together in perfect harmony.
A note: Oppenheimer, like so some of the other voice actors in this list (specifically Henson and Oz), provided vocals for a number of characters for each film he appeared in. To wit, in The Neverending Story, he played not just the luckdragon Falcor, but Gmork, Rock Biter, and the narrator, to boot.
But among these, Falcor is easily the most memorable figure; most twenty or thirty-something cinephiles probably had nightmares of Gmork the wolf at one point or another during their childhood, but everybody to this day wants a luckdragon of their very own.
And why not? Oppenheimer gives Falcor a laid back, sage-like amicability. He’s a sight to behold, and that deep, belly guffaw of his resonates like no other.
The 2005 big-screen interpretation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy didn’t quite hit the mark as an adaptation, but it did get one thing absolutely note-perfect: Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Putting anybody else in the sound booth for this character might have resulted in an overbearing caricature of the chronically-depressed robot. Fortunately, director Garth Jennings called on the skills of none other than Alan Rickman for the job.
Rickman’s nasal, sonorous performance here not only conveys Marvin’s ceaseless lugubriousness in the best way possible, it actually renders the poor little guy kind of loveable.
Just about every major horror baddie in the genre’s canon has one actor that’s most closely associated to them – Jason has Kane Hodder, Freddy has Robert Englund, and Chucky, the best murderous toy of horror fame, has Brad Dourif.
Anybody with the right dimensions can put on a hockey mask and make Michael Myers or Jason scary, but change the voice that issues forth from Chucky’s mouth, and fans would notice right away.
That’s because of what Dourif brings to the voodoo-possessed Good Guy doll. His wicked sense of humor, his brutal creativity, and his high-pitched cackle make Chucky into one of horror’s most notorious killers.
Just as David Hyde Pierce got most of the attention for Hellboy, Doug Jones got most of the attention for Pan’s Labyrinth. But While Jones did record his own lines in Spanish, del Toro ultimately brought in Spanish theater actor Pablo Adán to dub over his in-movie counterpart.
Good choice, too: Adán, a native Spanish speaker, adds authenticity to his dialogue and an impressive, captivating authority to his voice. The result is a layered delight, one that keeps us guessing as to Pan’s purpose until the final scene. (And maybe even after.)
There’s a lot that goes into bringing a character to life on the screen with naught but your voice; it’s a difficult balancing act, and hopefully, these choices each demonstrate the endless variety of methods performers can use to pull it off.
Of course, there are many, many outstanding performances that occur in recording studios – espeically when we start taking, say, animated movies into account.
So sound off in the comments, Screen Ranters, and let us know what your favorite off-screen performances are! (And have a look at Screen Rant’s review of Her while you’re at it.)