Voice-over acting has, since the development of sound in movies, become an indispensable part of filmmaking. From animated films, to voice-over narration to overdubbing actors who have problems speaking, a great vocal performance can help elevate a film from entertaining to great.
Ironically, while voice actors are well-loved by audiences, and though actors fight to get vocal performance roles, the technique is somewhat underappreciated. No Oscar exists for voice-over work, even though providing a vocal track can be key to making a film work. Imagine any of these films without the signature voice-over performance. Would they have the same profound or popular effect without one of their most memorable elements?
Of all the countless voice-over performances in cinema, these fifteen stand out as the most exemplary. From animated donkeys to wicked demons, crazed witches to megalomaniacal robots, teams of craftsman gave these characters form, but only a great voice-over performance could bring the character to life.
Here are 15 Voice-Over Actors Who Gave Oscar Worthy Performances.
15 Leonard Nimoy, Transformers: The Movie
Though a less-than-perfect movie (to say the least), the 1985 animated outing by the Transformers does have its share of redeeming qualities, chief among them a fascinating cast, and some terrific new characters. Of the seasoned vocal performers involved in the production, which includes heavy-hitters Orson Welles, Scatman Crothers and Frank Welker, Leonard Nimoy stands out from the rest as the reincarnated Decepticon Galvatron.
Nimoy dives into the role with maniacal fury, playing Galvatron as something of a genocidal zealot, plotting to wipe out the Autobots. On a movie that aspires to sell toys more than tell a story, Nimoy easily could have phoned in his performance. Instead he creates a rich character, intimidating and teeming with terror.
14 Frank Oz, The Empire Strikes Back
Prior to The Empire Strikes Back, the movies had never featured a character like Yoda before, realized through ground-breaking puppetry techniques… and through the performance of one heck of an actor: Frank Oz. Oz made a career for himself as a fine director (Little Shop of Horrors, Bowfinger) and as one of the chief Muppets performers, bringing characters like Animal, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear to life.
Most impressive of all, however, his sage-like Yoda croaking about the beauty and power of the Force inspired generations of viewers to abide by his lesson: “do or do not; there is no try.”
George Lucas campaigned hard for Oz to get an Academy Award nomination, though his listing as a puppeteer doomed his chances. Though several technicians helped Oz perform Yoda in the film, it is Oz’s embodiment as an actor that made Yoda one of the best characters ever.
13 Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Nemo
In early 2003, the world saw Ellen DeGeneres as more of a controversy than a performer. Though an acclaimed stand-up comic and actress, her public coming out attracted more attention to her private life than her work. By the end of 2003, however, DeGeneres was often cited as delivering one of the year’s best performances in Finding Nemo.
DeGeneres provides the voice for Dory, a forgetful fish helping to locate the titular character. Like Robin Williams, DeGeneres improvised many of her own lines, which only made the film even more hilarious. Dory ranks among the best characters Pixar has ever produced, and nobody else in the world could have played the part as great as DeGeneres. For further proof, look no further than Finding Dory, the long awaited sequel which focuses even more on her character.
12 James Earl Jones, Star Wars
Along with Frank Oz’s Yoda, one voice resonates high above all the performances in the entire Star Wars series. From his first entrance on, Darth Vader swordplayed into his status as one of the most iconic villains in history, due in no small part to the actor voicing him: James Earl Jones. Jones's reverberating bass brought a cold evil to the character rarely seen in the movies, a counterpoint to his physical form encased in a fiberglass costume.
Though stunt man David Prowse played Vader within the suit, Jones brings the role pathos. The echo of Vader’s voice intimates mechanical evil and relentless cruelty, and Jones’s performance helped to elevate the original Star Wars trilogy to mythic levels. A cameo from Jones as Vader in Revenge of the Sith helped make it the best of the prequel series, and Vader’s possible return in Rogue One could help cement the movie as a runaway hit.
11 Eddie Murphy, Shrek
Shrek took the world by storm in 2001 with its blend of fairy tale settings and fairytale satire. Nobody had expected it to become the hit it became, and for that matter, no one foresaw that Eddie Murphy would steal the movie from fellow actors Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow.
But run away with the film Murphy did, as Donkey, a talking ass full of quick-witted zingers and innocent wonder. Murphy, one of the screen’s most versatile actors, balances Donkey as both comic relief and a moral anchor to the self-loathing of Myers’s Shrek. Entertainment Weekly named Murphy the “Best Ass” of 2001, while the British Academy of Film nominated the actor for one of their prestigious BAFTAs. It’s a shame the same thing couldn’t happen in Hollywood.
10 Christopher Lee, The Last Unicorn
A versatile actor of varied fare, Lee always considered The Last Unicorn among his best work, and jumped at the chance to voice the character King Haggard. Lee had a way of portraying pure malevolence on screen, and The Last Unicorn testifies to his ability.
Haggard exudes pain, cruelty and sadness. Hollywood lore holds that Lee committed so fully to the role that the actor actually brought in his own copy of the original novel with highlighted dialogue left out of the script which he found vital to the character. Lee also agreed to play Haggard in a long-in-Development-Hell live action version of the story. That Lee passed away before the film could be made is our loss: he’s nothing short of amazing in the animated film.
9 Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Lord of the Rings fans left out a collective groan of disappointment when the Academy Awards overlooked Andy Serkis as giving one of the best supporting turns of 2002. Serkis created the pitiful Gollum through the then-groundbreaking technique known as motion capture: Serkis acted the role on camera, and then had a computer track his movements to create an animated character.
Debate raged in Hollywood as to how much of the character originated with Serkis’s performance as opposed to with the visual effects team. Still, much like Frank Oz’s work in The Empire Strikes Back, the pathos of Gollum originates with Serkis, who creates one of the most memorable roles in film. That Serkis has gone on to give other great vocal performances, most notably in the Planet of the Apes films, only underlines his power as an actor.
8 Betty Lou Gerson, 101 Dalmatians
Gerson became an actress after landing several roles on classic radio drama. Her screen appearances proved only sporadic, but she did manage to create one of the movies’ most memorable villains: puppy-napping fashionista Cruella DeVil. Her Cruella teems with over-the-top gusto, and with obsessive ambition, by turns outrageously funny and scary.
101 Dalmatians, as a film, drags in places, hampered by a thin plot and stiff main characters. The movie comes to life, however, every time Cruella makes an entrance, hair wild and chain smoking. Gerson injects the character with wild energy, and provides Disney with one of its signature villains.
7 Douglas Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Most of the entries on this list earned their spots by breathing dynamic emotion and energy into their roles. Find here the exception: actor Douglas Rain, who provides the voice of HAL 9000 in the sci-fi opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. Calling HAL the hero of the film isn’t exactly right, nor is it correct to call him a villain, either.
HAL is an enigma, a super-intelligent computer designed to function as part of the human crew. Rain’s vocal performance creates a cold, analytical HAL, all at once both creepy and childlike; a character that personifies the uncanny valley. For further proof of the effect of Rain’s performance, look no further than Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which veteran actress Majel Barret seems to channel HAL’s cool intelligence, or The Silence of the Lambs, in which Anthony Hopkins imbues Hannibal Lecter with computer-like coldness.
6 Mercedes McCambridge, The Exorcist
McCambridge made a career for herself in radio dramas (for which Orson Welles once dubbed her “the world’s greatest radio actress”) before making a transition to stage roles and the big screen. Though she picked up an Oscar for her movie debut in All The King’s Men, by the 1970s she struggled to get parts. Then Hollywood came calling again…
Director William Friedkin tapped McCambridge to provide the voice of the demon in The Exorcist after actress Linda Blair’s child vocals proved too sweet. The final film uses Blair and McCambridge, though it’s the latter that is the dominant voice. McCambrige drank whiskey, raw eggs and chain smoked to get into her character, resulting in one of the most evil—and memorable—characters of all time.
5 Jim Henson, The Muppet Movie
The Muppets had already become popular stars when they made their big-screen debut in 1979 with The Muppet Movie. The movie earned near-universal acclaim for its humor, music and jaw-dropping puppetry techniques that made Kermit able to ride a bike, and Fozzie able to drive a car. Their greatest addition often goes overlooked, however: a new dimension of character complexity, especially in lead Muppet, Kermit.
On the small screen Kermit had been something of a put-upon host. In the movie, however, Jim Henson injects him with real fears and hopes. Nowhere does Henson shine brighter than when Kermit wanders alone into the desert, wrestling with failure and disappointing his friends. His sadness and love of his friends is so pure, Henson makes the audience forget they’re watching a felt puppet, or even a frog; Kermit instead becomes a relatable human being.
4 Eartha Kitt, The Emperor’s New Groove
The trouble production history and wacky tone of The Emperor’s New Groove makes it something of a curio and ugly stepchild of the all-too-dignified canon of Disney animation. That pays wild disservice to the film: it might be the funniest the studio has ever made. At the center of the comedy: scheming witch Yzma, who sets the plot in motion by turning King Cuzco into a lama. The source of Yzma’s humor: actress Eartha Kitt, who purrs her way through the role and steals the movie outright from David Spade and John Goodman.
Kitt’s exotic looks and voice made finding screen parts difficult; she always played to great acclaim on stage and in cabaret shows. The Emperor’s New Groove, however, proves her talent as an actress, and provides one of Disney’s best-ever characters. If Oscar ignored Kitt, at least she found some consolation later: her performance of Yzma in television spinoff The Emperor’s New School earned the actress two Emmys!
3 Ned Beatty, Toy Story 3
Sometimes, even more than a malevolent villain, a two-faced friendly baddie can unnerve an audience to the core. Case in point: Ned Beatty’s incredible performance as Lotso, the villainous teddy bear in Toy Story 3. Limping around a daycare, using a hammer as a crutch, Lostso rules as a despot, mutilating and tossing toys with sadistic relish. His cuddly appearance only adds to the creepiness of his character.
Beatty plays the role simply and straightforward, which helps to hide the pain that drove Lotso to his awful ways. He’s the anti-Woody; all pessimism and doom, he's bitter and manipulative. His performance makes Lotso into a blood curdling villain.
2 Eleanor Audley, Sleeping Beauty
Maleficent carries the distinction of being the baddest of all Disney's villains. Slinky, cruel and unyielding, she exudes pure evil thanks to a memorable character design, and a wonderful performance by Eleanor Audley.
A popular character actress for playing old lady types on television, her Maleficent is a performance for the ages, her voice rasping with perfect diction and terror. Audley’s vocal dynamics help make Maleficent into a force of nature. When she hisses her best line, “now you will deal with me, and all the powers of Hell, we believe she stepped out of the flames of the damned!"
1 Robin Williams, Aladdin
“The ever impressive... the long-contained...the often imitated, but never... duplicated... duplicated... duplicated... duplicated... Genie of the Lamp!”
The late Robin Williams had, perhaps, his best role ever, playing the gassy blue Genie in Aladdin. Williams actually plays the Genie as dozens of different personas, often impersonating different celebrities, and all before he even performs a show-stopping musical number.
That Williams also recorded a full sixteen hours of vocal material only makes the feat more impressive, as does the fact that he improvised nearly all his dialogue. The great comedian took the role for scale pay, which boggles the mind: without Williams as Genie, Aladdin would never have achieved this level of popularity!
Can you think of any other voice-over performances that deserve some more respect? Let us know in the comments!