03.03.10

Mumbling Wins Oscars!

What does Jeff Bridges share with previous winners Javier Bardem and Renée Zellweger? You can't understand a word they say. Zachary Pincus-Roth on this unlikely path to victory.

Jeff Bridges will almost certainly win a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar Sunday for Crazy Heart, as the performance caps a fruitful but underappreciated career and manages to find sympathy and humor in a washed-up, alcoholic country singer. But there's another factor that may contribute to his victory: It's hard to understand what he's saying.

Click the Image to View Our Video Gallery of Oscar's Best Mumblers

In recent years, a number of Oscar-nominated performances have involved some form of low-talking, be it mumbling, muttering, slurring, or a lack of volume, either because of the actor's choice or the requirements of the role. It's not that they're completely unintelligible—it's that on the spectrum that runs from Laurence Olivier in Richard III to the Olsen twins in Full House, they're a few standard deviations toward the latter.

Every year, there are at least one or two acting nominees who are in this category, and this year it's Bridges and the tight-lipped Gabourey Sidibe in Precious. Last year, it was Frank Langella's gravelly former president in Frost/Nixon and Robert Downey, Jr.'s white actor pretending to be black in Tropic Thunder.

The Daily Beast’s Complete Oscar CoverageRecent low-talking winners include Tim Robbins in Mystic River, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, Renée Zellweger in Cold Mountain, Benicio Del Toro in Traffic, and Jamie Foxx in Ray. In 2006 alone, three of the Best Actor contenders fit the bill: Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow, and the winner, Philip Seymour Hoffman's wispy-voiced title character in Capote.

Going back further, Russell Crowe's stammered through his nominated performance as the mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. In Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton's character fixes lawnmowers but he sounds as if he swallowed one. Geoffrey Rush won for playing the muttering pianist David Helfgott in Shine, while Dustin Hoffman took home a statue for his motor-mouthed depiction of autism in Rain Man. Robert Duvall won for Tender Mercies in a role similar to Bridges'. And Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull wasn't exactly the king of elocution.

Not every Oscar winner mumbles, of course, but a good chunk of mumblers get Oscar recognition. Why does this happen? One theory is that mumbling serves as a signal flare to voters, letting them know that "here is a role where good acting is happening." Perhaps Oscar voters like a lack of enunciation because it seems humbling—much like how they like a lack of glamour, as with Charlize Theron's winning role in Monster.

Another reason is that mumbling often overlaps with other voice-related Oscar biases, which includes accents, impersonations of real-life celebrities, and vocal changes resulting from disabilities or mental illness. The Oscars also like down-and-out characters and misunderstood geniuses, both of which tend to beget low-talkers. (See Jacob Bernstein's "10 Ways to Win an Oscar" for an expanded list of how affliction can lead to a lock on Oscar gold.)

But of all these biases, mumbling is the subtle, underappreciated one. It's the Jeff Bridges of Oscar biases.

As many of these performances prove, mumbling often coincides with good acting. After all, only the best actors have the chops and the confidence to risk not being understood. The history of onscreen mumbling dates back to the start of Method acting, as famous adherents such as Marlon Brando and James Dean departed from the stentorian tones of their British colleagues. "It was a measure of sincerity or authenticity if an actor/character did not quite seem to know what to say," says David Thomson, the film critic and author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Dean used to purposefully break up a line and take its grammar apart—anything to make it less clear, Thomson says. Steve McQueen would go through a screenplay and try to shorten his lines, thinking that the longer the line, the more pompous you seem. Brando mumbled to varying degrees, most famously in his Oscar-winning role in The Godfather.

Susan Batson, a Hollywood acting coach, says that actors don't explicitly say that their goal is to muffle their words. The effect comes when they speak "through the sensation," she says, letting it change their voices (as opposed to skirting over the top of the sensation, as is the case in more presentational styles, such as your stereotypical Shakespearean play). "That creates a change in tone, a change in flavor," she says. "The voice may disappear."

Only the best actors have the chops and the confidence to risk not being understood.

While theater actors have to project to the balcony and television actors compete with household distractions, film actors can create more of an intimacy with an audience. Mumbling helps audiences "feel like they're peeking in the keyhole," Batson says. Directors have to make sure it doesn't intrude on the storytelling. "Sometimes a director will say, 'That word has to be heard. Figure out how to get that out.'"

Low-talking can shape a character in a variety of ways. At the simplest level, it shows that the character is inarticulate, which in film often indicates a troubled past. An example is Sidibe's protagonist in Precious—a pregnant 16-year-old in Harlem who's been physically and sexually abused by her parents. The character's clipped verbal communication conveys how life has beaten her down and how little hope there is that she can dig her way out. "I think it was a choice to repress the character so much, and to set up limitations," Batson says. "Everything in her life is on top of her and everything is limited."

A similar example is Robbins' character in Mystic River, who was also molested. His muffled tone hints at "the way the character had been damaged, the way he had been brutalized," says Thomson. "This is a man who doesn't trust speech so he doesn't say very much."

Sometimes mumbling can help bring a character down to earth. When Batson coached Foxx in Ray, she recalls, his "intent is you were going to walk away from the theater thinking that this guy" —Ray Charles—"was a regular guy. Regular guys do not pontificate." Holding back speech sometimes indicates a desire for privacy and helps keep others at a distance. "The mumble could be passive aggressive—the person wants to have someone work very hard at hearing them," Batson says. Some of Downey's muttery performances and Hoffman's aloof Capote fit this category.

But at a basic level, mumbling, like other vocal ticks, can simply be fun to listen to. Much of the appeal of Downey's performances comes from the unpredictable twists and turns of his vocal cord roller coaster. Johnny Depp was so intriguing in Pirates of the Caribbean—another Oscar nom—because he was a Disney character who spoke like a wino. And while Kevin Spacey won the Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Del Toro's incomprehensible performance in the same film is just as beloved (in the lineup scene, a cop memorably tells him, "In English, please"). The ultimate answer to mumbling's appeal is a line from Sling Blade, when the little boy says to Thornton's character, "I like the way you talk."

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Zachary Pincus-Roth has written about arts and entertainment for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Variety, Playbill, Slate, and other publications. He wrote the companion book to the Broadway show Avenue Q.