In late April, Alec Baldwin stunned both his fans and the followers of Tina Fey’s show 30 Rock when he announced to audiences on The View that, in the words of the USA Today headline, “I want off this show.”
The reasons for his distraction are now famous: an excoriating audiotape of a telephone message he left his daughter after a missed ‘phone call, all part of an ongoing custody battle between Baldwin and his ex-wife, Kim Basinger. Basically Baldwin, pled with NBC executives to release him from his contract.
To their credit, NBC’s honchos, as quoted in USA Today, said, “Alec Baldwin remains an important part of 30 Rock. We look forward to having him continue his role in the show,” sensibly ignoring the troubled actor, who also that week quit his agency, Creative Artists Management, which also represented his wife, Kim Basinger (Baldwin rejoined CAA just this week, late May).
But it’s not just for the sake of 30 Rock that fans rejoiced at the idea of Baldwin’s continual presence on the show. Baldwin is a member of a small, select group of actors who have but one thing in common. They all speak in a low, hushed, tone, all the better to attract attention to themselves within the hubbub of the moving image frame. We like to call them The Hoarse Whisperers.
There are more Hoarse Whisperers than you suspect. If Baldwin is the granddaddy of the technique, its Pied Piper and its Pope, he has numerous followers and acolytes. Another key practitioner of this oral tradition is Edward James Olmos, who must drive the sound technicians on the set of Battlestar Galactica mad with his low rumblings, so similar to the constant roar of the Galactica itself. Another nominee is Anthony LaPaglia on Without a Trace. LaPaglia low tones may be sparked by the fact that he is really Australian (like seemingly everyone else on this New York-set show), and a growly, gravelly tone masks his struggle with the American accent.
But perhaps the king of the Hoarse Whisperers is Kiefer Sutherland in 24. His sonorous tones never rise above the level of a kat’s purr, even when he is applying electrodes to the testicles to his girlfriend’s brother on the off chance he knows something about terrorism.
More of an honorary Hoarse Whisper is David Caruso in CSI: Miami. Caruso is more of a low talker than a whisperer, or at least his whispering isn’t particularly hoarse. Caruso keeps his voice low because it lends his noble character gravitas and moral superiority. Michael Chiklis, on The Shield, is also of this school, the whispering elevated to a higher level by a lethal growl. James Spader on Boston Legal goes in and out of hoarse whispering. He can yell in a court room when he needs to, but for the most part, he likes to sit back, his oval face impassive, and hoarsely intone his lines — which, if they could be transcribed to a musical scale or a graph would resemble a swan’s neck, starting high and high pitched before cascading down to a punchline. Also in this league is Patrick Warburton on Rules of Engagement. The former Puddy on Seinfeld only occasionally lowers the register to a whisper, preferring for the most part to adopt a Slow Talkers of America pace. Warburton, who had the brilliance to realize that, looking like a cartoon character, he should only play such, carries to technique to his vocal instrument, which has also enhanced characters in shows such as The Tick and The Venture Brothers.
The phenomenon of the television Hoarse Whisperer mirrors a more dire trend in movies. There, older actors of some repute such as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino have been using faulty instruments in recent years, their voices curiously shredded (curiously because normally actors train their voices to last). These rasping actors have effectively cut down on their range thanks to these changes in their vocal cords. Even Clint Eastwood, whose career was staked on a lack of range, has had trouble uttering the simplest lines lately, thanks to the impediment of his scratchy throat. And Eastwood was the king of all Hoarse Whisperers since way back in the 1960s and the series of monosyllabic spaghetti westerns he made for Sergio Leone. Fortunately, his heir on big screen hoarse whispering, Sam Elliott, has evinced little difficulty in speech despite his own doddering age.
But the small screen is the proper venue for a Hoarse Whisperer. There, the practitioners of this near-silent art can plume new depths of hoarseness and quietude, in tones so low the viewer feels inclined to lean forward desperately in their Barcaloungers (that, or turn on the subtitles).
Another great Hoarse Whisperer is Canadian comedian Will Arnett, late of Arrested Development, who adds an arch aggression to his low hum. An apotheosis of sorts, a croaking chorus of Hoarse Whisperers, was achieved in the April 5 episode of 30 Rock when Arnett showed up as Jack Donaghy’s corporate nemesis, Devon Banks, the Vice President of West Coast News, Web Content, and Theme Park Talent Relations, whom Jack thinks is gunning for his job. At a key moment toward the end of the show, where Jack and Devon face off on the set of The Girly Show, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemmon, acknowledging the existence of the Hoarse Whisperers, says, “Wow, if this turns into a showdown, you guys could settle it with a [switching to a coarse whisper] ‘talking like this’ contest.” At last! Someone within the media has finally stated the obvious! Ah, a very satisfying movement for students of the Hoarse Whisperers.
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