Friday, February 8, 2008


NPR has a regular segment called "Vocal Impressions," in which listeners are invited to describe specific famous voices. Most recently, subjects included Eartha Kitt, Joni Mitchell, and Mike Tyson. One reader said," Eartha Kitt sounds like a panther wearing a leopard coat in the back seat of a Jaguar." Joni Mitchell's voice made another reader think of "a radiant kite with no one holding the string." And Mike Tyson brought to another mind, "A cranky kid on his first day with braces."

When my friend Nancy and I first met online a dozen years ago, we bonded over favorite movie stars, particularly lesser-known character actors from the 40's and 50's. We especially shared keen pleasure in certain distinctive speaking voices, of actors and non-actors.

Here are a few "vocal impressions" (unless NPR has copyrighted that phrase) of some of our much-loved Great Voices.

Maria Ouspenskaya was a tiny Russian actor (b. 1876), a respected drama coach on the East Coast but best known for playing sooth-saying gypsy women in Hollywood monster movies like "The Wolfman." Her accent was so thick she might as well have been saying sooths in the Klingon tongue. But once you heard her, you never forgot her. My vocal impression: "Maria Ouspenskaya's voice was a rare small orchid ensnared in a thicket of thorn-sharp brambles."

Kathleen Turner made some great movies: "Body Heat," "Romancing the Stone," "Prizzi's Honor," and others; and though severe arthritis has limited her recent film work, she is much in demand for voice-overs of all kinds. Her sensuous voice is a match for her beauty and talent. Impression: "Kathleen Turner's voice makes you feel as if you should go to confession just for hearing it."

Colleen Dewhurst lit up Broadway for years, most famously for Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten." She also made 25 or more movies, most of them forgettable, except for her glowing presence. Many of us remember her most fondly for the role of Merilly in the Anne of Green Gables TV series. Nancy tells me younger readers will best recall Dewhurst as "Avery," Murphy Brown's colorful mother on the television series. Dewhurst's rich, warm voice had just a bit of an edge, and her laugh--well, having heard her acted laugh, I was forever envious of those who knew her unscripted laugh. One can only imagine. Vocal impression: "Colleen Dewhurst sounds like rich sausage gravy over warm biscuits on a lonesome morning."

Lauren Bacall. Oh my! "Lauren Bacall's voice makes one want to take up smoking. Or whistling. Or anything else she does."

For decades, New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug made her voice count for justice and human rights. Not a pretty voice, Bella's. Not sexy. But in Houston at the International Women's Year Conference in the late seventies, Bella opened the historic occasion by rasping out, "We're all here!" She meant old and young, housewives and employed women, assorted colors, all available political and sexual persuasions. I was there, and I got goosebumps hearing her. My impression: "Bella Abzug's voice was like a ton of anthracite coal roaring down the chute into my grandfather's coal bin, ensuring that there would be fire and warmth during the worst weather."

I never heard a greater, more wondrous voice than that of Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan,and I never expect to hear its equal again. Many of us harbored the (then) almost impossible dream that Jordan would one day be President of the United States. Comparisons are pointless, but truth be told, I grieved her early death more than Kennedy's, more than Dr. King's. As to a vocal impression, I wouldn't attempt to match the impulsive response of my friend Elliott, who first heard her while driving alone across the plains. To stay awake, he turned on his radio and caught the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the question of Nixon's impeachment. Suddenly, Barbara Jordan's somber, mighty voice rolled into the car. Startled, Elliott exclaimed, "My God! It's God!"

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