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The Bane Debate: How Important Is a Villain’s Voice?

Think of your favorite movie villain. Now close your eyes and think of his or her voice. Is it as distinct or more significant than the character’s physical appearance?

I’d never thought a whole lot about a villain’s voice before The Dark Knight Rises came out and people started to really talk about Bane‘s voice as much as his look. Actually, it began with the release of the opening sequence back in December, because Tom Hardy‘s speech behind his respirator was too muffled to always comprehend. They fixed a lot of the audio, as we can now hear in the comparison posted yesterday, and there’s a debate about whether or not the less clear and therefore more mysterious voice was better. In the film’s first week, many of us made jokes about what or who Bane sounds like. Matt Singer rounded up a bunch at Criticwire, including my own suggestion of the computer from WarGames doing a Christopher Walken impersonation.

Speaking of Walken, though, and somewhat of that computer voice (“Joshua”), it is apparent that we remember certain villainous voices, particularly if they’re oddly enunciated, as with any of Walken’s, or if they’re just a voice. Consider HAL from 2001 rather than Joshua, for a better example. Obviously we can more easily think of villains in animated films and villains with voices coming out from behind a mask or similar obstruction, as in the case of Darth Vader, who is especially notable because his voice was provided by a different actor than the one in the costume. Have you seen the clip where you can just hear David Prowse in the performance? Exactly.

There are a lot of actors with naturally nefarious voices (Jeremy Irons, for instance), which are consistently appropriate for villain roles, and then there are actors who distinguish different characters with voices created specifically for the part. Managing Editor Erik Davis offers up Alan Rickman‘s Hans Gruber as an excellent example. Agent Smith from The Matrix films is another good one, and notable for making up for the character not having a very interesting look. I also thought of both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger‘s portrayals of the Joker as being easily heard in my mind. Hannibal Lecter is another, though his distinction has sort of been watered down by other Anthony Hopkins roles since. Same goes for Hans Landa, I think, the more we see Christoph Waltz in other things.

Interesting to have this discussion today, too, because the new Skyfall trailer features a villain whose look is a hundred times more remarkable than his voice, especially since you first just hear Javier Bardem speaking and then you see his Chris Kattan-as-Stuart Smalley appearance. Bardem is no stranger to goofy getups for his villains, of course, but his Anton Chigurh also came with an evil whisper that perfectly fit the face and hairdo. I wonder if his Bond baddie will be as aurally memorable. 

Want more examples? I polled people on Twitter for their favorite villain voices, and here’s what they came up with:

Very important? Can be the difference between menacing and goofy. – @PulpTruth94

Very. How the villain communicates builds up the threat in non-action moments. Look at Kiefer in PHONE BOOTH. – @TheTrueBrendanF

I think it’s important, but only to a point. There are plenty of strange villain voices out there. My favorite villain voice? Scar from Lion King. Not my favorite villain, but the best voice. Gotta love Jeremy Irons. – @mousterpiece

The voice is everything, makes the villain memorable. A less popular choice, i loved Roth in Burton’s Apes. – @Adrian_Charlie

Villain voice is important — Vader is my favorite, but Tony Todd in Candyman and Lance Henriksen in Hard Target are good too. – @horrorgeek

Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen & Jeremy Irons have great villain voices. – @alistasi

Dr. Evil of course! – @oscarchallenge

Doctor Evil?? – @oscarchallenge

Hannibal Lecter, and Freddy Krueger come to mind. Every word Lecter speaks is chilling. Brando in Apocalypse Now, as well. – @JoshMArcher

Urusula (Little Mermaid), Jack Torrance (The Shining), HAL (2001) – @JenniferBylok

Christopher Lee‘s sinister characters have playfulness + venom in equal measure. His voice is dynamic enough to capture this. – @nixskits2

Bit of a left-field choice here, but Edward Fox in THE DAY OF THE JACKAL. Richly sophisticated, yet carries an undercurrent of insolence and boredom that perfectly defines what you imagine an international assassin would sound like. – @theangrymick

Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join the next discussion.

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