Cartoon Voices: Serf’s Up in Hollywood

Posted: July 14, 2009 in David Macaray
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By David Macaray

“Hollywood isn’t so much a place, as a state of mindlessness”
—John Gregory Dunne

Tinsel Town is addicted to “star power.” As evidence, look no further than SAG’s (Screen Actors Guild) latest contract with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), and you’ll see that, while the Alliance is willing to pay A-listers top dollar, they continue to chip away at the incomes of those “marginal” actors who live off residuals and supporting roles.


Your Alec Baldwins, Angelina Jolies and George Clooneys may not have to worry about what their cut of DVD sales will be, but thousands of lesser known (and, arguably, equally talented) SAG members do. Clearly, there are two classes of Hollywood actors: monarchs and serfs. Okay, three: monarchs, noblemen, and serfs.

A question: What do the animated classics, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan,” and “Bambi” all have in common? Answer: The voices were done by little known (often uncredited) actors, and not the big-name stars who regularly do voices today.

While these were all wildly successful cartoons (still making money, incidentally) it’s fair to say that had the same Disney executives been around then that are around today, Tramp would’ve been voiced by Gary Cooper, and Snow White (1937) by Claudette Colbert.

Of course, it’s not hard to see why the arrangement changed. Like everything else in Hollywood, it was done for money, the premise being that even though these animated features are kids’ fare, marquee stars would appeal to the parents and draw bigger audiences. But is that even true? If the kids begged to see “Ice Age,” would parents refuse to take them unless they were assured a “real” movie star was in it? No.

More puzzling, if increased revenue was the goal, why not look for ways to cut costs, rather than raise them? You’d think the advantages of using “unknown” voices would be instantly obvious. Besides saving millions of dollars in salaries (Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy each received $10 million for “Shrek 2”), there’s ample evidence that no-name voices are effective.

Consider: “The Simpsons” became a mega-hit without marquee voices; they did it with good writing and a talented ensemble of relative unknowns. The same goes for “Winnie the Pooh,” “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” and any number of other cartoons. They used second or third-echelon actors for the voices, and the results were spectacularly—and enduringly—successful.

Not only are lesser known voices more economical, it can be argued that an anonymous voice allows us to embrace the character more fully because we’re able to “lose ourselves” in the performance.

Which is more compelling? A cartoon animal with its own distinct personality, or one with Jim Carrey’s readily identifiable voice, where we’re forced to imagine Carrey sitting on a stool in a recording studio, wearing sweat pants and headphones, reading his lines?

Also, what about spreading the wealth? No one is suggesting Hollywood should be in the charity business, but isn’t there such a thing as wretched excess? There are 120,000 SAG members trolling for paying gigs, and at any given time something like 85% of them are out of work.

Does Cameron Diaz (who earned $20 million for the appalling “Charlie’s Angels”) really need to beat some struggling actor out of a job? And not to be snarky, but Diaz is an ex-model known for her striking looks rather than her acting ability. How can this woman’s “voice” be worth $10 million?

I know a person, an actor, who is a tour guide at Universal Studios. He’s a master of voices—high-pitched squeaky ones, deep ones, funny ones, scary ones, dialects of all sorts, you name it. He’s articulate and has a wonderful sense comic timing. He could have played a caterpillar in “A Bug’s Life” (and done it for union scale).

The absurdity of it all became apparent a few years ago, when I rented a copy of “Toy Story,” in Spanish. The more I think about this, the more hilarious a non-sequitur it becomes. Although all the voices in the movie were dubbed in Spanish, the film’s key advertising hook was that it starred Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.

If you happen to come across the Spanish-edition of “Jaws” (which is titled “Tiburon” for “Shark”), you get to see Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus speaking dubbed Spanish. It’s a little distracting, but at least you get to see them act.

But the notion that someone can “star” as a voice in a dubbed movie is nonsensical. Even for Tinsel Town, where some weird things have happened—where, in a 1930 production of “Moby Dick,” the studio, looking for a romantic angle, insisted the writers provide Captain Ahab with a girlfriend—having the featured star of the movie not appear in the movie is pretty farfetched.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray — a t — earthlink — dot — net

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