Modern actors mumble too much

I often have difficulty understanding dialogue in newer movies despite still enjoying what I believe is excellent hearing.

I often have difficulty understanding dialogue in newer movies despite still enjoying what I believe is excellent hearing.

Then a few weeks ago I took to watching re-runs of old movies on Netflix. Dialogue in old movies gives me no trouble whatsoever. I can easily follow the plot and nuances. Comparison of actors’ speech in old and newer movies reveals why.

In “Ship of Fools”, for instance, a 1965 movie with Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin, and Jose Ferrer, conversations are easy to comprehend. Even sugar plantation ‘slaves’ crowded into the ship’s hold speak intelligibly though using vernacular. Only one person speaks at a time, and even when whispering sweet nothings into the hair of a love interest manages to be clearly understood, speaking directly to the viewer enunciating as precisely as phoneticist Professor Higgins teaching Eliza Doolittle to adopt a high toned style so she can pass as a well born lady.

As an aside, everyone chain smoked but no one dropped a four letter word.

So why is it in Clint Eastwood’s 2003 movie “Mystic River,” Sean Penn murmurs into his elbow like a cop reporting to dispatch, or aims an interior monologue at his ankles the way Get Smart talked to his shoe? Mimicking Clint Eastwood in a pensive mood, Penn fixes his gaze on an imaginary horizon, squints, and delivers what may be a line integral to the plot if only I could understand what he said.

Wikipedia supplies me with the backstory that motivates these characters; otherwise I’d have no idea why Penn hates his daughter’s 19-year-old boyfriend, or why the boyfriend beat up his two younger brothers.

Actors should speak for viewers’ benefit and enjoyment. I feel burdened having to interpret their words and follow the plot with Wikipedia like an immigrant reading an English book with a dual language dictionary at their elbow. Imagine if James Cagney made gangsters guess what he threatened to do to them? Although crime writer Leonard Elmore’s loan shark in “Get Shorty” says, “You never tell the guy what could happen to him. Let him use his imagination; he’ll think of something worse.”

Do you suppose today’s moviemakers think we might create a more exciting plot if we are forced to do it ourselves as the movie unfolds? Is incomprehensible dialogue something movie makers’ intend or is it due to actors lack of training?

I wistfully recall the clear speech of Lauren Bacall,  Barbra Streisand, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn. Among men, too, the list of easily understood actors is long – John Wayne, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope. How funny would a comedian be if he were telling his third joke before we got his first? What if Clark Gable had garbled his famous last words, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

Marlon Brando, the top marble mouth, built a film career based on incomprehensibility. Did he mutter to rivet our attention on him longer?

Modern movies with their overly loud background sounds, penchant for a flurry of activity and one person talking over another shortchange screenplay writers. Writers slave to craft sparkling dialogue to engage, amuse, bring us to tears. Actors who mumble their lines thwart writers’ efforts.

Now that Netflix gives me a wider selection of movies, beyond what I usually bring home from the library, I’m sampling foreign language films with English subtitles. So far they share several traits I favour – a clean presentation with fewer actors; less frenzied; quieter backgrounds; understandable plots. They offer less humour than I look for, but subtitles are easy to read.

Claudette Sandecki crafts her own dialogue from her Thornhill home.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A large provincial grant will make cycling and walking safer in Terrace. (File photo)
Large grant to make walking, cycling safer in Terrace

Pathway will connect old Skeena Bridge to the downtown

Design work continues for planned new hospital

Construction contract still in the works

The Terrace municipal council in 1974. Front row, left to right, alderman E.F. Clift, Mayor Gordon Rowland, alderman H.M. Buncombe. Back row, left to right, alderman R.A. Green, alderman M.J.G. Duffus, alderman N. Jacques and alderman C.D. (Dave) Maroney. (City of Terrace photo)
Former Terrace mayor passes away

Gordon Rowland was mayor during the 1970s

Instructor and master artist Dempsey Bob (right) speaks to the crowd at the Terrace Art Gallery about the importance of cultural art on Feb. 7, 2020. Bob is a recipient of a 2021 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts Artistic Achievement Award. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Terrace resident Dempsey Bob wins national art award

Renowned Tahltan-Tlingit master carver one of eight people to receive GGArts Award

Hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards were delivered to Terraceview Lodge residents. (Submitted Photo/Carolyn DeFreitas)
Terraceview Lodge residents receive hundreds of Valentines

The Terrace Public Library delivered 373 Valentines cards to residents

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

VIDEO: Lynx grabs lunch in Kamloops

A lynx surprises a group of ducks and picks one off for lunch

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Two women were arrested in Nanaimo for refusing to wear masks and causing disturbance on a BC Ferries vessel. (File photo)
B.C. ferry passengers arrested and fined for disturbance, refusing to wear masks

Police said woman threatened their pensions in Feb. 21 incident aboard Nanaimo-bound boat

When his owner had knee surgery, Kevin, 2, was able to continue to go for walks thanks to volunteers from Elder Dog Canada. (Contributed photo)
B.C. woman has nothing but praise for Elder Dog Canada

National organization has a fleet of volunteer walkers ready, but needs more clients to serve

Most Read