5 Of Cinema’s Greatest Voiceover Narrators

The Great Gatsby4 5 Of Cinemas Greatest Voiceover Narrators

Actors can cultivate their skills through years of training and learning their craft from all sorts of experts. They can take steps to improve their appearance, whether through natural, chemical or surgical means. But unless I’m missing something, the one part of a performer that it seems there’s no real way of attaining other than the happy accident of being born with it, is the quality of the voice. Certainly this is something that be augmented by how it’s used, and a case can most likely be made that the size of the voice doesn’t matter. But if Ted Williams, a.k.a. the homeless man with the golden voice, taught us anything, it’s that some people are just born with a gift for speaking in a way that tickles the eardrum just so.

This gift can be put to use in a variety of effective ways. Some use it to narrate documentaries to give them a sense of authority, or playfulness, or grace. Some provide character voiceover to narrative movies, serving as the narrator of a story who may or may not be featured on screen. There are those who provide voices to animated or game characters, or to disembodied speakers selling us products in commercials.

As far as movies go, these are 5 of the most memorable narrational voices to grace our ears with their sweet sounds.

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1) Morgan Freeman

Million Dollar Baby1 5 Of Cinemas Greatest Voiceover Narrators

Let’s start with the obvious. If there’s one person that just about anyone would pick to narrate their own lives, it would be Morgan Freeman. If there’s one person whose voice we’d all pick to have to listen to for the rest of our lives, it would probably be Morgan Freeman. It’s probably safe to say he has the most beloved voice in cinematic history. It may not be the most powerful or authoritative, although it can be both of those things in any given moment. It’s more relaxed, inviting, soothing and calming than a typical voice of god, although he has played God multiple times.

Much of the affection for Freeman’s vocal timbre and speaking style is likely an offshoot of the affection for The Shawshank Redemption, in which Freeman plays Red, the narrator character and one of the two central characters in the story. There’s a perfection with which he recites emotional dialogue with a simplicity that doesn’t overplay the feelings but transfers them onto the listener nonetheless; I think of the moment when he simply states that he missed his friend Andy. He of course went on to narrate plenty of other work, including the Clint Eastwood film Million Dollar Baby for which he won an Oscar, the documentary March of the Penguins, and a number of other films and television shows. Needless to say, if God had a voice, he would probably sound pretty much like Morgan Freeman.

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2) Orson Welles

Orson Welles 5 Of Cinemas Greatest Voiceover Narrators

Orson Welles, director of what is possibly the greatest movie ever made, if such a distinction has any meaning, was really only able to make Citizen Kane because of his voice. Or rather, it was because of his famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast which he directed and narrated, and which led to RKO offering him a movie contract that gave him complete directorial control over the finished product. Although he directed, produced, starred in and co-wrote Kane, it’s the Thompson character who provides the narrative dialogue throughout the movie, with Welles playing the mysterious mogul whose life Thompson is trying to piece together.

Welles’ voice was that booming baritone stage voice you imagine when you think of a major theater actor, and so in addition to performing on stage and screen, showcasing those pipes, he narrated countless movies and television shows, and the occasional commercial for champagne or other products. One notable piece of work that he narrated is the short documentary film Future Shock based on the popular 1970s book. Welles’ flare for the dramatic served the material well, even if its style and content seems somewhat ridiculous to the modern viewer. Even late into his life, when his appearance transformed completely, Welles was forever recognizable for his signature, unmistakable, powerful voice.

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3) Cate Blanchett

Cate Blanchett 5 Of Cinemas Greatest Voiceover Narrators

When the first Lord of the Rings movie came out in 2001, it introduced itself in a tremendously captivating way, one that felt unlike any movie that came before, with a soft voiceover introduction leading into the title and score, then proceeding to explain the backstory of the trilogy.

But unlike more awkward uses of exposition to open a movie, this one feels like it delivers relatively little actual information and instead instills a distinct tone of the story to our ears while our eyes are being shown these delicious images that seem like they come from a completely different world than what we’re used to. The tone for the trilogy is largely set by Blanchett’s striking voice, both in the introductory voiceovers and later when she is portraying Galadriel and communicating mind messages to the characters and audience in a manner that is utterly haunting.

She’s done little other voiceover work to my knowledge, aside from narrating a recent documentary on the rise in prominence of women and girls on the international stage, as well as a TV series on the British monarchy. The quality of her voice and accent could really be put to greater use.

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4) Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog 5 Of Cinemas Greatest Voiceover Narrators

German filmmaker Werner Herzog is known first and foremost for his work as a director, helming some of the most acclaimed films of all time as well as some of the most compelling documentaries in recent years. Most recently, he appeared in front of the camera in the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, as the sinisterly foreign villain, The Zec. This is at once surprising and also kind of a perfect fit for Herzog, whose voice has attained a kind of legendary status in the cinephile community, as it’s a character whose dialogue is delivered for the most part over the phone.

This status is a result of Herzog narrating many of his own documentaries, with his odd and distinctive voice, as well as his affinity for poetic language to describe the images as they unfold. But then of course his German accent makes everything sound somewhat nefarious to English-speaking audiences, and so there’s a quality of mischief if not evil to everything that he says, even when he’s describing penguins. This also makes for an even greater effect when it’s put to comedic use.

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5) Sam Elliott

The Big Lebowski 5 Of Cinemas Greatest Voiceover Narrators

The name Sam Elliott may not immediately bring to mind a face, but upon hearing his voice, most people find him instantly recognizable. It may in fact be one of those voices that for most people a face is never put to, a bodiless entity that exists in a form too pure and thunderous to belong to an actual human being. His slight southern drawl and deep bass voice makes him seem like a natural fit for any voiceover work that requires dialogue dripping in cowboy masculinity, you know, like truck commercials. This impression is played up for comedic effect, and fantastically so, in The Big Lebowski. A movie whose concluding moral is “the Dude abides” is well served by this kind of vocal authority.

There comes a point in a medium when all the styles start to sound the same, and this can be as true to movies as it is to radio announcers or TV newspeople or stage performers. It’s the ones that stand out that really make an impression, and I suspect that this is just a unique gift that a person stumbles upon, and one that I envy greatly.

Are there any great voices in movie narration that you personally treasure? Voice your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • Broddy1209

    Jude Law did good voice overs for Sherlock Holmes and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

  • slugbug55

    Donald Sutherland

  • jmc88240

    How can James Earl Jones not beon here?!

    • Iam_Sparticus

      Ironically Lucas first considered Wells for the voice of Vader, but he concluded that Wells’ voice was too recognizable and decided to get someone with a voice that was distinct but not too easily recognized, at least at that time. So he got Jones instead, and is now very recognizable.

    • RGK

      What movies has James Earl Jones narrated?

  • authorbooks

    Alexander Scourby!!! The master. Listen to the opening of Guns of Navarone.

  • David

    I would have said Don La Fontaine. But I only know of his movie trailer voice overs. Not sure if he has narrated films.