That Tone of Voice

Those eyes…..That voice……

If I asked you who told us to fasten our seat belts; It’s going to be a bumpy night, would you hear that line in a gravelly woman’s voice? Would you see those great big piercing Bette Davis eyes? You can practically hear a biting comment from looking at her eyes.

Gregory Peck’s rich, soothing baritone voice, one of the most easily identifiable, is also inextricably linked to his performance as Atticus Finch in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  His voice became associated with warmth and justice, as he portrayed several characters  who represented our best angels and defended democracy. As an actor, he performed in an array of roles. Some, including Josef Mengele in “ The Boys From Brazil”, were the antithesis of his heroes, but Gregory Peck and his voice were primarily associated with benevolence, moral conscience, strength and intelligence on screen and off.

Riddle me this: What post-war actor-comedian appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show doing his impersonations and political sketch comedy the same episode The Beatles first appeared on the show? Frank Gorshin, aka The Riddler on the campy Batman television show, developed a  comedy career as an impersonator of fellow actors and of politicians. His voice was other voices. Impersonation was a popular staple of stand-up comedy in the 1960s and 1970s, and while it is still part of many a comedian’s repertoire, the emphases of comedy have changed. Still, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin remains one of the great impersonations. It was a brilliant replica of the sound of Sarah Palin’s voice, as well as her vocal tics and mannerisms. Like Gorhsin’s and other comedic political impersonations, political voices as well as vocal qualities are showcased and accentuated.

So many people have paid tribute to the great movie critic Roger Ebert, who succumbed to a lengthy and incredibly difficult battle against cancer the other day. I am among those who listened to him from the 1970s on, and was enriched by his voice as an intellectual, as a movie lover, and as a human being of incomparable fortitude. Ebert lost the ability to use his anatomical vocal chords, but his voice was never silenced.

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton spoke at the  Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s Women in the World conference. Her speech was a call to action: “Let’s keep fighting for opportunity and dignity.”  Let’s keep fighting for freedom and equality. Let’s keep fighting for full participation and let’s keep telling the world over and over again that, yes, women rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights once and for all.”

Hillary Clinton, who “found her voice” in New Hampshire in 2008, has always been a voice for human rights, and specifically women’s rights. Whatever your political opinions, she has made audible the voices of those we can not hear.

Artists do the same. Consider Picasso’s Guernica. One of his most famous paintings, Picasso’s Guernica shows the horrors of war and the untold suffering inflicted upon civilians as well as soldiers. The painting helped to bring the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention, and has since become an anti-war fixture, as a reminder of the tragedies of war anywhere, any time. Picasso’s voice was clear.

 Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

One of the most powerful voices to encapsulate African-American Southern Baptist culture (and history) is told through the entire body. Alvin Ailey’s iconic Revelations is not only still enjoyed as magnificent dance, but as an expression of profound grief and absolute joy. The work was autobiographically inspired (as finding and using our voices always is), but it speaks to universals from a historically and culturally specific time and place using African-American spirituals, gospel songs and  blues. Because Revelations is a dance piece, it’s physicality makes the piece immediate and eternal, as bodies in motion give voice to powerful emotions.


In honor of those old actors whose birthdate was yesterday, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, and Frank Gorshin, we salute them and their voices. We grieve the loss of Roger Ebert who lost his ability to use his vocal chords, but never lost his voice.

We’ve become frustrated with the noise of politics, but there are still voices of reason and justice–even in politics. But the arts are often the most articulate and inspiring of voices. Listen (and watch) for those inspiring voices, and use your voice not for shouting or vilifying, but for educating and creating peaceful possibilities.

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