By Dr. Jennifer O’Meara

With the support of a Carnegie Trust Research Incentive Grant, in March 2018 I spent two weeks in Los Angeles at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library. There, I aimed to identify historical trends in the way the voices of female performers have been shaped before, and during, a film’s shooting. This exploration of the relationship between gender, vocal performance, and film production practices is part of my current book project on the reception and remediation of women’s voices in contemporary screen media. Through consultation with production files and multiple versions of scripts, the archival side of the research aimed to uncover telling signs about the kinds of vocal traits that actresses are encouraged to perform — as indicated by screenplay directions and production files — and how this relates to the dialogue as scripted. The trip helped me to identify trends in the kind of language and terminology used to direct women’s vocal performances, and the degree to which this differs from the treatment of men’s voices. More broadly, through this focus on the way voices can be shaped by script directions and multiple edits of the script, I have begun to develop a methodology for using scripts and archival materials to study filmic voices.

The proposed research builds on my recent book Engaging Dialogue: Cinematic Verbalism in American Independent Cinema (2018), as well as an expository article entitled ‘What the “Bechdel Test” Doesn’t Tell Us: Examining Women’s Verbal and Vocal (Dis)empowerment in Cinema’ (Feminist Media Studies 2016). As part of the first book’s remit of demonstrating the significance of dialogue to independent cinema, I identified various instances in which performers had been cast precisely because of their voices. The analysis also considered the corresponding attention that was paid to vocal directions in the screenplays. Moving beyond that, this research demonstrates the value of a more sustained analysis of the relationships between performers’ voices and references to verbal and vocal delivery in the scripts. With my Feminist Media Studies article, I began to map out the gender politics surrounding questions of the voice in the 21st century, particularly the reception of the voices of women in film on the secondary screens of the internet. The archival research complements such an approach by examining how women’s voices are developed prior to their recording. Furthermore, by examining the degree to which female voices have historically been ‘policed’ or fetishized by producers, directors, and audiences, I aim to gain a better understanding of similar trends in contemporary media.

As such, this research builds on and extends the growing body of literature that examines film voices from the perspective of gender. These include Donna Peberdy’s studies of the men’s voices in selected cinema (2007; 2013), Liz Greene’s article on controlling the female voice in selected contemporary cinema (2009), and Jennifer Fleeger’s book, Mismatched Women: The Siren’s Song Through the Machine (2014). Though Peberdy and Fleeger have very different focuses (Fleeger focuses on women’s singing voices in various audiovisual outputs, while Peberdy considers speech impediments in relation to male actors), both have shown how screened vocal performances are generally compared to idealized notions of masculinity or femininity. The archival research thus considers the degree to which such voice-based gender norms are foregrounded at the stage of script writing and rehearsing, not to mention casting and recasting.

Indeed, some of my most interesting findings from the Margaret Herrick’s ‘special collections’ related to letter exchanges between directors and producers about why a given voice needed to be replaced in dubbing. For example, during the shooting of Justine (1969), director George Cukor describes actress Anouk Aimée as being driven to “the verge of a nervous breakdown” by several hours of dialogue looping. As a precautionary measure, one detailed by production manager Joe Behm in a memo, Aimée agreed that they could dub her voice with another if deemed necessary. Whether or not this report of Aimée is accurate — particularly given the questionable label of “nervous breakdown” in the first place — Cukor’s description, and others repetition of it, alludes to certain stereotypes of actresses as divas or “hysterical.” More positive accounts of performers’ voices also seem tinted with gendered expectations. Fannish press about Mary Pickford’s first speaking role in Coquette (Sam Taylor, 1929) used floral metaphors (“verbal bouquets”) and descriptions that emphasized her ability to sound as well as look sweetly feminine: “A dainty lady whose southern accent is as smooth and sweet as strained honey.”

A black and white photo of Katharine Hepburn holding a sheaf of papers, preparing to speak into a NBC microphone.

Katharine Hepburn prepares to speak. Source: NBC/Getty Images

It was also fitting that, while working in the “Katharine Hepburn Special Collections Reading Room,” I discovered pages of Hepburn’s personal vocal exercises, as well as an evocative fan poem about her voice, entitled “The Apocryphal Story of Katharine Hepburn’s Metallic Voice” (Ralph Marcus, 1939). While I will save a detailed analysis of these materials for my formal research, it is worth noting that neither sources are discussed by Hepburn in the chapter on “Voice” in her 1996 memoir, Me: Stories of My Life (pp. 359-371). In Hepburn’s opening reflections on her voice she explains the deep hurt and disappointment that can come from never receiving the kind of compliment one wants to hear: “When I was a kid, I always hoped that someone would say, ‘What beautiful eyes you have.’ The wolf said that to Grandma, but no one ever said it to me. Or: ‘What a pretty voice.’” (1996: 359) Reading this chapter after discovering Marcus’s poem I was taken aback: had Hepburn somehow never received, or read, the letter– one so filled with lyrical adoration for the “alchemy” of her voice that it surpassed Hepburn’s desire to be told she had a “pretty voice”? Or, perhaps writing her memoirs nearly sixty years later, she had simply forgotten? Either way, comparing these published and unpublished sources provided confirmation that it is worth re-examining existing accounts of the shaping and reception of women’s voices in screen media. And, thanks to provision of the Carnegie Trust grant, along with further research support from the University of St Andrews Gender, Diversity and Inclusion fund, I look forward to sharing these findings in more concrete forms in the near future.