' ' Cinema Romantico: When Was Sam Elliott's Voice Put to Best Use?

Thursday, November 08, 2018

When Was Sam Elliott's Voice Put to Best Use?

In “A Star Is Born”, lead actor (and director) Bradley Cooper, as has been breathlessly reported by myriad reporters in infinite outlets, deliberately lowered his voice to such croak levels that his voice drew comparisons to his “A Star Is Born” co-star Sam Elliott. To which I say, eh. I compared his voice to the mumbles of Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” and I stand by it. I mean, comparing an actor’s voice to Sam Elliott? How now brown cow. I mean, where does anyone come off comparing anybody’s voice to Elliott’s? Nobody has a voice like Neko Case’s voice, savvy, and nobody has a voice like Elliott’s voice, one that is, to quote Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Stephanie Zacharek, “as rich and husky as strong coffee brewed in a speckled tin pot.” To this day when I hear Aaron Copland’s Hoe-Down, I cannot, forgive me, please, think first of Elliott rumbling about the splendor of beef.

Anyway. All this talk about Cooper’s voice and Elliott’s voice got me to thinking more and more about Elliott’s voice because it may well be Hollywood’s most distinct. And that made me think, as it absolutely had to, about which filmmakers have understood Elliott’s voice and how best to wield it. Ah, but what movie has yielded it best? Thank Lauren Bacall, you asked.

There is a large swath of the movie-loving populace that would immediately submit Sam Elliott in The Coen Brothers’ cult classic “The Big Lebowski” (1998) as the best used of his voice and rule me out of order immediately if I do not. And that is a tempting choice to make. He is the film’s narrator, even though he only appears in three scenes, twice turning up on the actual onscreen, and the opening joke is that his voiceover goes on so long that he loses his train of thought. And Elliott makes the joke land because he lends verbal authoritative credence to his bloviating, which means his peerless voice is both a joke and not one at all. Damn. I may have just talked myself into it. May have, I said.

Because, people, don’t forget “Prancer” (1989). I mean, if you need someone to point a damn rifle at one of Santa’s eight freaking reindeer and believe he’s gonna pull the trigger to put the thing out its misery, that someone is Sam Elliott. Then again, this relates as much to Elliott’s aura as his voice. Then again, Elliott’s voice is the aura, right? Hmmmmmmm.

“The Hi-Lo Country” (1998) was not critically revered and generally forgotten, but it was also proof of the heavy lifting that Elliott’s vocal aura could evince. Seriously, watch the trailer, skip ahead to :57 and get your hair blown back.

“The Golden Compass” (2007) is intriguing simply because despite starring Nicole Kidman, the only thing I, for whom Ms. Kidman is Hollywood’s reigning Queen, remember about that movie is Elliott croaking “You gonna join in this turkey shoot?” Take that line out and “The Golden Compass” would go on the scrap heap along with “Beginning of the End” (1986) and “End of the Line” (1987).

Of course, the “Road House” (1989) contingent might well be as ornery in this faux competition as “The Big Lebowski” cultists, and for good reason. After all, when Dalton (Patrick Swayze), bouncer extraordinaire who is nonetheless up to his charismatic mane in bouncing trouble, explains “I need the best – Wade Garrett’s the best” then you need someone who simply upon showing up will radiate “the best.” And when Sam Elliott speaks, you instantly, instinctively nod and think, “Yeah, this guy must be the best.” That, and you need someone who can credibly threaten to kick Dalton’s ass.

Credibly threatening to kick Dalton’s ass, in fact, leads us straight into the heart of the OK Corral and “Tombstone” (1993) where you need someone who can credibly stand up to Wyatt Earp. Let me repeat that, you need someone who can credibly stand up to Wyatt Earp. Indeed, that’s what Elliott does as Wyatt’s big brother Virgil, and when Elliott, in explaining his character’s motivation to take up the badge when Wyatt wanted them to stay out of it, declares “These people are afraid to walk down the street, and I'm tryin’ to make money off that like some goddamn vulture”, you will believe, if only for a fleeting moment, in an ideal world.

Boy, it’s enough to make you wonder if it’s even worth debating anymore. But it is. And it is because, my God, Sam Elliott played The Marlboro Man in “Thank You For Smoking” (2006) because, my God, of course he did. Who the hell else anywhere in the world and/or universe is going to play The Marlboro Man? I like to imagine Hollywood execs asking this question, immediately coming up with Elliott, and then, outsmarting themselves, throwing around hundreds of other names for twelve hours before, inevitably, circling back around to Elliott.

That sort of casting was probably just as inevitable as Elliott assuming the role of Brigadier General John Buford, the man who held off the Confederacy long enough at “Gettysburg” (1993) to allow Union reinforcements to arrive, no small matter, though I suspect he earned this role less because of his voice than his also impeccable, Buford-esque moustache.

Elliott did not have his moustache in “The Contender” (2000), not that it mattered, since his fierce baritone oozed the sort of cocksure resiliency necessary for a White House Chief of Staff to keep 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue running at top speed. If the late James Rebhorn is our Movie Secretary of Defense Emeritus then Sam Elliott is our Movie Chief of Staff emeritus. No other Movie Chief of Staff would ever do.

And yet. Near the end of “Up in the Air” (2009), when George Clooney’s lonely frequent flyer finally reaches his improbable goal 10 million miles, it is Elliott who is there to greet him, asking as if they were back home on the ranch rather than 35,000 feet in the air, “Is that seat taken?” Understand, Mr. Clooney is one of our truest bluest movie stars, but in this moment, as a character realizing the inherent meaningless of this 10 million mile achievement, he, Clooney, needs someone to cut him down to size. And Sam Elliott’s voice can cut anyone down to size.

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