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NARRATIVE FUNCTION OF BRADLEY COOPER’S VOICE IN A STAR IS BORN

Let’s suppose for a moment that Bradley Cooper is on TV promoting his latest film, A Star Is Born, and the interviewer suddenly puts him on the spot. She congratulates him on the incredible job he’s done on the voice but she tells him that she thinks that it’s incongruous with the character’s disposition.

She does have a point. Our voice is a mirror into the soul. When we speak, it broadcasts the type of person we are. If we’re a calm and secure type of person, we sound calm and secure. If we’re and anxious and fearful type of person, we sound anxious and fearful. This is because our mental and physiological states colour the sound of our voice much like the environment and architectural spaces do. Our breathing dictates the tempo of our voice and the level of tension in our vocal chords its pitch. In short, our bodies act like a resonant cave that gives our voice its characteristics.

A deep, gravelly voice like the one Bradley Cooper gives Jackson in A Star Is Bornbroadcasts a person who is solid and stable and who knows how to keep his cool in a time of crisis. And that’s where the problem lies, according to the interviewer. Jackson is anything but solid and stable. He has demons, he has alcohol and drug problems, and he’s far from in control of himself or his life.

So how can Bradley Cooper give this criticism a positive spin?

Luckily for him, there are elements in the story that he can use to justify his choice. He could argue that, yes, when it comes to the voice, psychophysiological factors are very important, but that’s not everything there is to it.

Our voice, to a large extent, is the result of the survival strategies we adopted as children. When we’re growing up, we embrace behaviours that make us acceptable to the people our survival depends on and repress those behaviours that don’t. The way we talked formed part of the repertoire of behaviours at our disposal. The only thing is that the more behaviours we have to repress as children, the more repressed and distorted our voice becomes when we grow up. Also, as children, we often model the voice of the significant people around us to create a deeper connection with them, to gain their approval, or simply because we look up to them and want to grow up to be like them.

In the film, Bradley Cooper argues, Jackson’s father was an alcoholic, so it fell on his elder brother, Bobby (played by Sam Elliott, who has a naturally deep voice), to take care of Jackson. The relationship between the two brothers is far from easy. Half way through the film, they have a serious argument and exchange the following words:

 

Bobby is the one who has the real deep voice. Even in a moment of turmoil like this one, his voice remains grounded. He’s the one with a solid personality and the one who’s been keeping his brother on steady ground – as much as it was possible given Jackson’s troubled personality. After this exchange, Bobby decides to quit taking care of his unappreciative brother. Things go downhill for Jackson from that moment on, and later in the film, he admits to Bobby that he copied his voice because it was him he idolised, not his father. So that’s how Jackson got to have his gravelly voice.

Of course, Cooper adds, when you model your voice as a survival strategy, it may help you tell yourself a story about who you ‘are’, but since in most cases it’s not a genuine self, the shadow aspects of the personality that have been repressed will find expression through the voice in moments of weakness. And this is what happens to Jackson in this scene:

His body is so possessed by his wounded child at that moment that physiologically the voice can’t possibly reproduce the sound of a fake persona.

Hopefully by now, Bradley Cooper will be out of trouble. Though if that wasn’t the case, he could always add that his voice is a symbol that works at the thematic level. Jackson adopted it to meet cultural expectations of masculinity that are falling apart in our time, although this is perhaps a weaker argument since there’s not much in the film to support it. Still, it’s an option.

This is, again, only a hypothetical situation. I don’t know how much of this line of thinking was in three screenwriters’ heads when they were writing the script. But what it shows is that the voice in cinema can be used for much more than carrying the dialogue.

We often forget that the voice is the human species’ most important channel of communication. Because of that, our brains have become experts at extracting information from the voice – not just the semantic meaning of words, but also none-verbal cues. In fact, when we communicate, 45% of the message comes through verbal language, and the rest from body language, but out of the 45% of verbal communication, only 7% of the information is derived from the semantic meaning of words. The other 38% comes through other vocal cues that can give us valuable information about a person – their emotional state, integrity, level of confidence, personality, intentions, cultural affiliations, and much more.

And we often forget too that the voice is the most prominent element in the soundtrack. A Star Is Born is a but a minute example of how non-verbal aspects of the voice can be put to good dramatic and cinematic use. Exploiting them gives the audience a means to put their expertise in this area to good use. Deciphering the mysteries hidden behind the voice and extracting the (often subtextual) story it tells about the person can be a source of great pleasure to them.

Were we "sung into existence" with sound?
Offscreen sound in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry: The Devil Is In The Detail