Since the beginning of the American musical, actor/singers have never garnered the critical appreciation that they deserve, especially in film. Perhaps it’s a holdover from theater. Musicals on stage have always been considered lightweight compared to serious drama. Admittedly, many musicals are not serious, but it does not then follow that it is any easier to perform. How many people can act with their voice? It’s one thing to act with your body while singing adequately, but an entirely different thing to use your voice as the primary instrument of communication and still be visually compelling.
Though Anne Hathaway did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Fantine in Les Miserables, which should have comforted me. I am always complaining about how it is not properly appreciated how difficult it is to star in a musical. Doris Day (how was she not nominated for Love Me or Leave Me?), Judy Garland (how did she not win for A Star is Born?), even Julie Andrews is not fully respected for Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Author Tom Santopietro observed in his book, The Sound of Music Story, how difficult the role of Maria is: to sing, to act, to dance, to make it all look natural, to bring so much joy into her performance without seeming cloying; it’s not easy. But it looked easy.
Perhaps that is why Anne Hathaway won. She looked like she was working at it.
Perhaps I just could not get over how Les Miserables sounded to appreciate anything else. The singing can best be described as an assault on the ears. There was much talk about making the musical more cinematic, but a musical is not purely a visual art. Sure, they’re acting. But the point of doing a musical is to express in song what you cannot express in words or even visually. It bugged me no end that Tom Hooper never really let his singers sing out (they spent a great deal of time whisper-singing or talky-singing) and that much of the time their voices were strained, off key and generally punctuated with sighs, tears, panting, sobs, grunts, pauses (the melodic line disappeared somewhere along the way), lip biting, saliva and facial contortions. One wonders, with so much visual acting going on, why they needed to sing at all, especially since their chief mode of communicating emotion through song was to break down and sob in the middle of it.
Many people have defended the film by citing its realism, but if you want realism so much, why make a musical?
But below are examples of woman who demonstrate what I mean about acting with their voices primarily, and still use their face and body language.
In 1954, Judy Garland starred in A Star is Born with James Mason. Mason is an alcoholic movie star whose career is fading. He discovers Garland, gets her career started, they fall in love and marry, only for her career to take off while his dies completely away. “The Man That Got Way” was written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. It is the first song that Mason hears her sing, which convinces him that she could be a star, but is also prescient of her future with him. Judy Garland was nominated for an Oscar and fully expected to win, but lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.
This performance really should be seen in conjunction with all the other songs Doris Day sings in Love Me or Leave Me, demonstrating how she’s come from hopeful and excited singer to jaded and world-weary. Her entire character arc is portrayed through her songs. Each song has some relevance to what she is doing, but also expresses her current mental and emotional state. She even makes love to another man through song when she cannot say it because she is married. “Ten Cents a Dance,” by Rodgers and Hart, song is simply fantastic: jaded, angry, fatalistic, defiant, world-weary. Singing was her character’s dream and this is what she’s come to, the words of the song accurately expressing a sense of violation by her husband, the gangster Marty (James Cagney, who was nominated for an Oscar). She should have at least been nominated!
Now here’s a woman who did win an Oscar with her singing. “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins is completely different from Love Me or Leave Me, but no less an example of unparalleled skill. Simple? A child’s song? Not expressing complex emotion? I defy anyone else to sing this song like Julie Andrews did or to move people more strongly. Her voice is so much a part of her, it’s as natural as talking, but infinitely more beautiful. Transcendent.
Even people who did not like Les Miserables admitted that Anne Hathaway was brilliant, laying bare her soul in a startlingly emotionally naked moment. And I don’t mean to disagree with that assessment. My complaint is that the camera is so close and her face is doing so much and her voice breaks down so often that I find that instead of actually listening to what she is singing, I am watching her face. It’s a matter of too much going on and the mind can only process so much. The words she sings become unimportant, even the song itself; it’s the emotion she’s expressing visually. To simply listen to the song without seeing her is not very compelling.
Perhaps it’s a new and perfectly valid hybrid of musical and visual art. After all, one cannot sit for three minutes and make faces unless there is a song to justify it. But the song definitely becomes secondary. And to be honest, it really is stressful for me to listen to people singing who aren’t quite making it: melodically choppy, so it never quite builds to that vocal emotional high point, vocally strained and unsupported and because of that, not always on pitch. It makes me tense up rather than let myself become submerged in what is being expressed.
Just for fun, here is Ruthie Henshall’s performance as Fantine from the 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables. As a vocal performance, it is stunning. I can hear the same pain in her voice that you can see in Anne Hathaway’s face.
Incidentally, “I Dreamed a Dream” occurs at a different place in the movie than it originally did in the musical. Anne Hathaway sings it after she’s slept with her first man as a prostitute and Ruthie Henshall is singing it after she’s been fired, but before she’s resorted to prostitution. She can still dream of the past, but know’s it’s not coming back.