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Voice of God
Don LaFontaine’s trademark baritone shaped the modern movie trailer
Stuck overseas too long and yearning for anything American, I’d once eschewed the usual tourist traps to catch an overdubbed airing of Star Wars on a television that still had knobs that clacked when turned. I could live with the lines randomly scrolling up the screen in sync with a loud pop, but what unfurled along with Darth Vader’s broad cape as he made his appearance was unforgivable. After a few ominous intakes of breath, out came something that sounded a lot like my 10-year-old stateside neighbor lisping “I am your father” through the slot in his Halloween mask. In a matter of syllables, one of cinema’s greatest villains had been reduced to a cheap costume with a stick-on panel and a weasely whine. Such is the power of the right voice in the right role — or, in this case, the wrong one.
Marlon Brando’s cotton-in-his-cheeks rasp, Marilyn Monroe’s airy twitter, Sylvester Stallone’s slurred East-coast drawl — some voices, along with that of James Earl Jones’ Vader, are so indelible you likely impersonated at least one of them with ease after a few drinks at your last office party. Yet another cinema legend you may not know so well has the distinction of logging more than 5,000 performances on the strength of his voice alone. Always pitch-perfect, always weighty with sincerity, voice-over actor Don LaFontaine was for decades not just the right voice but the only voice for movie trailers, and earlier this month when LaFontaine died at age 65 of a collapsed lung, admiring bloggers and journalists alike scrambled to be the first to begin their homages with “In a world … .”
With a tone that could make the glass in your hand vibrate with clarity from across a room, LaFontaine’s voice had the strange quality of being distinct yet non-specific. It was the sort of resonant voice that could belong to a number of faces, a trait that allowed LaFontaine’s voice-over to fit comedy and drama, cinema or television. All of the major networks sought LaFontaine’s expertise along with TBS, TNT, and the Cartoon Network. His unusual brand of anonymity, however, decreased after LaFontaine parodied himself in a Geico commercial and audiences discovered that he didn’t look like a news anchor or a four-star general or even, as one fan in the business had suggested, God himself. Bald, thick-browed, a pencil scribble of a mustache, eyes bracketed with deep-set wrinkles, LaFontaine could have been the guy putting someone’s head in a vice in any of the films he’d introduced us to.
As fate would have it, though, LaFontaine’s career began instead as a recording engineer for the United States Army Band, which led to a sound-engineer gig with the National Recording Studios in New York City … which led to voicing radio spots for Dr. Strangelove in 1964. His involvement in trailer voice-overs thereafter helped shape the movie preview as we’ve come to know it — selective snippets of images and dialogue set to music and interspersed with heavy-handed narration and titles, assembled by production houses independent from the movie studios. Movie-goers can thank LaFontaine for the innumerable “in a worlds” and “nowhere to run, nowhere to hides” they’ve heard sprinkled throughout movie trailers for the past 40 years.
Like LaFontaine’s talent, the art of the movie trailer has flown just under the radar of mass appreciation. How many of us, after all, tune in to watch the Golden Trailer Awards as well as the Golden Globes? It requires a degree of artistry to pull together and edit the visuals, dialogue, music, and so forth that will work together to make a calculated impression on the viewer and ultimately sell them on the artistry of the film itself.
On the cusp of the LaFontaine era, a few trailers explored approaches different from what became that typical format. Alfred Hitchcock created his own trailers, which often showed little of the actual film but were something like tongue-in-cheek tours of the sets. Federico Fellini pieced together sumptuous scenes of La Dolce Vida set to music alone. And it would seem trailer producers are becoming a little more adventurous once again.
The recent trailer for Watchmen, for example, features stunning visuals between whole seconds of a blacked-out screen timed to the Smashing Pumpkins’ “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning.” No voice-over. Little dialogue. Sparse titles. Yet another, for The Spirit, introduces the main characters as if lifted from the pages of the graphic novel. Trailers for Atonement split the screen to show simultaneous scenes as One Republic’s “Apologize” lent pop appeal.
Until trailers evolve across the board, we can still count on certain cues from previews. For instance, you know a trailer without dialogue is a foreign film trying to disguise that fact in order to lure all those people who don’t like to read subtitles. Any trailer that begins with “from the people who brought you (insert title of hugely successful film here)” is really a film made by the key grips or the catering company instead of the creative force behind said successful film. A trailer that borrows the music from another (like the ever-popular score from Braveheart) is really borrowing the one emotion the film itself will fail to elicit. If the clips in a trailer slowly fade in and out to lovely music, that’s your cue that this one’s angling for an Oscar.
And, thanks mostly to LaFontaine’s impeccable craft and behind-the-scenes impact, we know that any trailer opening with a slow-motion explosion followed by any one of his trademark phrases advertises a film ready for a number-one spot at the box office. Yet the allure will always be less in a world without LaFontaine. •