There are some, like Robert McKee (or at least Brian Cox's version of him), who say narration is the sign that a screenwriter is just taking the easy way out, that a true screenwriter will stay away from such impurities, that a piece of a screenwriter's soul is lost every time the storytelling device is used. These people are idiots. Look, I don't care what tricks of the trade a screenwriter employs; just make it work. The fact is there are a lot of great films that are better and more entertaining because somebody is talking us through it all, making us feel all warm and fuzzy or even seriously disturbed.
Here are (in alphabetical order) ten of my favorite performances by some people with the gift of gab.
Not many people have seen this dark and feisty Neil Jordan movie about a dangerous boy who loses one marble too many. I myself haven't seen it in years but I can still hear Rea's voice in my head: "Fraaaanciiiiie!" Rea, who also plays an additional role in the film, can be a pretty dull actor at times. But trust me when I say his narration in this movie is alive and colorful. And obviously, memorable.
The narration in Goodfellas is excellent and it's a shame Ray Liotta can't get a shout-out (wait, there it was), but Casino seems to have a lot more of it and of the two it's the funnier, more entertaining one. I get a perverse joy listening to Pesci and De Niro go back and forth, almost bickering with each other as they tell the two sides of the coin. Not to mention, the ins and outs of the casino and mob operations are fascinating to take in. This movie had so much narration in it many people complained when it came out that Scorsese had overdone it. I never really could get enough.
3. Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story
I will be old and senile, forgetting the names and faces of my children before I forget the voice of Jean Shepherd and his work in Bob Clark's Christmas classic. Much like Daniel Stern's work on The Wonder Years, it's all about the narration here. The actors all play second fiddle to Shepherd. His voice even seems to direct them.
The genius of the narration in Election is how most of the characters are saying the exact opposite of what they really think. You listen to them rationalize their immoralities or completely kid themselves into accepting delusion. The way writer-director Alexander Payne cuts the narration with his actors is witty, funny, and sometimes just plain painful. Often, all three. Even Chris Klein kills in this baby.
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Broderick has done more than his fair share of narration (he's on this list twice), but this is my favorite. All of his narration is done on screen, of course, Annie Hall-style, but it's narration nonetheless. It comes with an icing of strong comedic mugging is all.
Norton understands the razor-edge delivery you need when speaking Chuck Palahniuk. I can't imagine a Palahniuk film not overloaded with narration (Sam Rockwell acquits himself just fine in Choke) and Fight Club is certainly draped wall to wall.
It was tough to pick a representative performance for narration-happy Allen (the other close pick was Annie Hall's watershed work), but his stuff in this film always stuck with me since I was a wee lad and had no clue who he was.
Along with Million Dollar Baby, Freeman shows here how to get it done. Freeman's undeniably cool and harmonious voice are a big reason he was cast as not only the President of the United States, but also as God.
Life through Travis Bickle's eyes is a lonely, sad existence but his voice allows you to peek into his increasingly disturbed mind. As he sees it, New York is a zoo, full of animals and he is the zoo keeper. Some day the rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets. He starts small, cleaning bodily fluids of all kinds off the back seat of his cab. It's more than a zoo, it's a jungle in Travis Bickle's head and we couldn't have visited it more succinctly without his inner voice.
Here is another movie exploding with voice-over work. Viewers who like to watch even their English-language films with English subtitles on will be made happy campers as they catch up to McGregor's rapid-fire Scottish accent. McGregor's handling of Rent-boy's everyday wasteful life is way more fun or interesting than it has any right to be thanks to dialogue straight out of Irvine Welsh's book, courtesy of screenwriter John Hodge. The "Choose Life" voice-overs sequences that start and end the film have McGregor at the top of his game.
I felt awful leaving off every single one of these movies because I love their narration so darn much. Here they be:
"Then he showed those men of will what will really was."
"Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized it was true."
"Will find nice, sensible boyfriend and not continue to form romantic attachments to alcoholics, workaholics, sexaholics, commitment-phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional f**kwits, or perverts."
"That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying, 'As you wish,' what he meant was, 'I love you.' And even more amazing was the day she realized she truly loved him back."
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Dre writes two times a week for Film.com. Email him!