Has anyone gotten more mileage from mumbling than Benicio Del Toro? Sure, Marlon Brando and James Dean were called mumblers back in The Day (i.e. the early 50s), but they were at the forefront as method acting graduated to the big screen in a big way. Brando quickly expanded beyond the mumbling reputation, and, even though he only had three pictures as a star to prove it, James Dean had a huge range of emotions and speech patterns.
More recently, the so-called mumblecore movement may have gotten a slight bit of traction because of the term, but it wasn't truly reflective of how most of the characters in the (mostly) unrelated films actually talked. "Talking so softly as to be indistinct" or "not knowing how to enunciate their words in a natural way because they weren't really professional actors" might be a more accurate designation.
No, good old Benicio Del Toro is the current standard bearer for mumbling, and we can thank the cinematic gods -- and Del Toro's own instincts -- for that. Because his manner of talking in a sing-song, irregular-rhythmed netherworld between English, Spanish, and "Huh?" has made us pay more attention to the character speaking the words. Which is why, I think, so many people will see The Wolfman and ignore the critical pans that it's receiving. (Our own John Gholson says it "truly is a modern spin on a classic, in almost all of the worst ways.")
Alert viewers might have seen Del Toro as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee Wee in 1988, but I didn't notice him until the great Swimming with Sharks in 1994 (pictured). Kevin Spacey dominated that film as Buddy, a nasty, abusive movie executive, yet Del Toro played his role (Rex, the exec's just-promoted assistant) with steely resolve -- and also reeled off his lines with steely precision, rapidly explaining to his successor some of the basics of the job.
And it's been off to the races ever since, as Del Toro has blazed an individualistic trail through Basquiat, The Funeral, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Snatch, The Way of the Gun, Traffic, 21 Grams, and Things We Lost in the Fire, among others. Early in that run, he mumbled as a manifestation of his character's inability to articulate in The Usual Suspects. Since that brought him greater recognition, some people got the idea that's all he did.
Certainly his magnificent Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing aided and abbetted that impression. And Del Toro has been widely quoted on the Internet for saying "I'm not Jack Nicholson. I'm not Brando. But I do mumble." (I haven't found the original source, however.)
To put all this "mumbling" silliness to rest, though, all you need to do is rent, buy, or borrow Steven Soderbergh's Che to see Del Toro's stunning performance as Che Guevara. I'm very happy I was able to see all four hours on the big screen about a year ago, in part because it allowed me to better appreciate Del Toro's ability to capture the essence of a character.
We follow Guevara through thick and thin, triumph and tragedy, and it's Del Toro who's up there for nearly every minute, dominating every scene even if he's not talking at all. True, he's speaking in Spanish, so the famous "mumbling" charge is a moot point when you can read every word he says. I speak enough Spanish to be positive that he's not just mumbling, he's expressing the innermost feelings of Che, and I think that's clear even if you don't comprehend a word of the language.
To be fair, I haven't seen The Wolfman yet, and it may be that Del Toro is rotten and does nothing more than mumble in a distracted manner as the latest incarnation of Lawrence Talbot. (To quote again from my unimpressed colleague John Gholson: "Del Toro internalizes so much it looks like he's cursed not only by lycanthropy, but also by delivering dialogue.") But he's one of the few actors that make me want to see him in whatever he does, even if it is a disaster.