At the New York Film Festival press conference for 'Inside Job,' Charles Ferguson responded to a question regarding the choice of Matt Damon as narrator. Ferguson said his reason was because the actor obviously has a familiar voice and character and -- possibly more importantly -- "he's known to have political concerns in an intelligent way." Damon in turn came aboard as a fan of Ferguson's Oscar-nominated 'No End in Sight' and ended up participating more than merely providing some recognizable speech. The director says the actor had a lot of input on the script and pretty much fixed the film's original, "very quirky convoluted" ending.
This wasn't the first time Damon literally got vocal for a cause by narrating a documentary. Two years ago he executive produced and spoke over James Moll's 'Running the Sahara,' through which he hoped to raise awareness of the African drinking-water crisis. That film and issue aren't as popular as one intending to be the last word on the economic crisis (at least up to now), so perhaps Damon's involvement, especially his voice-over, attracted more of an audience than it would have otherwise with some unknown voice actor. Then again, maybe his political leanings also repel other potential viewers.
Many factors can come into play when a documentary filmmaker seeks a celebrity narrator. Coincidentally, while this topic and its introduction were already in my mind, Damon was in the news yesterday for joining yet another project in voice only. Alex Gibney cast the actor to narrate his upcoming doc about Lance Armstrong. His reason is that Damon is already well associated with the cyclist through a biopic the actor is supposed to star in (which may or may not ever be made). It's this sort of role-associated casting that likely got Johnny Depp behind the microphone for Gibney's 'Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.'
Celebrity narration has been around since the early days of sound cinema, but oftentimes the chosen actor seems to have been hired for having a particular voice. Guys like Orson Welles, Thomas Chalmers, James Mason, Laurence Olivier and more recently James Earl Jones, Ossie Davis, Keith David, Ian McKellen and Morgan Freeman have deep and/or distinguished speech easily associated with either the "voice of god" concept of omniscient narration or a kind of informed, journalistic quality. As long as it wasn't too distracting for the film viewer/hearer, it must have made sense that some of these celebrities also had star power. But it was mainly that they were great vocal performers. And not just any Hollywood actor would do. It's not surprising, for instance, that Cary Grant didn't do a lot of voice-over work for serious documentaries.
An increase in subject-appropriate celebrity narrators seemed to have increased in the '70s with western regular Joel McCrea voicing a film about cowboys and 'Columbo' star Peter Falk doing a film about juvenile delinquents. Later, gay actors Harvey Fierstein on 'The Times of Harvey Milk' and Lily Tomlin on 'Celluloid Closet.' Paul Newman has narrated a few racing docs, environmentalist stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen and Pierce Brosnan, among others, have linked up with relative films and other activist and political types, such as George Clooney and Don Cheadle, have involved their voice appropriately for subjects they're passionate about.
But why is Dustin Hoffman heard in 'Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,' and why isn't he heard instead of Robert De Niro in 'Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth'? Why does Depp narrate the recent Doors doc 'When You're Strange' rather than Val Kilmer? While it makes sense that DiCaprio produced and narrated the cause-doc 'The 11th Hour,' what's the connection for 'IMAX: Hubble 3-D'? Similarly, what's Tom Cruise's association with 'Space Station 3-D'? Does it help that Queen Latifah is narrating the 'March of the Penguins' rip-off 'Arctic Tale'? Is Samuel L. Jackson the only person who could have narrated the recent Angola doc 'In the Land of the Free...'? Might someone like Matthew McConaughey been a better choice for a surfing doc like 'Bustin' Down the Door' instead of the miscast and seemingly angry Edward Norton?
Norton's problem may be an issue with past roles he's had where there's voice-over involved, like 'The 25th Hour.' That would then be a reverse and negative effect compared to, say, Tom Hanks narrating 'Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D' (which he co-wrote), which reminds us of his role in 'Apollo 13,' and 'Beyond All Boundaries,' which perhaps recalls his part in 'Saving Private Ryan.' But those few people who really hate Hanks as an actor or a human being could have just as much difficulty listening to him speak of any subject matter. Certainly all those people who won't watch Sean Penn in a movie because of his attitude and political image off screen also won't listen to him narrate non-fiction films, whether they're of a political nature ('War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death') or not ('Dogtown and Z-Boys').
Two of the most famous documentary filmmakers, Michael Moore and Werner Herzog, narrate their own works and have become iconic through such practice. Interestingly, few of even Moore's fanbase might be interested in hearing his voice over a nature doc, while many of us wish Herzog would narrate most films of any subject. We all likely have other favorites we'd like to hear narrating more. But if thinking in terms of fame and popularity is reason enough for celebrities to be cast as narrators, why aren't people like Robert Pattinson (for a doc about the vampire myth?) and the Jersey Shore cast (Pauly D would be perfect for docs about cabs or t-shirts) being cast in order to woo the younger demographics?
I'm not really looking for an answer to that last one. Documentary narration simply shouldn't have fad-pop figures because they ought to have a more timeless feel to them. But I am still unsure of many elements to celebrity narration in documentary that you can answer. Like why do docs with female voice-overs seem more often randomly cast? Does it help the film if, in the case of Kate Winslet and 'A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism,' the narrator completely aligns with the doc's cause afterward? And are any of you disappointed that Davis Guggenheim didn't cast his wife, Elizabeth Shue, as the narrator for 'Waiting for Superman' like he did with his 2001 education doc 'The First Year'?
I'm seriously anxious to hear if anyone's seen a doc or avoided one strictly because of who's narrating. Or, if not strictly, has celebrity narration ever influenced your level of interest?
New in Theaters: 'Boxing Gym'
This week's recommended new documentary release is the latest from Frederick Wiseman ('High School'), and thankfully it does not feature any voice-over narration, let alone celebrity-spoken. I reviewed the film recently from the New York Film Festival so there's no need to go too much into it other than to remind you that seeing the film in a theater is likely your best if not only opportunity to view it since Wiseman's works aren't really available from most mainstream home video outlets. It opens in NYC Friday (10/22) at the IFC Center and will roll out to other cities through the end of the year (here is a release schedule with locations). Here's a trailer: