Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Lee Daniels’ The Butler Serves Audiobook Narrators

While observing Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, it occurred to me that each performance offers the audiobook narrator lessons that are applicable to storytelling. One performance is indicative of what works, the other a work in progress.

It is fair to argue that for as many people as have viewed this film there may be as many valid opinions about the quality of its co-stars’ performances. In proffering my clearly opinionated notions about these performances, my larger hope is that audiobook narrators will regard the notions (as opposed to my opinions) as viable lessons that can assist them in their effort to become more compelling storytellers.

For me, Forrest Whitaker’s performance worked; Oprah Winfrey’s worked sometimes, and sometimes it didn’t.

Actors and their show biz brethren are particularly prone to critique performance on the basis of what worked or didn’t, especially while conversing with their peers, as if only creative types really get what worked means. How do I define worked? My baseline definition—one that applies to audiobook narrators as well as all performers, whether its film, theatre, TV, dance, music, etc.—is: organically connected emotion. I’m certain this definition is no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog. Simply stated, when the actor (or storyteller) organically connects the subtext’s emotionality to the viewer or listener, the performance works. Conversely, when the actor fails to organically connect the subtext’s emotionality, the performance doesn’t work.

In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Forrest Whitaker organically connected the subtext to the viewer and Oprah Winfrey was far more challenged, and ultimately, not consistently successful in her effort. In focusing on why this was so, I again want to insist that whether one specifically agrees or disagrees with this assessment of performance, the larger lessons remain important for any narrator who regards him or herself as an actor and storyteller.

The three performance issues I’ll interrogate are: the stakes; less-less-less; indicating. Appreciating their impact on performance is central to appreciating why one of the film’s stars connected and the other misfired. Additionally, I’m hoping that as narrators consider these issues, they’ll appreciate why one audiobook performance is compelling and another is uninspired, boring.

I was engaged by (connected to) Forest Whitaker’s performance throughout the film. In terms of the three issues I’m raising, that’s because: his emotional response was always commensurate with the stakes; he vocally and physically matched the subtext’s demand (he never helped or pushed the words; never inappropriately physicalized a feeling); his response to the script’s words and the other characters appeared reflexive, suggesting that it emerged from his visceral connection to the subtext and therefore was organic, and real. He was, so to speak, plugged in.

Ms. Winfrey’s response to the stakes didn’t always satisfy their intensity; she seemed not quite as mad, not quite as sad, not quite as happy, not quite as frustrated: as if the stakes weren’t quite as high as I imagined the subtext was telling her they were. At times she seemed to vocally and physically overwhelm the words, as if we (the audience) might not get what she was feeling so she had to vocally jump-start or kick the words. And she had to over physicalize the feelings the language suggested as well. Finally, she sometimes appeared emotionally uncoupled from the words’ feelings (albeit impossible to know for sure) and that left her no choice but to, in effect, imitate or indicate an emotion because she simply wasn’t grasping it.

I am hesitant to offer too many examples of instances where what’s mentioned above occurred because that’s liable to create an argument that, in turn, forces the conversation towards who is right and who is wrong. How can Paul say this? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Or, I agree with Paul. He’s absolutely right. That said, it seems disingenuous to offer no examples, so here’s a couple:

Towards the end of the film, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) confronts his estranged son at an outdoor protest. It is, arguably, one of the most powerful, emotionally consequential scenes in the film. Having banished his son from his life, Cecil realizes he’s made a catastrophic error, and comes to make amends, to apologize, to re-connect to him. The stakes are through the roof! In that heightened moment when the two meet, the son asks, what are you doing here? Cecil speaks not much above a flat whisper; he is more subdued than overtly charged; his body and physical persona quiet, oddly weak. In this still moment, Mr. Whitaker had pulled me inside him (or perhaps the other way around) and it was as if I was that father, paralyzed by grief, yearning to be forgiven by my son. I was connected. The performance worked.

The scene between Howard (Terence Howard) and Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in which she wards off her neighbor’s provocative sexual advances found Ms. Winfrey somewhat uncomfortable and unfocused, as if she was aware of herself trying to find the proper reaction to Mr. Howard, who, by the way, appeared laser-focused and confident. Specifically, when Howard physicalized his advances and made plain with his language that he wasn’t surrendering his sexual pursuit of Gloria, I asked myself while watching, what are the stakes on a scale of 1 – 10? While Mr. Howard pursued at a ten, Ms. Winfrey—whatever she may have been feeling—seemed to be waffling, unable to committedly attach herself to that feeling. And what exactly was that feeling? Was she insulted, aghast, tempted, angry, seduced, all or none of these? It just wasn’t clear moment to moment, at least to me. But what did emerge was a less than one hundred per cent, focused grasp of whatever state she was trying to evince. Ms. Winfrey seemed to be flailing about a bit, like an overwrought puppy digging for a bone, trying to unearth the subtext oscillating beneath the words, but just not discovering it. Unable to organically connect, she was left no choice but to manufacture the feelings, vocally and visually.

As I viewed this high stakes scene between Howard and Gloria, what appeared to be working fully for Mr. Howard wasn’t working for Ms. Winfrey.

It’s important to reiterate that my interpretation of these performances—informed or uninformed—is subjective and based on my perceptions, not immutable fact. But I hope that the larger performance issues that have been raised—the stakes, less-less-less, indicating—are not only applicable to audiobook narrators, but can act as takeaways the narrator can consider when thinking about what constitutes compelling storytelling.
Looking forward to recording tomorrow with Nicola Barber, whose performances work!


  1. Nice, Paul. As a performer, matching the emotional response to the stakes is critical. Or, as actor Lisa Renee Pitts says, "The "ouch" must match the "pinch." Acting is simple and unfolds as complex. But then again, so is brushing one's teeth.

  2. Just tweeted your post. Applicable to ALL voiceover work in my opinion. And I'm still learning how to make it work. Thanks as always,