The AUDIO book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be available for purchase very soon, and I'll hold a random drawing for a free copy of the audio book. I will also offer a free copy to the first eight people who agree to review the book on Amazon in exchange for a copy.
Los Angeles area actress Toni Lewis is doing the narration, and her work is brilliant. She kindly participated in an interview with me, and here’s what we discussed:
JTL: I was struck by your adopting different “voices” and adding personality to the many quotes in the book. I had never heard that done in an audio book before, and I marvel at what an acting challenge that must be—to find the element, the key in a passage to give you a hook to the character of that voice. I like the lower, dryer tone of speech for Madge Tucker, as if illustrating this is a kindly, genteel, but harried woman dealing with children on live radio, with a touch of New York businesswoman inflection. There is playfulness in your characterizations, including the funny “Bert Lahr” voice for the mountie he played in Rose Marie, and so many occasions where your reading of a quote stands out from the narrative and gives splashes of color to this rather long book. Speeding up the speech of the old Hollywood critics and gossip columnists, to emulate the staccato radio news delivery of the day, I thought was pretty neat. Some line readings brought me to tears, or shocked me. You mentioned to me about the script that you “treated it like a piece of music with shading and tempo,” which is delightful.
The voice you use for Ann is chosen very wisely, I think. The tone is quiet, demure, but not an attempt at an exact imitation of her voice—which I think is appropriate. And practical—because I don’t think it’s really possible to imitate her. She displayed such a keen ability to change her voice from film to film that she never had any vocal “tics” that one could caricature. Katharine Hepburn, or Humphrey Bogart come to mind as films stars who were always easily imitated by comics who exaggerated the peculiar speech habits of these actors. Your “Ann” in the audio has a clean sound, is a lovely example of sensitive and judicious narration. Was her voice a particular concern or challenge to you?
TL: For the most part (except for Ann Blyth), I didn't go out of my way to listen and study the real person's voice, because it was more fun to create the voice myself. After being introduced to Ann through the book, I sought out a few interviews online to get the feel of her personality. I was able to find some excerpts of Mildred Pierce and watched Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in its entirety (but she didn't speak!). Her softness was balanced by her faith and confidence (both powerful and firm), which gave her the strength to navigate the rough waters of Hollywood. A person gets a sense from the book that acting was her destiny. I wanted to convey all of that in the voice I gave her. She was and still seems to be a calm and steady force.
JTL: You mentioned in an email to me that you were sorry to come to the last chapter because you had fallen in love with Ann Blyth, and were a new convert to Turner Classic Movies. That really touched me, and I hope you enjoy many years of discovery of old movies. I would not be surprised if you knew very little about her career before you started narrating the book, because since her last movie was made decades ago, she has fallen off the radar in pop culture—though in the late 1940s and 1950s she was as famous as anyone could be in Hollywood. You are an actress yourself, you’ve played roles on television. I think that gives you an insight, an appreciation of the challenges of her career that I don’t have, that many of our listeners/readers won’t have. You’ve gone on auditions, performed, rehearsed, and worked with directors, technical crew, dealt all the business aspects to the career. Do you agree that your familiarity with the acting profession may give you empathy in your approach to your narration on the career of this actress that a non-actor might not have?
TL: You're right. I knew nothing about Ann Blyth before this book came along. As an actress, I could totally relate to her career and the challenges she faced as a woman in this business. She faced it all with grace and I admire her for it. At times I saw myself in her shoes. I'm a singer as well, so her musical theatre experience is something I relate to strongly. While reading, I could visualize the environment because of my experience on stage and in front of the camera. I recognize the desire to keep your private life just that…private. Her approach to the craft and her work ethic is an example of how hard work pays off and I'm struck by how successful she was, while not allowing the Hollywood machine to change the essence of who she was. As with many projects in the course of a career like this, you grow attached to your subject matter. It was bittersweet to see my time with Ann draw to a close. I got choked-up. I had spent so much time walking in shoes that resembled mine it felt more personal. A career is what you make it. She made a wonderful career and was one of the lucky few to do that. It's great to see a woman have it all or at least as much as she wants.
JTL: Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is a big book. I’m so impressed by how you navigated some of the ridiculously long sentences (listening to you has really made me see my faults as a writer). I have a tendency to begin very long compound sentences, plunking in a semicolon, and then go have a cup of tea or bring in the mail, or have the oil changed in my car—and then I come back to finish the sentence. No, really. That’s why they ramble on like that. Is fiction different for you as a narrator than non-fiction, does it require a different approach or a different set of muscles, so to speak?
TL: Yes, a different set of muscles is right. I find that non-fiction books require more of a smile in the voice and a little higher register in order to hold the attention of the listener. This produces a more pleasant experience, especially for long-form books. Because fiction is often suspenseful, a lower register is used to draw the listener in. I just finished a novel by Warren Adler called CULT. It was like night to the daylight of Ann Blyth. Both amazing projects but performed from opposite ends of the spectrum.
JTL: How did you get into audio book narration, and what are some of the challenges and pleasures of doing this kind of work? Can you describe what it’s like to narrate a book? Do you use a local studio, or do you have a home studio with the technical wizardry to record and edit tracks?
TL: Like Ann Blyth, I am no longer twenty-something and I wanted to continue to perform and create, so after years of pounding the pavement, I thought I would combine my love of reading with my love of acting. I set up a sound booth in my home and started auditioning in my pajamas. It's been so wonderful. The freedom of performing and producing books gives me such joy! I usually record in the evening because of daily environmental noise. I do the recording myself in sessions that usually last five to six hours each. Before recording, I read the book, make notes, breakdown the characters and try out different vocal registers for each. Sometimes a voice will just come to me. Others, I have to play around with to make sure they have their own sound/accent. The hard part is keeping the voices consistently vivid. Some days the environment affects the voice, so I have to do a longer warm-up and keep the vocal tea flowing. I use a wonderful editor who is a wizard at making me sound great. My life is happier and I have a calm I've never felt before. This work just fits my lifestyle. I'm happy and my family is happy.
JTL: Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to share, either as an actress or narrator?
TL: I mentioned Warren Adler's book CULT. It should be coming out soon on Amazon as well. That was a fun project with a lot of voices (mostly men).
JTL: Please feel free to any anything you’d like to discuss that I may not have touched upon.
TL: I could tell that Ann Blyth was a labor of love for you and after four months, I love her story as well. My hope is that I was able to bring another dimension to the work and help listeners of the book feel uplifted and more knowledgeable about that time in Hollywood's history. Who better to give us that perspective than someone like Ann Blyth who came out on the other side happy and prosperous?
My deepest gratitude to Toni Lewis for her marvelous performance as narrator on Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., and for sharing her sensitive and articulate comments here. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to work with her on this audio project, and I am in awe of her talent.
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is, of course, already available in eBook and in paperback from Amazon and CreateSpace.
A star of films, stage (including Broadway), television, radio, nightclubs and concerts, Ann Blyth is a stellar example of talent and professionalism, and her journey through the entertainment industry of the twentieth century is colorful and fascinating.
The most interesting aspect about her acting is that unlike most stars of the day she was not content to play the same kind of roles over and over again. She swam against the powerful and unrelenting current of studio typecasting. It was usual for studios at that time, which controlled the kinds of movies that their actors played in, to promote an actor in a particular kind of role and to assign them similar roles thereafter. An actor was marketed to the public as a heavy or the hero, or weepy heroine, or a stumbling foolish comic. Usually they played the same character over and over again.
Today we have someone like Meryl Streep, who is very versatile and we expect that of her. When we go to see a Meryl Streep movie, we expect her to sound different and look different. She’s working in an environment today where she is free to adopt that kind of versatility. Indeed, it’s become her calling card, her trademark, but back in the day when Ann Blyth was one of the most famous stars of her era, her versatility was certainly admired and appreciated, but I don’t think it was used to its best advantage by the studios. A confounding set of circumstances has made Blyth’s unique career largely unfamiliar among younger classic film fans
To appreciate how ironic that is we need to note that back in the late 1940s and 1950s she was one of the most famous stars of her day, featured on countless magazine covers, pursued by columnists, receiving thousands of fan letters every week.
Ann Blyth remains a mystery to newcomers to classic film who know little about her, perhaps for two reasons: she made 32 movies in her career but most of them are not on DVD and most of them are not being shown on Turner Classic Movies. This is because most of the movies you see on Turner are Warner Bros., or MGM movies, or Columbia -- many different studios, but a lot of Ann Blyth’s movies were made for Universal and Turner does not show a lot of Universal movies or a lot of Paramount movies. Today, Turner Classic Movies is pretty much the main channel that we would go to watch a classic film. We have hundreds of channels on our cable television, but very few show old movies these days.
My hope is Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will help newcomers to classic film discover the work of this marvelous actress, and to remind those of us more familiar with the classics not to overlook this quiet, lovely champion.
The AUDIO book will be soon available through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. It runs some 18 hours long (it’s a hefty book), but is delightful and entertaining thanks to actress/narrator Toni Lewis.