In the subreddit r/linguistics, a deleted user asked in 2014, “What the heck is going on with Tommy Wiseau’s voice?” The users who answered noted that, when asked about his origins, Tommy Wiseau claims to be a Cajun who grew up in France and New Orleans. Ultimately, however, most on the subreddit concurred that Wiseau was likely from Poland, or at least Eastern Europe, despite the fact that Wiseau himself has continued to reject any suggestion that he wasn’t born and raised in the USA.
The Room (2003), written, directed, and produced by Tommy Wiseau (who also stars in the film), has been hailed as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” and became a midnight circuit cult classic of the early 2000s. The voice of Wiseau, which has inspired many impressions and parodies, is the crowning glory of the film’s terribleness. Lines often quoted from Wiseau’s performance include: “I did nawt hit herrr, I did nawwwwtt!”…“Let’s go eat, huuuhhhh?”…“Eif a lotta people louved each otter, da wourld wold be a bettier placce to leev.”…“Cheeep, cheep cheep cheeeeppp!”…“You betrayed me! I fed up with this wourld!” One other particularly interesting scene is when Johnny, Wiseau’s character, goes to the flower shop to purchase roses for his fiancée, Lisa. The sound editing is poorly organized: bits of dialogue are inaudible, the soundtrack is blasted sporadically, and the shop owner’s lines were almost entirely dubbed. The tonality is harsh and dry, and the pacing of the dialogue is infamously awful. The actress who plays the cashier actually worked at the flower shop and was awkwardly pressured by Wiseau to perform. However, even her voice also ended up being dubbed in a more clear, articulate form of American English that Wiseau himself most likely was not capable of producing. Contextualizing and reevaluating Wiseau’s odd voice, as well as dissecting how it accompanies the story he coveted and micro-managed, reveals broader issues of masculinity and wannabe American identity.
Kaja Silverman, author of The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, argues in the fall/winter 88-89 edition of the journal Discourse that the sonic vraisemblable, a French word meaning likelihood or similarity, is “sexually differentiated, working to identify even the embodied male voice with the attributes of the cinematic apparatus, but always situating the female voice within a hyperbolically diegetic context.” According to this analysis, Wiseau is attempting to regain his masculinity and what he feels is his ideal American identity through a voice that entertains many, but not in the way he intended. Wiseau’s own botched attempt at using language to solidify his own conceptualized American identity remains intertwined with his own distorted self-image. His self-image then becomes the object of terrific amusement mixed with discomfort across mass audiences, and it single handedly unites the film as being the most beloved worst movie ever made.
Wiseau’s lack of professionalism, as well as his ignorance of conventions of filmmaking, are made evident by how much he is challenged by silence and uncertainty. Room tone or presence, a classic term used in film sound editing to refer to the “silence” recorded at a location or space when no dialogue is spoken, was either not at all used or simply used poorly. In fact, the soundtrack and dialogue in The Room are highly artificial, possibly due to Wiseau’s own insecurities regarding his voice, which would go on to become one of the most infamously hilarious voices on screen. This, in turn, would lead to the creation of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (2017), which detailed the creation of the film and was based on the autobiography written by Wiseau’s co-star, Greg Sestero. The book details Franco’s own experiences as a young actor and his odd relationship with Wiseau. One of the main appeals of the autobiography is its transcription of Wiseau’s verbal tics and mannerisms through memorable quotes such as “Continuity… is in your forehead!” or, in response to Sestero trying to help Wiseau on a scene, “Why didn’t you tell me emotion? My God! That’s the easy part! Now you see why I need you here? These other people don’t care.” His voice is easily imitable, disjointed, and his mannerisms are vampiric. Wiseau’s mind and body don’t appear to work cohesively, both in his voice and in his movements.
The coexistence and cooperation of the body and the mind are essential to successful cinema. Accomplished actors have perfected this blend. Silverman cites the controversial psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan when describing the “discoursing voice” as “the agent of symbolic castration,” which in turn undergoes what she considers a phenomenal “fading” or “aphanisis,” indicating that language preexists and coerces speech, and therefore is permanently marked as a kind of “other.” This can apply when English, quite simply, isn’t someone’s first language. However, Wiseau is in denial of this truth, and he expresses his own lack of self assurance through his performance. Through his lack of concise language and awkward physicality, Wiseau brings viewers a unique sense of discomfort, dismantling Wiseau’s own desired identity as a straight, cis, white, wealthy, heterosexual “American.” His desire for conformity is plainly visible in his demeanor, and the poorly dubbed voice brings laugh after laugh.
“Bad” films are often cherished by cinephiles, such as The Wizard of Gore (dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1970), The Wicker Man (dir. Neil Labute, 2006), The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (dir. Justin Lin, 2006), Mission Impossible II (dir. John Woo, 2000), Wild At Heart (dir. David Lynch, 1990), White Chicks (dir. Keenen Ivory Wayans, 2004), The Blob (dir. Irvin Yeaworth, 1958) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1977). What these films have in common is how often they are revisited in popular culture. Some bad films are forgotten entirely, but others, for whatever reason, go on to be enduring forms of spectacle. For example, in Neil Labute’s blasphemous remake of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, the film is most memorable for Nicholas Cage’s horrific monologues. Cage did not give a good performance, but his odd face, voice, and signature line, “Not the bees!”, turned the film into a meme, with its “funniest moments” compilations scattered across the internet. This little auditory achievement made the film memorable, and indeed, quotable for all the wrong reasons. What makes these bad movie quotes memorable is the fact that they are comedic without intending to be. Other films, such as The Big Lebowski (dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 1998) or Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004), were written to be comedies and have incredible lines, such as “Yeah, well, that’s just like, your opinion man…”, “You’re entering a world of pain!”, “I am the Walrus”, and “She doesn’t even go here!”, “Stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!”, “The limit does not exist…” in Mean Girls. However, these two films are widely regarded as being “great” films, with well-written scripts and capable performers, whereas B-movies evidently are not.
The bodily-mind cohesion and self awareness that characterize The Big Lebowski and Mean Girls prove to be a defining point in cinematic intercultural representation, where actors, filmmakers, and screenwriters have often used the “non westernized” voice as a means for character study. Foreign accents are very much desired in films that may seem exotic for mass American audiences, ranging from the suave French accent, the British accent portraying the elite or a grand villain, or a German accent for a character who is cold and calculating. There have also been many examples of accents being used as ammunition to mock various ethnic groups, encouraging mass imitation and caricatures. While Wiseau has a rather unconventional Polish accent, conversely, the Eastern European intrigue in the voice of Bela Lugosi was captivating, and even ironically humorous for its early audiences when Dracula (dir. Tod Browning, 1931) was released. Aside from the obvious visual comparisons between Wiseau and Lugosi in costume, it’s important to recognize that all that Lugosi did as a performer was very deliberate, whereas Wiseau’s performance is defined by its incessant slippages.
CASHIER: Can I help you?
JOHNNY: I would like a dozen red rouses, pleese.
CASHIER: Oh hi, Johnny, I didn’t know it was you. Here you go.
JOHNNY: Dat’s me! How much es it?
CASHIER: That’ll be eighteen dollars.
JOHNNY: Here you go. Keep da change. Hi doggy.
CASHIER: You’re my favorite customer.
JOHNNY: Tanks a lot, byeeee!
The writing of The Room is admittedly quite awful, but what makes it stand out is its embrace of poor or mediocre vocalization of lines, lack of memorization, and poor editing. A false sense of confidence exhibited by the characters, particularly Wiseau’s, through his constant interjections of “Oh, hi!” and “Oh, hi Mark!”, “Oh, hi Denny!”, et alia. He also inserts an infamously awkward chuckle after almost every interaction with a character. Wiseau performs like a child desperately trying to figure out what real adults act like, while the other characters in the film almost seem like randomized Sims speaking their own gibberish language as well.
Wiseau’s voice is infamously dubbed in quite a few scenes, which always makes cult followers rowdy during midnight screenings of The Room, similarly to, other late-night B-flicks like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman, 1975). Most people’s first impression of The Room is that it was a project of complete amateurs, unaware of what they were doing. However, this was not entirely the case.
Of course, many questions remain, aside from the poor dialogue editing and messy or nonexistent room tone. The Room’s soundtrack was created by the Yugoslavian composer Mladen Milicevic, who received a B.A. and a M.A. in music from the Sarajevo Music Academy and then at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he received yet another M.A. He earned his doctorate at The University of Miami in Florida, and currently works as a professor at Loyola Marymount University, all prestigious and accredited universities. It seems highly unlikely that Milicevic, with his background, would even consider taking on this sort of job for a film so confoundingly moronic. Apparently, Milicevic was first told by Wiseau that he wanted the film to be a “dark drama,” citing A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan, 1951) as inspiration. Milicevic believed that the score would involve darker instruments, mainly strings, though Wiseau and Eric Chase, the film’s sound editor, strongly disagreed. They wanted something “lighter” despite the plot of the film. Milicevic had to take the scoring seriously, as it was his job, so he composed most of the film in a minor key, which sounds vaguely Lynchian in quality. The main theme is repeated over and over, though in the “lovemaking scenes”, another repetitive and irritating track is used, with the chorus of You’re My Rose by Kitra Williams playing on repeat during some particularly unsettling moments. The soundtrack itself is bad, though commendable in how worse it could have been. At a certain point, one begins wondering: what possessed Wiseau to make such a film?
Similarly to the origins of his accent, Wiseau’s past has been notoriously mysterious. According to Greg Sestero, Tommy had been in a car accident when he was younger, though there is not much information available surrounding how much of this could be at the root of his eccentricities. However, this experience could also explain Wiseau’s obsession with James Dean, as Dean himself died in a car accident, hence Wiseau’s appropriation of the line, “You’re tearing me apart!” from Rebel Without A Cause, rehashed as the infamous “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”, with Lisa responding, “Why are you so hysterical?” Sestero certainly suspected that something was very mentally wrong with Wiseau throughout their relationship, and this could also contribute, in part, to audience members’ perception of the film. It forces us to question our choice to laugh at someone who potentially endured serious brain damage.
Ultimately, much like Dracula, The Room provides a fixed cultural commentary on the idea of a terrible artist, a “disaster” artist if you will, who represents a distorted view of a once-Romantic European cinematic voice. The reaping of American mediocrity is purely embodied in The Room, a film with as little self-awareness as any film ever could have. A mixture of artistic apathy and desperation for making ends meet came together in this film, with actors such as Juliette Danielle, Carolyn Minnott, Greg Sestero, and others desperate for success in Hollywood. Wiseau’s poor directing and acting style made him almost impossible to work with, bringing out insecure, awkward, and stuttering performances from his actors. His voice, which is truly the most memorable and quotable part of the film, is itself a product of his own insecurity with his American identity and bumbling masculinity. We relish in the oddness of the American outsider in a kind of subconscious form of cultural sadism. Wiseau’s lack of vocal recognizability and his desire to embody the American Dream serves as an example of its unattainability, as well as the comedic power of a voice situated in a jumbled cinematic landscape.