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God’s book on tape: 14 mortal attempts to portray the Almighty

We all know what God looks like: It’s right there in the Bible: “And the mighty, manly white guy with the long beard and robes came unto Adam,” and so forth. But it took the invention of sound and film recording for mankind to wonder, “What does he sound like?” Here’s what they came up with—all different, all presumably very wrong.

1. George Burns, Oh, God! (1977)

After a long stretch out of the spotlight, comedian George Burns mounted an unexpected comeback in his late ’70s, starring in (and winning an Oscar for) the 1975 movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys. If nothing else, the Burns revival meant that younger audiences knew who he was when he provided the voice and face of the Almighty in the charming 1977 comedy Oh, God! And that mattered, because one of the big jokes of the movie was that writer Larry Gelbart and director Carl Reiner were trying to change the image of God from imposing and wrathful to mellow and wizened—the ideal lord for the post-hippie/pre-Reagan era. Oh, God! relies on the instant recognizability of Burns’ voice and persona, letting his soft rasp and wry self-awareness represent a more up-to-date version of that old-time religion. [Noel Murray]


2. Bob Odenkirk, Mr. Show (1998)

Inspired by Hollywood producer Robert Evans, Bob Odenkirk channeled God for the Mr. Show sketch “God’s Book-On-Tape,” in which he borrows Evans’ look and vocal cadences to portray the Almighty. It’s a funny riff, considering how massively cocksure and smooth Evans is. The way Odenkirk plays it, God is a real cool cat who’s good with the ladies and quick to answer his own questions: “Isn’t there a book about God already? Yeah. You call it the Bible, I call it Too Many Cooks.” Odenkirk even told NPR that he based some of Saul Goodman’s mannerisms on Evans. [Josh Modell]


3. Alanis Morissette, Dogma (1999)

In Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Alan Rickman plays the sardonic seraphim Metatron, who functions as the front-facing voice of God because, as he puts it with an implied eye roll, “Human beings have neither the aural nor the psychological capacity to withstand the awesome power of God’s true voice.” That becomes abundantly clear near the end of the movie, when a sympathetic, innocent-looking Alanis Morissette (a.k.a. the real God) lets rip a guttural, tornado-inducing roar that causes fallen angel Bartleby (Ben Affleck) to explode. The incongruity between Morissette’s beatific demeanor and her unexpected outburst amplifies the absurdity—and unexpected nature—of the scene. From Rickman’s description, it certainly wasn’t obvious that “awesome power” translated into “hellfire beast,” and Morissette otherwise portrays God as a spritely, benevolent, and even lighthearted deity. [Annie Zaleski]


4. John Huston, The Bible: In The Beginning… (1966)

Like Orson Welles, John Huston was one of those rare Hollywood directors that the moviegoing public knew not just by name, but by personality—from the stories in the press about his globe-hopping adventures, and from his mellifluous, commanding voice in radio and TV interviews. When Dino De Laurentiis hired Huston to direct the epic three-hour adaptation of the first half of The Book Of Genesis, The Bible: In The Beginning… Huston cast himself as the narrator and as Noah, and also played God. It’s an interesting choice aesthetically and thematically, making it seem like Noah’s following a voice from inside himself, and making the narration come across as literally omniscient. But it also fits Huston’s reputation to have him be the voice of the big guy. Almost anyone who heard the director’s rapid, rolling patter would feel compelled to do whatever he said. [Noel Murray]


5. Morgan Freeman, Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007)

Morgan Freeman’s smooth, resonant voice makes the 77-year-old actor an obvious choice to narrate documentaries and voice benevolent authority figures, from The Shawshank Redemption to The Lego Movie. He played the ultimate authority in 2003’s Bruce Almighty and its 2007 sequel Evan Almighty, appearing to Jim Carrey’s and Steve Carell’s characters with divine offers. Those offers quickly got out of control for both men, yet Freeman’s God projects such an air of benevolent control that you never doubt he’ll find some way to set everything right in the end. He’s attempting to teach his creations a valuable lesson that they keep missing, but his authoritative tone never once cracks in frustration—that’s the sign of a God with nothing but endless compassion and understanding humanity’s flaws. [Les Chappell]


6. Graham Chapman, Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)

Monty Python And The Holy Grail is ruthless when it comes to satirizing King Arthur’s holy crusade. Depicted as a grand Byzantine figure in the sky and voiced by Graham Chapman—who also happens to play Arthur—his is not a vengeful God but one without a sliver of patience. The Middle Ages adulation for the Almighty falls on deaf ears, as he snaps at Arthur and his retinue the minute they try to avert their eyes. “Every time I try to talk to someone it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that.’ It’s like those miserable psalms—they’re so depressing,” he gripes in a booming voice that invites no discussion. Even when he’s granting them valuable information there’s little room for common ground, as the minute Arthur says the quest is a good idea God bellows back how obvious that should be. Arthur and his knights go on to praise God as they continue this mission, but given how badly things go—a Black Knight, a bridge of death, a vicious rabbit—keeping their devotion to themselves may have yielded better results. [Les Chappell]


7. Rob Zombie, Super (2010)

Rob Zombie might not be an obvious choice for the voice of God. He hasn’t exactly built a career as the sound of the heavenly choir—most people know him as the gravel-voiced singer of White Zombie, or the director of gonzo horror films like The Devil’s Rejects and Lords Of Salem. Casting him as the voice of the Almighty is basically the opposite of what would be considered an appropriately serious choice, which is likely what James Gunn had in mind. When he speaks in Gunn’s black comedy Super, it’s a two-word phrase underlining the first time Rainn Wilson’s Frank meets Liv Tyler’s Sarah, and it reverberates in Frank’s head: “Marry her.” Performance-wise, that’s about as minimalist as you can get. It’s a somewhat more sardonic God, still delivering a direct commandment but with a bit of an amused air to it, like he’s surprised with himself for getting involved in something this mundane. Tonally, it fits: The film is all over the map stylistically, a smart but jarring mash-up of the comedic and disturbing in equal measure. Zombie’s God, quite correctly, sounds like both of those things at once. [Alex McCown]


8. Groucho Marx, Skidoo (1968)

Groucho Marx’s comedic persona is based on irreverence and distrust of authority, making him an unlikely candidate to play the ruler of heaven and earth under any normal circumstances. But the filming of Otto Preminger’s 1968 counterculture satire Skidoo was not normal circumstances. Besides, Groucho doesn’t actually play the Almighty, just a mob boss named God, which actually makes even less sense when you think about it. How could a nasal-voiced, stooped-over old man—Marx was 77 at the time—with a greasepaint mustache like Groucho instill the fear and awe necessary to rise to the top of a criminal organization? By making cutting remarks to wound his enemies’ egos, perhaps? Marx also reportedly dropped acid to prepare for the role, an intriguing little anecdote that bolsters his credibility as a cosmic being, if not as an underworld heavy. [Katie Rife]


9. Whoopi Goldberg, A Little Bit Of Heaven (2011)

With her preternaturally wizened rasp and convivial warmth, Whoopi Goldberg has played several personifications of the Almighty. She works in mysterious ways in the made-for-TV Frank Capra spoof It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and had provided a sympathetically godlike ear to members of Starfleet on Star Trek: The Next Generation. (In that role, she also has some unspecified history with John De Lancie’s Loki of the cosmos, Q.) Goldberg herself gives off a bit of a prankster-god vibe, which goes part of the way toward explaining how she wound up playing God in the 2011 film A Little Bit Of Heaven. The rest of the explanation: A Little Bit Of Heaven is a stew of tear-jerking clichés (commitment-phobic hero + terminal illness + handsome doctor—you do the math) that failed to dream up a unique deity. In A Little Bit Of Heaven’s universe, Goldberg isn’t the true face of God—“This is just the way you wanted to see me,” she tells Kate Hudson’s protagonist—but even the script cops to the popularity of its choice. “I love Whoopi,” Hudson says. And so do several other creatives who’ve wanted to depict God in the flesh. [Erik Adams]


10. Gene Hackman, Two Of A Kind (1983)

In John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s oft-forgotten second cinematic team-up, God is initially introduced as an absentee landlord, having popped off 25 years before for a well-earned rest, entrusting heaven and earth to a quartet of angels named Charlie, Earl, Gonzales, and Ruth. When he returns, however, God—appearing only as a ball of light—sounds downright pissed off that he’s had to come back at all, grouching about the angels’ shoddy performance, complaining about the state of the world, and deciding that he should just start over from scratch. In God’s defense, the fact that all four angels immediately start stammering when asked to fulfill his simple request to “show me one good person” would seem to indicate that he’s onto something, but given the critical drubbing Two Of A Kind took before bombing at the box office, it seems just as likely that God’s grouchy tone was simply the result of Hackman having read the script. Either way, it’s clear that neither God nor Hackman could be bothered to speak up at the end of the film: When Travolta’s character ultimately proves to be a good person, thereby saving humanity, the voice of God is nowhere to be heard. [Will Harris]


11. Val Kilmer, The Prince Of Egypt (1998)

The erstwhile Batman pulls double duty on this DreamWorks animated film: Val Kilmer’s main role is to provide the voice of Moses, but he also serves as the supreme deity, who sounds a lot like a slightly slower-talking Moses. God’s big Prince Of Egypt star turn is the burning bush scene, in which the Lord reveals himself to the future savior of the Israelites and commands Moses to spread his word. It’s a powerful turning point in the movie, as long as you try not to think about the fact that you’re essentially watching Val Kilmer talk to himself. Ten years later, Kilmer’s godly experience would come in handy on NBC’s Knight Rider revival, as he took on the role of another nigh-omnipotent character in the form of K.I.T.T., a car that can turn into a truck. [John Teti]


12. Ralph Richardson, Time Bandits (1981)

In the world of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, nobody over 4 feet tall is meant to be trusted (Sean Connery aside). It’s not that the adults in Gilliam’s history-spanning comedy of errors are evil, per se (excepting David Warner’s character, Evil). But they are dangerously self-interested, too caught up in their own concerns to spare much kindness for young protagonist Kevin and his bumbling companions. It’s not much of a surprise, then, that when the film’s much-mentioned Supreme Being finally shows up in person as veteran British actor Ralph Richardson, he leaves something to be desired. Fussy, bureaucratic, and entirely concerned with tidying up loose ends, the Supreme Being calmly strolls around the wreckage of his plot to test creation like a well-off British bank manager, curtly dismissing underlings and underscoring his dry little jokes with a humorless “hm hm.” In firm contrast to Tony Jay’s bombastic earlier appearance as the character, Richardson’s performance is aggressively understated, the boredom of a man who’s spent eternity playing chess with himself. His voice isn’t entirely lacking in tired warmth (he is, as he dryly notes, “the nice one”), but it is ultimately distant, breezing past questions about human suffering and the nature of evil with a distracted, “I think it’s something to do with free will.” [William Hughes]


13. Maurice Roëves, The Acid House (1998)

There’s not much to love about The Acid House, the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s short-story collection. But Maurice Roëves’ turn as a foul-mouthed Scottish deity is worth spending some YouTube time with. As Peter Capaldi proved in The Thick Of It, Scottish people swear better than anyone else on earth, and Roëves brings that energy to a scene in a pub in which he schools Stephen McCole (Rushmore’s Magnus Buchan) for being such a mortal loser. Subtitles help, but even if not every word is understandable, there’s plenty to love about a God who smokes cigarettes and drips with disdain: “Every fucking time… I have to enter into some philosophical discourse with some wee undergraduate twat about the nature of myself… That cunt Nietzsche was way off the mark when he said I was dead. I’m not dead, I just don’t give a toss.” [Josh Modell]


14. Charlton Heston, Almost An Angel (1990)

Paul Hogan squandered pretty much all of his Crocodile Dundee goodwill almost immediately with Almost An Angel, a ridiculously bad, quasi-religious movie about a criminal who may or may not turn out to be an angel on probation. (Spoiler: He is.) After being hit by a van—while saving a child—Hogan is visited by Charlton Heston, slumming it in a big beard and white robes and doing a pretty funny no-nonsense God. (Sample line: “In this century, you’re the first scumbag we’ve sent back.”) It’s a long way from his portrayal of Moses, but it’s his only IMDB credit as “God,” so that’s something. Also a treat, the movie’s tagline: “The guy from down under is working for the man upstairs.” [Josh Modell]


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