Friday, July 07, 2006


Accentuate the Positively Awful

By Edward Copeland
In my never-ending and downright sick desire to see every movie that received one of the top Oscar nominations, I recently endured the new DVD release of 1961's The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which earned Lotte Lenya a supporting actress Oscar nomination. I really have very little to say about the movie, but it inspired in me a topic that always needs to be said: if you can't do a good accent, for God's sake don't do it.

The laughable accent in this case is young Warren Beatty, pretending to be a bad young Italian lothario — badly. Try to listen to him say lines like (and this is a rough recall) "The only person I ever loved was my second cousin — and she was raped by your troops and spent the rest of her life in a convent" in the hokiest of hoky pretend Italian accents and try to suppress a giggle. What's even worse — he's acting opposite the great Vivien Leigh, a British actress who won not one, but two Oscars for great Southern turns and puts on a passable generic American accent here.

Of course, Beatty is hardly the only actor to embark on an accent that he or she shouldn't have. I also recently watched Anne Baxter do a lousy French accent in Billy Wilder's 1943 film Five Graves to Cairo. In recent years, the poster boy for bad accents has been Kevin Costner, who turned in a pathetic British accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a wandering Southern turn in JFK and a truly awful Boston accent in 13 Days. It doesn't help that Costner can barely act with or without an accent, but his attempts at these certainly made matters worse. Boston brogues seem to be particularly tricky for many actors to pull off. Holly Hunter's in Once Around was awful, though I guess her Southern twang needed to be disguised despite the fact that no one else in her screen family bothered to fake a Boston accent. The interesting thing about Hunter — and some bad accents — is that it didn't sink the movie. I love Once Around — and it works despite Hunter's weakness. Another example of a film rising above a bad Boston brogue is Quiz Show, despite Rob Morrow's embarrassing attempt to pretend to be from Massachusetts.

Movie buffs and film critics seem to take a harder line on the accent impaired than the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences does — they didn't seem to mind Michael Caine's dreadful New England accent in the equally dreadful The Cider House Rules or Helen Hunt's wandering New York accent that kept seeming to be run over somewhere on the Cross Bronx Expressway only to reappear and vanish throughout the course of As Good As It Gets. Both still managed to win Oscars for their lackluster efforts. If you go way back, Oscar also rewarded Spencer Tracy for a supposed Portuguese accent in Captains Courageous even though he came off sounding like he was doing an impression of Chico Marx. Another Oscar winner takes a different tack entirely — and I admire him for it. Sean Connery steadfastly refuses to change his Scottish brogue no matter what part he is playing. A Russian submarine commander? Nah — he's still Scottish. An Irish cop in Chicago — who can really distinguish between Irish and Scottish, right? Various and sundry Americans — Scottish brogues all. It's refreshing to see an actor who recognizes his limitations and doesn't force ill-conceived tries at other tongues on his faithful audience. To avoid being entirely negative, I would like to commend those performers who can do accents well.

Meryl Streep is legendary for it (though I've heard critics of her work in Out of Africa), but her gift is fairly amazing, especially when you listen to her flawless Australian in what I think is her greatest performance in A Cry in the Dark. For awhile there in the 1980s, Streep did so many different accents that it was almost shocking to hear her speak in her natural voice. Her virtuosity and gift for getting a hold of different accents is extraordinary.

As I wrap this up, there is one other actor whose accent work I want to single out for praise. It is always somewhat of a shock when you hear James Gandolfini outside his role of Tony Soprano and realize that his flawless Jersey voice is an affectation that Gandolfini doesn't have in real life. This applies to many of the other members of the cast of The Sopranos as well, but hearing Gandolfini speak normally always seems to be more jarring than the other fakers. So, I beg with all you thespians out there — if you can't pull off the accent, don't try. Sure, sometimes the works can rise above the mistake, but it's not a chance worth taking. Also, it is especially jarring when some actors in a film try to do accents and others don't. Filmmakers — go all one way or all the other. Remember — very few are going to go after you for not doing accents for characters that should have them — but they will if you do accents badly. Remember how many Germans in old World War II movies tended to be British? Viewers will forgive.

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I hated Tom Hanks' accent in Catch Me If You Can. You're so right on this. If you can't do it well, just don't do it. Sean Connery never bothered me no matter what nationality he was playing.
I find Tom Hanks is second only to Kevin Costner for failed accents: Catch Me If You Can, The Ladykillers, The Terminal - each one a travesty.

(Also, I loved Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. I will now return to my hole.)
Lord Olivier's American accent in The Betsy
I'd blocked out Olivier (and The Betsy in general). He was awful. As for Hanks, I liked Catch Me If You Can so much that I didn't really notice his accent. As for The Terminal, the whole thing was so forgettable and I think I accepted his accent as some made-up concoction like Latka on Taxi, since he came from a nonexistent country. I refused to see The Ladykillers on general principle because it shouldn't have been remade, but based on the trailer, Hanks' accent was atrocious.
You hit a few of the actors I've notice with bad accents, especially Costner in 13 days, sounded like he had a mouth full of marbles. I completely agree that a bad accent is far worse than no accent. For some reason a NYC accent seems particularly difficult. I think Asner tried one that was awful in Fort Apache. A few I thought were good were Paltrow in Emma, Brad Pitt in The Devils Own, and I think Angelina Jolie pulled off a British accent based on the five minutes or so I could stand of Lara Croft.
The Good:

Renee Zellweger was convincingly British as Bridget Jones. Kate Winslet and Rachel Griffiths' American accents are essentially flawless. Cate Blanchett's varies depending on what she's doing, since she usually favors regional dialects, but she clearly has a talent for mimicry. Nicole Kidman started out shaky - you could heard little Aussie-isms, i.e. "documenarry", creeping out in To Die For - but now it's gotten smoother. Bob Hoskins did Bogie-speak beautifully in Roger Rabbit.

The Bad:

I love Vanessa Redgrave, but whenever she tries to do an American accent, it doesn't quite work - I'd say she's about 75% there. Tom Cruise's Irish brogue in Far and Away was pure blarney. Frances McDormand's German accent in Paradise Road was fairly ridiculous. Reese Witherspoon struggled noticeably playing British in Vanity Fair. Streisand's British accent in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was weak. Streep is definitely the accent queen, but her Noo Yawk Jewish schtick in Prime was a tad overcooked.

The Lazy:

With the older films, you sort of get used to the fact that certain actors, no matter what nationality they're playing, don't do accents. The one that has always stuck out like a sore thumb for me is Walter Pigeon in Mrs. Miniver, since he's the only person in the film who doesn't even attempt to sound even remotely British.
Gwyneth Paltrow is also good at Brit accents, and seems to have a particularly good ear for class distinctions (see Sliding Doors). In the other direction, is it true most House fans didn't even realise Hugh Laurie was a Brit until he started appearing at awards ceremonies?

As for Costner in Robin Hood - I didn't even realise he was attempting a Brit accent. I thought he had a cold.
Of course Hugh Laurie is British, nobody talks like House. That'd be ridiculous.

Does anyone know what Andy Garcia was doing in Smokin' Aces? For the most part it just sounded like Andy Garcia and his usual struggle with English, but then towards the end he's suddenly somewhat Southern. I think. It passed so quickly I'm not positive I didn't imagine it.
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