Font designer Mark Simonson does an occasional blog piece called Typecasting (or more recently Son of Typecasting) in which he skewers films for the anachronistic foibles in their fonts. Did you know, for instance, that the steam pressure gauge on James Cameron’s Titanic was set in Helvetica? Crikey! That font was sinking 45 years before it was invented!
It’s a professional hazard. Just as Mark Twain could never look at the Mississippi the same way once he became a riverboat captain, Simonson can’t look at the tombstone in a Western without thinking How did Helvetica (1957) and Eurostile (1962) end up on a tombstone in the year 1885?
When it comes to language, regular readers of the Star Chamber will know that frequent contributor Alan Kennedy is the local expert. This week he has a few thoughts to share about actors and accents.
GIMME SOME CAW-FEE! I MEAN COR-FEE….KOE-FEE ?
by Alan Kennedy
Many people whose opinions on film and TV I respect, and generally agree with, have recommended that I check out the series “The Wire”. This was an HBO police drama set in Baltimore which is now available on DVD. Indeed, the series has been acclaimed as one of the best in recent history – and for some, one of the best ever. So, I got the first “Season One” DVD and started watching with great anticipation. And a problem soon emerged. One of the principal characters on this hyper-realistic show, “Jimmy McNulty”, spoke with an accent that could best be described as an accent no one speaks with in real life. And, that, for me, was a problem too distracting to overlook.
I’ve heard of bird watchers who get annoyed if the chirping of a Canadian bird is heard in a film set in Florida, and musicians who fume when a violin is held incorrectly by an actor. My lawyer wife scoffs at legal dramas which depict events, decisions, and dialogue that would never occur in the real legal world (but she can keep watching). In my case, as a language teacher and accent modification coach, some bad accents are literally too distracting to sit through.
My subsequent check on the web revealed that actor Dominic West, who played the McNulty character, is from Yorkshire, in England. I could have foreseen there would be problems when I read in his bio that, to get the part, as he remembers it, “I just did my best DeNiro impression”. This was his preparation to play a Baltimore cop. In another interview, he revealed that he used a “general east coast American accent”. Really? Is that so. So – who were you trying to sound like? Robert DeNiro’s outer-boroughs New Yorker? A John Waters–style working class Baltimorian? A Harvard professor? Well – guess what it ends up sounding like…a guy from Sheffield England, imitating DeNiro in some scenes, remembering what his accent coach told him about Baltimore-speak in others (e.g. “hours” as [æriz]), and generally adding and dropping the post-vocalic [r] sound willy-nilly. I know, I know, some may say “Get over it! He’s a good actor, it’s a good show, accents are hard!” Well, I’ll cop to it. It’s clearly my problem, not Dominic West’s. In my defense, someone took the trouble to point out his dialectal inconsistency on a website, and posted an representative video sample here:
(warning: strong language)
McNulty’s English accent rears its ugly head
We all know that some British TV actors are very good – almost deceptively so, once you learn that they’re British – at convincing American accents. Hugh Laurie (“House”) and Ed Westwick (“Gossip Girl”) are often cited as current examples. In films, I have seen performances by such actors as Kate Winslet, Tilda Swinton, Christian Bale and Gary Oldman where the American accent is indistinguishable (at least its overall effect) from that of American co-actors.
And what is it about Australians that they can so often do convincing American accents? This phenomenon includes a long list which, to my mind, includes Kate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under” & “Brother & Sisters”), Julian McMahon (“Nip/Tuck”), and, of course, the late Heath Ledger. I have heard different explanations for this, ranging from an alleged closeness of Australian English phonology to that of American English (I don’t buy that) to the idea that an Australian actor can’t have a successful career, or come to Hollywood, unless he/she has already demonstrated a convincing American accent in the first place.
APTITUDE FOR ORAL MIMICRY
Linguists and language teachers have long noticed that ability to mimic an accent (or the sounds of a foreign language) is not necessarily a function of “intelligence”. In fact, there is a school of thought out there, supported by research, that some people have a higher “Aptitude for Oral Mimicry” (AOM) than others, and it is quite independent from intelligence or other abilities, including acting talent. I think most of us believe this – it explains the valedictorian who gets an “A” in French but has a terrible accent. It explains the aforementioned Robert DeNiro, who doesn’t seem to be able to – or want to – act in a different accent. We don’t hold that against him, and indeed he’s widely considered one of our country’s best. Nevertheless, we notice those actors who do have this skill, and enjoy it. Many Brits have told me that Gwyneth Paltrow’s British accent is very good (and she keeps getting hired to do it, so the higher-ups must agree). Actors like Meryl Streep and Edward Norton – two of the best at this, in my opinion – can be relied on to perform believably in any sort of accent.
My curiosity on this topic prompted a tour of the web, just to see what comments people were making – in print, on blogs, wherever – about actors who were especially good or especially bad in performing with an accent not their own. First off I will say that the names Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Keanu Reeves come up the most often, making this perhaps our Top 3 “Hall of Shame”. Speaking of Sean (common wisdom is “he sounds Scottish in everything”), quite a few pundits out there in the blogosphere have mentioned the 1986 fantasy film “Highlander” as a bad accent connoisseur’s dream. Here we have lead actor Christopher Lambert, a French speaker, trying to speak English with a Scottish accent, and sidekick Sean Connery trying to speak English with a Spanish accent!
NICE TRY, YANK!
In the “Americans trying do British unsuccessfully” category, these particular performances come up a lot: Kevin Costner “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”; Don Cheadle in the “Ocean’s 11” films; Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in “Star Wars” (but only for the first part of the first film, strangely); and – the clear winner –
Dick Van Dyke’s caricature of a Cockney accent in “Mary Poppins”. This is perhaps Hollywood’s most iconic bad accent. NPR Film Critic Beth Accomando maintains that the term “Dick Van Dyke accent” is actually used in England to describe failed attempts by Americans to sound British.
In the “Americans trying for other foreign accents” sphere, these are often mentioned: Brad Pitt trying to do Irish in “The Devil’s Own” and Austrian German in “Seven Years in Tibet”; John Malkovich trying for Russian in “Rounders”; Nicholas Cage going for Italian in “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”; Rosanna Arquette going for Quebec French in “The Whole 9 Yards”; and Halle Barry going for Swahili (and then abandoning it later ) in “X Men”. I have to admit, I have not actually seen any of these films, but the performances keep coming up on the web as victims of mockery, so perhaps it’s just as well.
As far as American actors trying to do a regional American accent not their own, a different list of performances predominates. In the category of “going for Southern”, Kevin Costner in “JFK”, Nicolas Cage in “Con Air”, and Meg Ryan in “Courage Under Fire” are often mentioned. People seem divided about Kevin Spacey in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”: some feel his bad accent caused the film to flop; others feel he did O.K. I have noticed that the Boston accent seems particularly hard to nail for many actors, even great ones. No one seems to think that Jack Nicholson’s Boston accent in “The Departed” was consistent or realistic (but many would also argue that he was great anyway). I would add that Alec Bladwin and Leonardo DiCaprio had accent trouble in the same movie, and honestly, after one hour of people talking about whose “faw-thah was a good kaw-up” and whose “faw-thah was a bad kaw-up” I had to turn it off. Yes, I “walked out of “ (TIVO-version) this Oscar-winning Best Picture because of the accents. A recent appearance by Julianne Moore on TV’s “30 Rock” was, to me, a classic example of a very good actor doing a very unconvincing Boston accent. Ditto Laura Linney in “Mystic River”.
YOU CAN’T FOOL ME, FURRINER!
Aside from Dominic West, I have found myself distracted by Joely Richardson (British) on “Nip/Tuck”, whose British vowels and [r]-lessness creep in to her speech every once in a while. I have not seen either New Zealander Anna Paquin in “True Blood” (trying for “Nawlins”) or Scottish actor Ewan McGregor(trying for American Southern) in the film “Big Fish” – but many comments on the web indicate that these performances have grated on the nerves of viewers. I can say that Jude Law’s performance in “Cold Mountain”, playing a Confederate soldier, was distractingly unconvincing (the patriot in me wonders which American actor lost a job opportunity for that hire to happen). According to one humorous blogger, Law’s southern accent was so jarring that after every line she half-expected the character to add “…by order of the his majesty, the KING!”.
I did find two published lists of specific bad movie accents from actual film critics, which I’ll share here:
Top-10 worst according to Empire (UK film magazine) in 2003:
1. Sean Connery “The Untouchables” (Scottish English trying for Irish English)
2. Dick Van Dyke “Mary Poppins”
3. Brad Pitt “Seven Year in Tibet”
4. Charlton Heston “A Touch of Evil” (trying for a Mexican Spanish accent)
5. Heather Graham “From Hell” (American doing Cockney)
6. Keanu Reeves “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (trying for British)
7. Julia Roberts “Mary Reilly” (trying for Irish)
8. Laurence Olivier “The Jazz Singer” – 1980 remake (Brit trying for New York Jewish)
9. Pete Postlethwaite “The Usual Suspects” (Brit trying for Pakistani accent)
10. Meryl Streep “Out of Africa” (trying for a Danish accent)
Top-10 worst according to Beth Accomando (NPR critic & President of San Diego Film Critics Society):
1. Mickey Rooney “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (trying for a Japanese accent)
2. Keanu Reeves “Little Buddha”/”Dangerous Liaisons”/”Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (Beth Accomando explicitly named him “the actor who most consistently fails at accents”)
3. Kevin Costner “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”
4. Demi Moore “Flawless” (trying for British)
5. Dennis Quaid “The Big Easy” (trying for New Orleans)
6. Hilary Swank “The Black Dahlia” (going for what’s described as a “strangely clipped, aristocratic accent which is a complete distraction”).
7. John Wayne “The Conqueror” (trying for some kind of Asian accent playing Mongolian Genghis Kahn)
8. Dick Van Dyke “Mary Poppins”
9. Humphrey Bogart “Dark Victory” (trying for Irish)
10. Arnold Schwarzenegger “Raw Deal”(Beth feels that in this early Ah-nold vehicle he seemed to be trying in vain to sound like a native speaker of American English, a tactic he later [wisely] abandoned).
– I personally cannot agree that Meryl Streep belongs on the top list (or any such list)… I also think that if you fault Schwarzenegger for unsuccessfully trying to tone down his accented English, then you have to add in the likes of Penelope Cruz, Gerard Depardieu, Jackie Chan, Antonio Banderas, and a whole slew of non-native English speakers for whom the gap between “how their English sounds” and “how they want it to sound” is difficult to assess or prove.
So – what do you think? I find that people who like movies and TV usually have an opinion on this.
Please weigh in!
16 thoughts on “GIMME SOME CAW-FEE!”
Hi, Alan, I loved reading this. So well researched and considered. I just feel sorry for you that you won’t be able to watch “the greatest television show ever made.”
The writers of “The Wire” winked at Dominic West’s accent at one point. His character McNulty goes undercover as an Englishman seeking the services of a prostitute and is mocked by his fellow cops for his horrendous English accent. So you get the layered irony of seeing English actor West whose accent interferes with his portrayal of Baltimore cop McNulty whose accent interferes with his portrayal of an English john. Alan, you would either thoroughly enjoy this – or it would make your head explode.
The name they picked for the fake solicitous Brit? Cromwell. McNulty picks it because he’s “the English #### who stole my ancestor’s land,” which was a nice little bonus for us history buffs.
Ah, the internet. Alan, here’s the scene I referred to above. Please be sitting down when you view it. :-)
Great article, Alan. Another thing I’d like to add to the discussion is the tendency to cast British actors for roles with a whole slew of whatever-it-is-its-not-American accents. The character’s Roman? Grab a Brit! Oh hey, I have a role calling for someone from the Middle East. Yeah? Grab a Brit.
I thought I was pretty good at picking up Brit actors doing American accents but didn’t peg Dominic West (although I can hear his Brit accent coming through in the vid clip you posted). I also didn’t peg Idris Elba, who plays Stinger Bell on The Wire and is originally from East London. So I guess I’ll have to reevaluate and declare that I’m not very good at picking up on these things (although I wasn’t fooled by Dick Van Dyke).
I have to take issue with Dick Van Dyke. I see “Mary Poppins” as so pantomime and caricatured, I think all of the accents are meant to be melanges representing lower-, middle-, and upper-class England that wouldn’t confuse the American audience too much. My own personal research suggests that “tuppinz” (two-pence) does not exist as a pronounciation outside of portions of California and Florida. It’s more a fairytale “London” from a past that never existed.
It’s interesting that neither list cites Marlon Brando, Christopher Lee, Tony Randall, Peter Lorre, and the rest of the long list of non-Asian actors who played Asian roles.
Mickey Rooney made the list as Mr. Yunioshi in Moon River. Like you said about Dick Van Dyke, Mike, if the whole point is caricatured ethnic stereotyping, then accuracy was probably not the director’s goal. Like putting a linebacker in drag, it was broad-brush and played for a cheap laugh. But it still boggles as one of the most tasteless and over-the-top Anglo-as-Asian performances out there.
I still like Spencer Tracy in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He’s playing an English doctor in London. The other Londoners are English actors. And Spencer Tracy just plays it straight ahead with his American accent. Problem solved: I’m not doing the accent – get over it.
Mike O – I take your point on Dick Van Dyke, but I think the critics
put the performance in context…here you have a movie populated entirely by British actors who speak like real British people (Julie Andrews, Elsa Lanchester, those little kids, etc.) – except for ONE character who is a “caricature/fairytale” fake Brit – – might really distract if you were a British viewer.
Great article, Alan. As a frequent moviegoer, I enjoyed all the examples, most of which I agree with (though it is your loss that you cannot appreciate The Depahted). I can’t believe no one included Harvey Keitel, who macerated an American Southern accent in Thelma and Louise, and then didn’t even try playing New Zealand in The Piano or anything resembling classical English in The Last Temptation of Christ. He always sounds like he is straight outta Brooklyn.
–The valedictorian with the terrible accent
I also don’t think Kevin Costner quite deserves to be on the list for Robin Hood, primarily because as far as I can tell, he wasn’t trying to do an accent at all. (Rumor says he did try, and it was so bad the director figured it would be better if everyone just assumed that Robin of Lockesly was from Iowa).
As far as people who do accents well, Brian Cox deserves a nod. While there are Scots who always sound like Scots, I do think a lot of Scotch actors are reasonably good at doing an American accent. This is primarily because a lot of them have learned to ditch their own accent to get acting work.
TERRIFIC article, Alan. I really enjoyed it, and although I worship The Wire (as you know), Dominic West drove me nuts throughout it.
Couple of notes. You mention that maybe, “…[an] Australian actor can’t have a successful career, or come to Hollywood, unless he/she has already demonstrated a convincing American accent in the first place.” This is close to the truth. I actually had an Australian teacher in grad school who also teaches at NIDA, the premiere graduate acting program in Australia. He told us years ago we should drill, drill, drill our accents for employment purposes, and that our competitor Aussies would be flawless in American English upon graduation. He said it is seen as a crucial way to further their careers, since opportunities in Australia, while they exist, are limited by comparison to Hollywood, and there is an unspoken prejudice against Aussies in London acting circles. If you take this argument a step further, it seems logical to assume that the reason the English aren’t as good at American accents is because they don’t feel a *need* to specialize in them—they have a very prolific TV/Film/Theatre scene waiting for them right after graduation.
Second: I can’t believe nobody mentioned Leonardo Di Caprio, who has had laughably bad accents in every period piece he’s ever done. And my own personal “worst accent” on TV these days belongs to Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer.
Zach – thanks for the explanation for the Aussies – that makes perfect sense. Once again, when one cannot immediately come up with an explanation for human behavior, the answer is often economic…as for Leo, now that you mention him, his accent in “Gangs of NY” was a mess, all over the place, as I remember
Relevant to this discussion: the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the current film “Invictus” in which both Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman are called upon to do South African English.
“More subtle than an English or Australian accent, spiced through with traces of the native Afrikaans language, the South African accent has challenged, provoked and, on occasion, overwhelmed a who’s-who of Hollywood stars, including Danny Glover (”Mandela”), Denzel Washington (”Cry Freedom”), Tim Robbins (”Catch a Fire”), Marlon Brando (”A Dry White Season”) and Whoopi Goldberg (”Sarafina!”)”. I think they both sounds pretty good, but my South African friend who saw the film begs to differ…
Great piece, Alan. I’m so sorry that you aren’t able to watch “The Wire”—and even sorrier that Dominic West is the reason. Reading about his audition prep made me furious!
Two other notes:
As for impressive American accents, I nominate Olivia d’Abo (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001882/), who played Kevin’s older sister, Karen, in “The Wonder Years.” I saw her later on in something else and remember thinking that she was doing a flawless British accent, only to discover that she’s a Brit by birth!
I did a summer study-abroad program in London during college, focusing on theater. One night, we saw a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.” All of the actors seemed to have been doing their best (read: worst) Texas accents. I remember thinking that it would have been fitting if each character’s costume had included a cowboy hat. Oh, and the play is set in New England!
Just following up on my Leo criticism. From AO Scott’s review of “Shutter Island” today:
‘Mr. DiCaprio, having grown perhaps overly fond of his accent from “The Departed,” brings it along for the ride, and it spreads through the movie like a contagious disease. Teddy’s partner (pahtnah), Chuck Aule, played by Mark (Mahk) Ruffalo, is supposed to be from the Pacific Northwest but he seems to have left all his R’s back in Seattle.’
Alan, I loved reading this. You are neglecting a lucrative side career as a dialect coach for theatre and film actors. On Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins:
//CNN: Did Andrews or David Tomlinson [who played Mr. Banks] mention things to you about the accent? Or did they just go with the flow?
Van Dyke: They just went with the flow! It’s funny — I was concentrating on the dancing, mostly, and they had given me a [voice] coach who turned out to be an Irishman, and his Cockney wasn’t much better than mine. During the making of the picture nobody kidded me about the accent, but I sure took it afterwards. [One British poll named Van Dyke’s accent the second-worst British accent ever; Van Dyke observes, however, that he was beaten out by Sean Connery’s “Untouchables” performance.]//
I felt bad about Peter Postlethwaite being on the list for “Usual Suspects” If his character was a Pakistani who learned English from a someone with a British accent, his accent was perfect (that’s why so many Saudi sheiks have British accents).
Final thought: It was an eye-opening (ear-opening?) experience to learn that historians think the the English spoken in Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, sounded nothing like an English accent today. Don’t know how “historians” could know that, but I remember hearing in a lecture once that Shakespeare’s cast would have pronounced the word “war” in “Henry V” to rhyme with “car.” Did Hamlet the Dane sound like Captain Hook?
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