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13 Dec 2010

From Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood to Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, Hollywood’s stars are increasingly being asked to attempt a foreign inflection—with often disastrous results. By Richard Rushfield

Once upon a time, an accent, like an actor’s dimpled chin, was part of the furniture that made a star. Whatever the film’s setting, a director would no more mess with Gary Cooper’s diction than he would have cut off Rita Hayworth’s flaming tresses.

Cary Grant’s cockney bluster sufficed whether he were serving ‘er majesty in Inja’s sunny climes or reconstructing fossils as a paleontologist in the New York Museum of Natural History. Audiences found Errol Flynn’s watered-down Aussie lilt believable whether it came from Robin Hood or General Custer. In the big-screen adaptation of Julius Caesar, Rome was big enough for Marlon Brando to play Mark Antony with a Brooklyn snarl while James Mason’s Brutus elocuted in the Queen’s English.

All that changed in the 1970s when the studio’s glossy entertainments were pushed aside by stripped-down, stark dramas that attempted to mimic reality, and with reality came real—or would-be real—accents. For Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep learned to speak Polish in a manner particular to the title character’s home region, so that her accented English might be realistic beyond dispute. Actors no longer made the character come to them, they traveled to the part. Soon, even the schlockiest exploitation films required accentual consistency, or at least a hurried explanation of why the hero working the night shift on the St. Louis police force spoke as though he had been educated at Eton.

Accentual consistency is easier mandated than pulled off, however, and the age of authenticity has, in practice, been a hit-or-miss affair. It has turned the big screen into a veritable Tower of Babel, with American actors playing Brits cast against Brits playing Americans and Australians playing Russians and people inventing entirely new accents out of thin air. Below are the major fields of play in the days of accents run amok.

Americans in Oxford

Nothing represents class at its highest more so than speaking like a Brit, so film projects wishing to upgrade a bit of standard genre fair will ask their casts to sound more like James Bond than Steven Seagal. In the upcoming The Tourist, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp dodge bullets and bad guys with the drollest of upper-class British inflection, at least as far as American audiences can tell. Depp, by this point in his career, has all but traded in his native accent for good, having gone British in Sweeney Todd, Finding Neverland, From Hell, The Libertine and three Pirates films and counting. And Jolie has earned her stripes with her no doubt hyper-realistic accent work as noted British adventuress Lara Croft, heroine of the Tomb Raider films.

Some Americans like the social promotion an English accent gives them so much that they decide to take it home after the show. Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow became British off-screen as well as on, much as Adam West wore his Batman costume around town long after the program was canceled.

Class Wars

When playing British, Americans generally speak in a sort of generic upper-ish-class accent, passable in broad fare such as The Tourist. But very rarely do American actors take the dive and try on a working-class European accent. Brad Pitt’s gibberish-heavy Gaelic in Snatch ranks as one of the wilder departures of his career. Back in 1964, Dick Van Dyke practically invented the comically bad “g’day gov’nr” Cockney put-on as Bert, the lovably downtrodden chimney sweep in Mary Poppins.


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