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.
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.
The British Invasion
Of course, there are two ways to cross the Atlantic, and for every part an American actor has stolen from a hard-working British thespian, four American roles have been snatched by Brits or other subjects of the Commonwealth. But for these voyagers as well, the journey has gotten harder. Back in the day, Cary Grant’s working-class British inflection could pass as some kind of eccentric upper-crust American dialect. Today however, in order to claim a piece of the Hollywood pie, actors feel the need to actually sound like the most Middle American of Americans imaginable.
The result is a dialect forged at America's cinemas: Screen American. It is a vowel-heavy twang that seems vaguely Chicagoan or Minnesotan (but in reality sounds more Canadian) first perfected by the Monty Pythons in their portrayals of American tourists in Britain, and now donned by such celebrated actors as Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor in The Island.
Torn Between Two Accents
While many actors from around the world make the journey to America, some get caught with one foot on each side of the ocean. Anthony Hopkins, for instance, began his career playing a range of solid British types, from a scientist in The Elephant Man to Captain Bligh. When he tried on what would become his signature accent, however, playing Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, he sought out a compromise with his roots, inventing a Southern drawl inflected with his native Welsh that has served him since, with slight variations, animating his turns as Richard Nixon and Ptolemy alike.
Others, however, have made the transition so completely that, like hair that has been dyed a thousand times, it is hard to remember what it looked like in the first place. Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts have so rarely touched their native Australian dialects on screen that when one hears them give interviews, we first assume they are speaking in character for a new part. Reversing Madonna’s journey, Welsh-born Catherine Zeta-Jones has now become American off-screen as well as on, carrying herself in perfect Middle American wherever she may be.
Nothing awakens the ham within like the chance to play a role in an extremely exotic accent. In Rounders, John Malkovich threw himself into the tasking of speaking in a 24-inch thick Russian immigrant tongue. Leo DiCaprio’s fulsome Afrikaner in Blood Diamonds all but masks the dreary script underneath.
The accent police run into all sorts of problems in films set in distant lands. In the past, when a film was set in a foreign court, it was good enough for all the characters to speak English, the audience could be trusted to get that it had been magically translated from Portuguese or Tagalog. There was an internal consistency which, in art, is all that matters. But today, what frequently comes out of the characters’ mouths is English in the thick accent of the far-flung nation. Nicolas Cage’s Captain Corelli speaks to his countrymen in an accent he seems to have picked up from the pawnshop where Chico Marx hocked it in the 1940s.
Voices From the Land that Time Forgot
Acting, they say, is about choices. But sometimes actors can’t quite bring themselves to make them. They come to a fork in the road, and they don’t take it. Sherwood Forest, for instance, is a killing field of accentual integrity. In 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner’s British inflection comes and goes, seemingly with the wind. More recently, in this year’s Hood adaptation, Russell Crowe decided to invent an accent—apparently shooting for Yorkshire, he landed in Irish with a bit of Australian and possibly a touch of Sicilian. Crowe was so outraged about the public’s failure to embrace his innovations that he came close to blows with a BBC host during a radio interview.
The set of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, for its part, produced a veritable accent train wreck. Val Kilmer, a man never to be trusted with too much rope when it comes to vocal interpretations, played Philip of Macedonia as, apparently, Irish, while Angelina Jolie played his wife in a heavy Russian accent leftover from a Cold War spy thriller. Anthony Hopkins played Ptolemy as, well, Anthony Hopkins.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Perhaps saddest of all is the plight of the English as a Second Language crowd. They operate in a parallel universe, allowed to switch nationalities but only among the non-English speaking nations. While actors born to the mother tongue are allowed to move freely with Her Majesty’s former colonies, switching from American to Australian to Irish roles, those from outside the curtain never shall be admitted within.
Spaniard Antonio Banderas has had a long career speaking English with a Latin accent that has passed in its day as Mexican (for Zorro) and Argentine (for Che Guevara) but will never allow him to play a native English speaker. Likewise, Gerard Depardieu played mainly Frenchmen, but his Gallic-voiced English passed for Italian as Christopher Columbus in 1492.
Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.