Special Theme: Movie Accents
Tuesdays, beginning 8 p.m. | 16 Movies
Each Tuesday in January, TCM will look at actors perfecting accents in film, including Brits playing Americans, Americans playing Brits, regional and global accents and that odd elocution popular in the 30s and 40s, the “classy” Transatlantic or Mid-Atlantic accent.
It’s estimated that there are close to 40 different accents or dialects packed into that one little island called Great Britain. Some are so distinctive and divergent from mainstream Queen’s English that it can be hard to understand a person from another region, and places like Scotland and Wales have their own languages, although not widely used today. So you can’t blame American actors if they opt for only the most obviously studied accent, such as Renée Zellweger uses in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), showing for the first time on TCM on January 4. For this adaptation of Helen Fielding’s popular novel about a 30-something woman struggling with love, work and weight, Zellweger (a controversial non-British choice for the lead) studied with a dialect coach, spent a month working under an alias in a UK publishing company and never let her accent drop during production, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
She’s joined that night by the boys of This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Rob Reiner’s hilarious mockumentary about a British heavy metal band on the skids. American-born Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (all of whom co-wrote/improvised the screenplay with Reiner) eschew the so-called posh accent in favor of more working-class speech patterns. They also played their instruments and did their own singing in ear-splitting parodies that had some early viewers believing they were a real band. Interesting note: New York-born Guest is actually the son of a British diplomat and former member of the House of Lords; Guest now holds the hereditary title 5th Baron Haden-Guest.
Later that night the tables are turned when Brits wrap their mouths around U.S. accents (truth be told, something they often do more convincingly than their American counterparts). The chameleonic Peter Sellers gets the chance to try on three speech patterns foreign to his native Portsmouth, England, with astonishing ease in Stanley Kubrick’s dark nuclear age satire Dr. Strangelove (1964). Sellers plays Midwestern President Merkin Muffley, crisply posh English Group Captain Mandrake and the insanely German-accented title character, based on former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Despite his trepidation about perfecting the heavy Texas accent of the bomb-riding Major T.J. “King” Kong, Sellers was contracted to play this fourth role, but an on-set injury prevented him from shooting in the cramped cockpit sets, so the part was given to Slim Pickens.
Vivien Leigh won her second Academy Award for playing a Southern Belle in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), although a far more faded and tragic one than her Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Descending into delusion and madness as Tennessee Williams’ iconic Blanche DuBois, Leigh’s accent is a bit on that unrealistically syrupy side non-Southerners tend to use for such characters, but it doesn’t stand in her way of giving what critic Pauline Kael called “one of those rare performances that can truly be said to evoke pity and terror.” By the way, in the role that made him famous, Omaha-born Marlon Brando gives a reasonable approximation of a New Orleans accent, which is marked by a mix of influences and oddly but characteristically reflects New York working-class speech.
The Transatlantic accent came about in the early 20th century among upper crust Americans dropping their r’s and speaking ever so distinctly to convey a sense of class and advanced education. It was perpetuated on the stage and later in movies by diction coaches and most often associated with society matron characters, such as Lucile Watson in The Women (1939). The two movies representing this on January 11, however, feature a very specific variation – the enduring accent of English-born Cary Grant, who never sounded quite firmly British or exactly American and could therefore play both with ease and charm. In George Cukor’s witty comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940), he is convincing as a wealthy Mainline Philadelphian attempting to win back his ex, snobbish Katharine Hepburn. Her accent may resemble Transatlantic but is, in fact, a unique mixture of New England Yankee and the mannered speech of her alma mater Bryn Mawr College.
Tony Curtis does a wicked Grant impression while seducing Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s Prohibition Era cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot (1959). It was voted the funniest comedy in American cinema in a 2000 American Film Institute poll.
Later that night, viewers get to sample a couple of actors doing outstanding work as real-life people. As the title character in the acclaimed historical epic Gandhi (1982), Ben Kingsley hits the accent mark, not too surprising since he is of Gujarati Indian descent. Illinois native Gary Sinise does a very credible job with the Alabama accent of a famous person whose voice was much more recognizable to Americans, the Southern segregationist politician George Wallace (1997).
Having examined Americans’ ability to convey Britishness earlier in the month, the third week of this theme program looks at whether U.S. actors can successfully navigate the regionalisms of their own country.
The jury appears to still be out on Sally Field’s accent as a plucky Depression era Texas farm widow struggling to hold her family and homestead together in Places in the Heart (1984). It says something about either Field’s skills or Hollywood’s carelessness with things Southern to note that both of this California girl’s Best Actress Academy Awards (the other being Norma Rae, 1979) were won playing Southerners, although the earlier film was set in North Carolina, an accent that should be distinct from Texas.
In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Robert Mitchum plays a desperate small-time hood in Boston’s Irish Mob. That city’s accent has been much caricatured yet rarely nailed on film, but most observers agree Mitchum’s subtle take was spot on in a crime drama that has grown in critical estimation since its release.
We may not know for sure how New Yorkers actually spoke in the mid-19th century, particularly the rough-and-tumble population not far from their immigrant roots, but dialect coach Tim Monich did painstaking research and trained his actors, among them Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, in a range of Irish accents for Gangs of New York (2002). He was helped by newspaper articles from the period that occasionally wrote dialect into humor pieces and a 19th century book called Rouge’s Lexicon, which contained idioms used by the city’s gangs. The result contributed greatly to Martin Scorsese’s epic about the painful emergence of the modern day city from the crime and violence of Lower Manhattan’s notorious Five Points district.
For her disturbingly matter-of-fact narration of brutal events in Terence Malik’s Badlands (1973), Sissy Spacek leaned into her roots. Although her character lives in South Dakota, she tells us in the first few minutes that she was born in Texas, just like Spacek. That doesn’t explain, however, why just about everyone else in town sounds vaguely Southern, other than that accent being Hollywood’s go-to for anything remotely rural. In any case, it doesn’t detract from this remarkable debut by one of America’s most singular film artists, a beautifully shot tale of a young couple’s murderous rampage, also featured this month in the TCM Spotlight: True Crime.
The final Tuesday in the series features four films in which actors try their hand at accents from around the world. First the good news: Don Cheadle by most accounts does a decent job of conveying Rwandan-accented English in the gripping drama Hotel Rwanda (2004). This story about a hotel manager sheltering Tutsi refugees during that country’s genocide is being shown on TCM for the first time.
And who can fault the queen of accents? Meryl Streep has been Polish (Sophie’s Choice, 1982), English (Plenty, 1985; The Iron Lady, 2011), Danish (Out of Africa, 1985), Italian (The Bridges of Madison County, 1995) and whatever it was that famed chef Julia Child spoke (Julie & Julia, 2009). In A Cry in the Dark (1988), she likewise nails Aussie in the true-life drama about a woman falsely accused on murdering her infant. Her flawlessly accented “The dingo’s got my baby!” has become something of an audio meme in various permutations on many comedy shows.
Now the bad news: Hollywood has done a dismal job for decades with Asian characters and stories, and the OscarÒ-winning The Good Earth (1937) is certainly no exception. Based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel about Chinese farmers struggling to survive in the early 20th century, its cast includes a Ukrainian-born actor who got his break in New York’s Yiddish theater (Paul Muni), a Prussian (Luise Rainer), an American vaudevillian (Charley Grapewin) and a Scotsman (Olaf Hytten). Some of the minor characters were played by Chinese or Chinese American actors. Muni’s performance and accent are generally considered wildly over the top, but Rainer, comes off better thanks to a sensitive portrayal that earned her a second Academy Award.
We end with Cabaret (1972), Bob Fosse’s game-changing musical set in Germany during the rise of Nazism. Most of the roles are appropriately cast, with Germans playing Germans, Americans as Americans, Brits as Brits. As a German Jew, New York-born Marisa Berenson gets good marks for the Europeanness of her accent, which probably was not that foreign to her as the descendent of Lithuanian Jews and the daughter of a Swiss-French-Italian-Egyptian socialite. American Joel Grey plays the cabaret master of ceremonies with a somewhat cartoonish German accent fitting for his character and the darkly comic songs he performs.