A Comment on Movie Accents
I love movie accents, especially when they are absurdly out of place. There is something about them that satisfies my deep desire for all things campy and ridiculous.
I love Sean Connery and the fact that he simply does not give a damn where his character is supposed to be from. In “The Hunt for Red October” he is a Russian. In “Highlander” he is an Egyptian named Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (he lived in Spain for a while, OKAY?). In “The Untouchables” he’s Irish. And never once does he let that Scottish brogue slip! He’s a Scottish James Bond. He’s a Scottish King Richard. You can’t stop him!
Likewise, Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been Austrian, whether he is from Russia, a robot-controlled future, or Mount Olympus! Tom Cruise didn’t bother being German in “Valkyrie.” John Wayne didn’t bother being Mongol in “The Conqueror.” And Kevin Costner sometimes didn’t bother being English in “Prince of Thieves.”
In my opinion it’s even better when actors try TOO hard rather than not at all. Keanu Reeves doing Shakespeare? MORE PLEASE. (But let’s not talk about Mickey Rooney as the heart-attack-inducing Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”)
And then there are the chameleons living secretly among us. Mostly British or Australian, these are actors that snuck into Hollywood and ditched their native accent almost entirely (except for historical pieces, but I’ll get to that in a minute). We’ve got Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and Geoffrey Rush from Australia. We’ve got Hugo Weaving who split his childhood between Australia and Nigeria. Sam Neill’s from Ireland, Christian Bale is English. INSIDIOUS SPIES, THEY ARE EVERYWHERE AMONG US.
One of my favorite trends in American cinema is our deep daddy-issue obsession with British accents. Any time we need something historical or fantastical or just plain dignified we spruce it up with some posh voice coaching. (oh and if you’re lower class citizens, like Roman rabble or something, you can expect a little cockney)
We’ve got British Nazis in “Conspiracy” (and let’s face it, most other WWII films as well). “Troy” gives us a British ancient world. “Gladiator” and many other films give us British Romans. Even “Phantom of the Opera” sprinkled some British into France. Maybe we are just longing for that Shakespearean stage, and our actors can’t resist an opportunity to show off their classical training.
I believe that we are seeing a little more effort lately to give foreign characters their accent of origin. German Germans, Russian Russians. But that doesn’t interest me! It’s way too common sense. Let’s talk about even more inappropriate associations.
Prime example. In “Star Wars” we originally had British villains (*yawn* been there, done that). But THEN, in “Phantom Menace” they introduced the uncomfortably Japanese Trade Federation, and Watto the greedy Jewish merchant (ugh). Let’s not even get into Jar-Jar.
I say, what the hell, let’s keep going with this. Let’s make a grand thematic gesture with our accent assignments, like really go all out with it. Two warring factions? Make one side southern and the other side from New England. Give the invading Caesar a German clip, and the angry Gauls can be Polish. I would cry tears of B Movie joy to witness some Native Americans in feudal Europe, or South American activists in Tibet. DO IT.
So, class, what are your best and worst accents in Hollywood? Do you have any fantasy match-ups of your own, or are you firmly in the dignified camp of accents appropriate to their location?
I leave you now with a vision of what could be. Nay, what SHOULD be.
NEXT WEEK ON THE PHENOMENAL COSMIC MOVIE COLUMN: Dudes, I think… I think I’m going to kick it old school. Tune in next Tuesday for your requisite flash to the past.