Friday, July 02, 2004

Accent-uate the Negative

The discussion of Marlon Brando's bad accents leads me to the question: what criteria do we use to determine the worst movie accents of all time?

The definitive study of bad accents in movies is Joe Queenan's article "If You Can't Say Something Nice, Say it in Broken English," which is in his book If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble. Queenan stipulates that a truly bad accent must "take a film prisoner," making it impossible to concentrate on anything else when the bad-accented actor is talking. This is fair enough. There are other points I would make about bad accents:

- Bad accents in dramas are worse than bad accents in comedies. Dick Van Dyke's Cockney accent in Mary Poppins is truly atrocious, but it's in a movie with talking penguins and tea parties on the ceiling. The silliniess of the accent just adds to the fun of the movie, in other words. Nor would anyone complain about intentionally bad accents like Chico Marx's. But in a movie that's not supposed to be funny, from an actor who is trying to give a serious performance, a bad accent is disastrous.

- A bad accent is less distracting when that character is the only one in the movie who talks that way. John Qualen's stock Scandinavian accent in various John Ford films ("Yes, by golly!") is annoying as heck, but he is supposed to be playing a heavily-accented Scandinavian in a movie otherwise populated by people who talk like John Wayne. So we accept the accent as one of those tiresome "comedy" touches we have to put up with in John Ford films, in between the good stuff. But what happens when you put Jennifer Jones in a movie full of English actors, and tell her to play an young working-class Englishwoman who dreams of being a plumber? Well, you get Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, a delightful movie with a very good performance by Ms. Jones. But you also get Ms. Jones doing an "English" accent that is practically Kevin Costnerian in its tendency to fade in and out, and this is all the more obvious because she's playing so many scenes with real English accents by the likes of C. Aubrey Smith and Peter Lawford.

- To follow up on the above rule, bad accents are even more distracting when everybody in the movie is speaking with a foreign accent. I have never understood the tendency to have people speak with German accents in a movie set in Germany (Schindler's List) or Spanish accents in a movie set in Spain, and so on. I mean, they're all speaking English, right? So why would they speak English to each other with German accents? Are we to infer that they are really speaking German to each other, but with bad American accents? Or that if they didn't use these accents, the viewing public would have no way of figuring out where the movie takes place? The worst example of this that I've heard is not from a movie, but a Broadway musical: on the cast album of Zorba, a moderately successful 1968 musical produced and directed by Harold Prince, almost every cast member speaks and sings with a fake Greek accent. Apparently Prince thought this was the way to provide local colour in a musical. Proving, as does the whole career of Hal Prince, that directors should not be allowed to produce their own shows, because a director needs a producer around to force him to drop the cockamamie Greek-accent idea.

- Finally: The very worst accents are fake English accents in movies that are not set in England. It has often been pointed out that, in Hollywood movies, the English accent is the generic accent for the distant past. Romans in Hollywood movies don't speak with American accents; nor do they speak with Italian accents; they speak with English accents. This English-accent fetish is so ingrained that when Milos Forman made the movie version of Amadeus with mostly American actors, and sensibly let them use their own accents, some critics complained that the American accents were distracting. You just know that there wouldn't have been this complaint about English accents or German accents, neither of which would really have made any more sense in this context. Because of this Accent Anglophilia, many actors tie their tongues in knots trying to do English accents in contexts where there's really no need for them. Which brings us back, as discussions of bad accents always do, to Brando. Why is he doing a bad English accent in Superman? He's supposed to be from Planet Krypton, not Planet Albion. But Krypton is supposed to be a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, and that's pretty much the way Hollywood views England, too, so the choice is a natural one. (Also, to be fair, most of Superman, like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, was shot in England, so when everybody around you sounds British it's only natural to get into the act.)

I've mostly been talking about American movies, which is sort of unfair, because movies in other countries are no slouch when it comes to bad accents. Have you ever heard a good American accent in a European movie? A European actor, told to play an American, tends to do so by making every "r" sound like an engine malfunctioning. Bad French accents are a staple of every country's movie industry, including France's. All of this is almost enough to make you long for the days of silent movies, when the only thing you had to worry about was the possibility of a misspelled title card.

Oh, and while we're not talking movies here, there's a line in Puccini's La Boheme where the singer playing Schaunard is supposed to do an English accent; it's amazing how many Italian singers can't do it, settling for a generic funny-voice instead.

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