Accents Will Happen
Joe Queenan had a long history of ranting on various entertainment related subjects within the pages of Movieline magazine. Something he did less frequently was to change his mind on a subject. We have a rare case of the writer doing so here. Ten years after Queenan wrote a screed about bad Hollywood accents, he came back with a retraction of sorts. In the December 2001 issue of the magazine, Queenan professed his newfound love of ridiculous accents.
Ten years ago I wrote an extremely mean-spirited article for this magazine excoriating various actors and actresses for their bogus ethnic accents. Singled out for particular abuse was Cher, whose plangent whatsmattawityou phrasings in Moonstruck had inflicted “more damage on proud Italian-Americans than a thousand bad Mafia movies. A million bad Mafia movies. 137,876,546 Joe Garagiola commercials. A life’s supply of stale cannoli.” Or so I felt at the time. Also taking the brunt of my abuse was the doddering ham Laurence Olivier, whose villainously schmaltzy Jewish accent in The Jazz Singer was deemed “an act of unintentional yet nonetheless unforgivable anti-Semitism, virulent beyond all conception.”
In ridiculing such faux foreigners as Marlon Brando (The Missouri Breaks, Burn, Mutiny on the Bounty), Barbra Streisand (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), Mickey Rourke (A Prayer for the Dying) and Jack Nicholson (Prizzi’s Honor), I asserted that bad accents “literally take a film prisoner, making it impossible for the viewer to concentrate on anything else.” A bad accent was “the cinematic equivalent of a festering Limburger cheese planted on a sumptuous dinner table, making it pointless for the gourmand to try thinking about anything other than that peculiar odor.”
Alas, time plays funny tricks on the brain. In the years that have passed since I wrote that vicious and in many ways irresponsible article, I have undergone an odd metamorphosis both as a critic and as a human being. For reasons I do not fully understand, I now adore motion pictures that feature one or more characters sporting unwieldy ethnic accents, and no longer feel that these dialectical frills detract from the overall impact of the film–even when the accents are indisputably bad. In fact, now that everybody else has come around to thinking that foreign accents are in and of themselves an occasion for uncontrollable guffawing, I have gone in the complete opposite direction. I now believe that the only reason Americans laugh at foreign accents is because Americans think foreigners are laughable. I do not. Some of my best friends are foreigners. And most of them have ridiculous foreign accents. They are as God made them.
On this matter, my record speaks for itself. I was the first person in New York to see Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and I went specifically to revel in Nicolas Cages happy-go-lucky Italian accent. I was the first person I knew to see America’s Sweethearts, and I bought my ticket with the express purpose of feasting on Hank Azaria’s over-the-top Frito Bandito delivery. I am the only person I know who paid to see The Wedding Planner, and unlike other spectators who may have been lured to that otherwise unsatisfactory affair by Jennifer Lopez’s deft comedic foibles or Matthew McConaughey’s quietly understated performance as a duplicitous pediatrician, I was roped in by Justin Chambers’s unexpectedly convincing turn as a lovable nitwit with a ripe Neapolitan accent. As we used to say on the street corners of South Philly: “Yo, Justin: Come sta, paisano?”
This is by no means the end of my list. It was John Turturro’s gap-toothed, brain-dead, good ole boy droolings, not the Coen brothers’ clumsy rustic rehash of The Odyssey, that lured me to O Brother, Where Art Thou? It was Willem Dafoe’s macabre Transcarpathian ramblings, supported by John Malkovich’s tortured Teutonisms, that induced me to see Shadow of the Vampire. It was the chance to hear Brad Pitt talk like a gypsy pugilist, not Guy Ritchie’s film noir sensibilities, that dragged me in the theater that was showing Snatch. The fact is, if you could guarantee me that Sylvester Stallone would adopt a thick Belgian accent in Van Damne Yankees or that Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler would talk like Bosnian Serbs in For the Boys II, I would go to see those too.
When did this surprising audiovisual conversion take place? I suppose it started five years ago when I saw The Ghost and the Darkness. This is the film in which Val Kilmer plays a results-oriented Irish structural engineer commissioned to build a bridge in the southern Sudan in the late 19th century. Shortly after he arrives in that godforsaken locality, a pair of raffish, unpredictable lions turn up, and quickly begin scarfing down his entire workforce, eventually running the body count to 140 victims. Since it is widely known that male lions do not like to hunt, rarely travel in pairs and never kill humans just for chuckles, no one can figure out why these maverick felines are behaving in such a cruel yet idiosyncratic fashion.
Then, about halfway through the movie, Michael Douglas turns up in the role of Remington, a mysterious big-game hunter and all-purpose reprobate whose family was wiped out during the War Between the States. Douglas, grizzled, ornery and strange, comes loaded for bear, with a complete arsenal of state-of-the-art firearms, an entire tribe of Masai lion hunters, and the kind of balls-up, in-your-face attitude you can only acquire on the fields of Shiloh, Antietam and Chickamauga after fighting on the losing side. But what really makes Douglas such an arresting figure is his amazing drawl. Fusing his native Southern California good vibrations with a postmenopausal Dixie melody, Douglas concocts a hybrid Gettysburg del Mar twang so annoying it literally drives the marauding lions insane, luring one of them to his death.
Shortly after Douglas has been ripped to shreds by the lone surviving king of the beasts, Kilmer finally realizes that his own bellicose Irish accent may have contributed to the horrible tragedy that has befallen his colleague. Indeed, it is only by mouthing the words “I’m gonna sort it out” with a lilting brogue last heard in the mists of Glendalough when the Rose of Tralee was in full bloom that Kilmer finally succeeds in taunting the lone remaining predator out into the open where he can get a good shot at it.
The Ghost and the Darkness was the first movie I ever saw where accents were used as a force to improve the human condition. Not only did the accents help kill the lions, they actually made the movie better. Without the uproarious vocalizations supplied by Kilmer and Douglas, The Ghost and the Darkness would have been your standard man-against-the elements tripe, about as interesting as The Edge or Arachnophobia. But by introducing these flamboyant inflections, the actors seriously raised the ante. By brandishing their perplexing and, in some ways, alarming accents, Kilmer and Douglas elevated the film to the rarefied heights of Sub-Saharan camp. I can think of no higher praise for an actor.
From that point onward, I could never think of accents in quite the same way. Seeing–or rather, hearing–Kilmer and Douglas in The Ghost and the Darkness persuaded me to totally reassess my attitude toward ethnic or regional intonations. What I finally decided was that it didn’t matter whether an accent was convincing or not; all that mattered was that the movie star put his heart and soul into his throat so that his accent became the central element in the film. It was nothing to be ashamed of if your accent was a complete and utter failure; posterity would forgive you for that. All that mattered was that you gave it a shot. All that mattered was that you swung for the fences. All that mattered was that you went for it.
Consider the case of Brad Pitt, who has bequeathed mankind two of the most remarkable accents in the history of motion pictures. In The Devil’s Own, Pitt plays a likable mass murderer who has come to the United States seeking to buy inexpensive Stinger missiles, which he hopes will further the cause of the Irish Republican Army. The negotiations soon go awry because absolutely nobody in the movie–not Harrison Ford, not Treat Williams, and certainly not Ruben Blades–can make hide or hair out of what he’s saying. Pronouncing every syllable with a lugubrious intensity and monochromatic uniformity not heard since the Fighting Prince of Donegal breathed his last in the Black Vale of Killarney, Pitt goes through the entire movie without saying a single word that anyone else can understand.
I do not know whether Pitt was deliberately taking this approach in order to accentuate the fundamental inability to communicate that has afflicted the warring parties on the Emerald Isle for generations, or whether his speech coach was a bum, but one thing I do know is: Generations from now, people of Irish descent will still be talking about Pitt’s daunting accent in this movie–and some may actually be emulating it. Meaning that no one will be able to understand what they are saying, either. Faith and begorrah.
This brings me to a second major point: Actors who use preposterous accents tend to give better performances in these movies than in films where they speak with natural deliveries. Pitt was unspectacular in Meet Joe Black, The Mexican and Sleepers, but was fantastic in Snatch, The Devil’s Own and Kalifornia, all of which required extensive verbal retrofitting. Justin Chambers gave an endearing little performance as the jilted Italian boyfriend in The Wedding Planner, but was totally useless in The Musketeer, where a French accent would have diverted the audience’s attention away from his shortness. And Nicolas Cage has never been more convincing as a romantic lead than he was in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Mouthing phrases like “Bella bambina at two o’clock,” Cage was able to show a warm, sensitive side, in marked contrast to the trademark tongue-in-cheek performances he has given in most of his films.
But for me, the actor who truly closes the deal is Robin Williams. Mind you, I am not the sort of person who liberally doles out praise to the likes of Robin Williams. But shortly before he became the insanely annoying person he is today, Williams made Moscow on the Hudson, a motion picture replete with some of the best foreign accent work ever. In this film, Williams was cunning enough to speak Russian throughout the early sequences in the movie, laying the groundwork for the remainder of the film, in which he speaks broken English. I have no way of knowing whether Williams’s Russian is good, bad or indifferent, but by establishing himself as a native Russian speaker early in the proceedings, Williams creates the powerful illusion that he might actually be Russian. This clever ploy helped camouflage the fact that he was actually an American playing the same character he had played in a dozen other films, and is still playing to this day–the jerk-off with a heart of gold.
In discussing heavily accented movies, I do not want to create the impression that I am indiscriminately drawn to all movies featuring ethnics, nor that all accents are equally good. No one is ever going to surpass Meryl Streep’s Iowataliana accent in The Bridges of Madison County, the only Neapolitan cadence in the history of motion pictures that can be described as “under the top.” Whereas Nick Nolte goes completely overboard with his moon-hits-your-eye-like-a-big-pizza-pie pastafazooling in Lorenzo’s Oil–as do Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor and Cher in Moonstruck–Streep deliberately underplays her accent, concentrating on affecting a gently out-of-kilter inflection, where the emphasis on specific words is just slightly off base. This is the way people who learn a second language as adults almost always speak. It’s not the accent that gives them away. It’s where they place the stress on individual syllables. Their cadences are always wrong.
But Streep, who has displayed a subtle mastery of accents in films as varied as Sophie’s Choice, A Cry in the Dark and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is one of a kind. Other actors who have tried to underplay foreign accents have failed miserably. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner lost his nerve and got stuck somewhere between English and American. An even worse fate befell Aidan Quinn in Michael Collins, where he was trapped between Liam Neeson, who is actually Irish, Alan Rickman, who sounds Irish, and Julia Roberts, who delivered an accent so pusillanimously Celtic that it is now referred to by linguists and ethnographers as The Full Meghan.
By contrast, Quinn meekly settled for the kind of half-hearted, quasi-Irish-American accent that you hear in half-filled bars in Yonkers, New York, on Saturday night when T. J. McGillicuddy and the Roving Paddywhackers perform a winsome selection of Hibernian chestnuts.
The important thing to remember about using an accent is that if the actor does not truly believe in it, the audience will not believe in it either. An accent must not only be embraced; it must be flaunted. It must never be an ornament; it must become a second skin. Think of Jon Voight as a deranged Paraguayan snake hunter in Anaconda, literally eating the scenery, which just happens to be the entire Amazon jungle. Think of Richard Gere as a congenial, top-o’-the-mornin’-to-ya terrorist in The Jackal. Think of Frances McDormand as a loopy Norwegian-American police officer in Fargo. Think of Hank Azaria as a lisping caballero in America’s Sweethearts. But mostly, think of Brad Pitt as a gypsy prizefighter in Snatch, where it is not only a case of his being completely incomprehensible to the audience, but of his being completely incomprehensible to the other people in the film.
Then there are films that offer a cornucopia of ethnic delights for the accent aficionado, such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. For starters, we have Cage as the opera-loving fascist who wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less a figlia. Then we have Penelope Cruz, a hot-blooded Spaniard, playing a warm-blooded Greek. Add John Hurt, with his dignified Anglo-Mediterranean phrasings, and David Morrissey, a Nazi who sounds more like the Marquis of Tewkesbury, and you have one of the most satiating smorgasbords of broken English since the days of Zorba the Greek, Doctor Zhivago and Fiddler on the Roof. This is a film even a blind man could enjoy.
Sadly, movies brimming with ethnic accents do not always do especially well at the box office. Though Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman honed their brogues to a fare-thee-well in Far and Away, the movie was not a hit, nor was O Brother or Captain Corelli. Indeed, my all-time favorite motion picture in this genre was a complete flop. Gotcha!, released in 1985, stars Anthony Edwards as a spoiled college kid who goes to Paris during summer break and winds up in bed with Linda Fiorentino, a femme fatale. Ostensibly a graduate student in a famous French film school, Fiorentino brandishes a dense, exotic accent, but it certainly isn’t French. It’s Russian or Eastern European something. It is quite overpowering, crushing everything in its path. All right, let’s call a spade a spade: she sounds exactly like Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle.
Eventually Fiorentino comes clean and admits that she is not actually French, but “Czechoslowakian.” She reveals her name is Sasha, further confusing things because Sasha is not a common Czech name, especially among girls. But then it turns out that Sasha is only a nickname, and her real name is Alexis, also not a name you hear a lot in Prague. Let’s just say she’s from out of town.
In a lesser movie, Fiorentino’s globe-trotting accent would merely have been played for laughs. Here it is not. Rather, it is an integral part of the plot, as becomes apparent when she persuades her lover to accompany her to East Berlin, where they will smuggle out strudel. At first glance, it would seem that the character played by Edwards is a complete moron, as the strudel delivery scam is clearly a front for an espionage ring. Yet he agrees. Only toward the end of the film does it become apparent that Edwards goes along with the dangerous pastry smuggling operation because he can’t understand a single fucking thing Fiorentino is saying. Nor could I.
Why aren’t there more movies with jarring, attention-getting accents like this? Well, one reason so few actors volunteer to play a colorful ethnic is because the additional burden imposed on them by speaking with a consistently preposterous accent makes it difficult to do other things, like act. But Fiorentino is more than equal to the task.
“You are a weergin, yes?” she asks Edwards at one point.
“A weergin,” she reiterates. “You’re not yet being with a woman?”
It was while I was watching Fiorentino display such grace under linguistic pressure that I went back and looked at the two movies I had singled out for so much abuse a decade ago. In the case of Moonstruck, my opinion has not changed one iota: Cher still sounds like she’s stuck in the wrong ethnic group with the wrong dialogue coach in the wrong movie. But for Olivier, I now have a new-found respect and forthwith retract all my previous calumnies. How Olivier could keep a straight face while saying, “If you don’t know vere you come from, how do you know vere you’re going?” is still one of the great mysteries in the history of motion pictures. But then I remind myself that this is the guy who kept a straight face while Neil Diamond, jazz cantor, was serenading him with an impromptu version of “Hava Nagila.”
Joe Queenan wrote “The Last Score” for the November issue of Movieline.