Whenever a role in a movie calls for an international character, Hollywood producers simply use a star of their choice, regardless of their accent, believing that the actor is bigger than the character. But what happens if the actor can’t quite crack the accent? What is Plan B?
The list of Americans attempting Received Pronunciation English is endless and the list of the stars who butchered them is just as long. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe failed to get Robin Hood’s Nottingham lilt and Cate Blanchette added to the latter’s disaster, not to mention her monarchal role in ‘The Queen, the Golden Years’, which I’m sure didn’t thrill anyone in the UK, especially her Highness. Don Cheadle murdered his role in Oceans 11, Ed Norton in The Painted Veil was painful and Dick Van Dyke’s unidentifiable inflections in Mary Poppins will remain forever unforgettable. The list is endless.
Other accents are of course hard to judge. Did Don Cheadle fail as a Brit but master the accent in Hotel Rwanda? Did DiCaprio’s enunciation in Blood Diamonds really hit the mark? Did Forest Whittaker sound anything like the long departed Idi Amin? Who knows and, as African reviews never make it to the Hollywood Reporter, we probably never will.
And what in heaven’s name were the producers thinking when they made Valkyrie? Everyone is in Nazi uniform, so when Tom Cruise speaks in his normal accent, the audience might well assume he’s some kind of double agent, but then Tom Wilkinson pipes in with his Queen’s English and then a British working class accent joins the mix. It was a brilliant story but the whole thing felt weird. I know the US and Brits were on the same side but they didn’t wear the same clothes and they certainly weren’t on first name terms with Herr Adolf.
Even when the accent is good, there is always that moment when a word slips, as happened with both Robert Downey Jr in Chaplin and Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones. And with the latter, I can only imagine the excitement of a number of British actresses when they heard that Bridget’s Diaries were being adapted for the big screen, and then the bitter disappointment when they heard who the role was going to. Wasn’t there one single British actress who could have done as good a job? Apparently not.
So how does it work the other way, with non-Americans trying to master the long r’s and soft t’s of the American brogue? As a Brit, I can’t judge, but Hugh Laurie and Christian Bale have received both acclaim and criticism for their efforts, so it’s safe to assume that a patriot’s ear will pick up anything that’s not right on the money.
There are, of course, exceptions to everything, and what Peter Sellers did as an Indian in the 1968 film The Party can only be topped by Inspector Clusoe’s ‘bimb’ and his insistence that the organ grinder should have a ‘lee-sonce for his minkey’. Priceless stuff.
So why do producers allow the accent fiasco to continue? Is it that they don’t think it’s important, or is it something more sinister?
A British journalist interviewed Russell Crowe about his role as Robin Hood, and commented that he sounded a tad Irish. Crowe was furious, of course, but what is really spooky is that he was genuinely stunned that someone thought he had in fact screwed up, which begs the question, why hadn’t anyone said something before? It is inconceivable that throughout shooting, and during the long months of editing, not one of the producers or the dialect coach picked up the fact that Crowe sounds as much like Robin Hood as Tony Soprano. Which means there was never a Plan B and there are two possible reasons why.
The first is sycophancy and, if you’ve watched the acceptance speeches at the Oscars, this is screamingly likely, and the other is that everyone is just too scared. Of what, I have no idea. Never being able to work with Crowe again? Getting fired by the studio for bad actor wrangling?
Or could it be that once the actors get their $20M pay check, they are simply too big to fail?
Crowe’s Interview with UK Journalist