Random Thoughts: Much ado about movie accents

I’ve been wanting to ask this question for quite a while, but this recent comment from regular reader Mike B. inspires me to finally get it out there as a point of discussion.

Accents is no doubt a fascinating topic. There are countless sites out there listing their picks on who have the best or worst movie accents. Whether it’s American actors doing foreign accents or vice versa, everybody seems to have an opinion on the matter. Some names keep coming up as BEST (Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Gary Oldman – who’s known for using different accent in practically any movie he’s been in); and WORST (Keanu Reeves, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner). The king of bad accent is Sir Sean Connery, who’s voted by fans as having the worst movie accent of all time according to an Empire magazine poll. But hey, it didn’t stop the Academy to award him with Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for The Untouchables, despite his dubious Irish-American accent. Interestingly enough, his own Scottish lilt was at one point voted as UK favorite’s accent, so perhaps filmmakers should’ve just let the man use his own brogue instead?

Morgan Freeman in Invictus

Now, this post isn’t about who does a certain accent best or which ones make you cringe, as I find that subject very… well, subjective. I mean, take one of the most obvious offender of fake British accent, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood. He’s actually listed in the best category by Popeater! And Russell Crowe whom Mike and I regard as having one of the most convincing American accent was actually singled out in 15 most atrocious accent list by Total Film for his work in American Gangster. It also seems that accent might be critical to a certain role more than others. For example, Mike B thought that in The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler’s American accent (or should I say lack thereof) was so unconvincing that his disbelief in the character ruined the movie for him. Now, I agree it was bad, but it didn’t bother me as much as the atrocious script and predictable plot did. At the same time, Butler’s Irish accent (which sounded very Scottish) in P.S. I Love You didn’t bother him much, neither did his uneven American one in Law Abiding Citizen. Which makes me wonder if our opinion on a given actor’s accent work depends on other factors, such as the script/storyline or even the character itself. Not to mention the origin of the audience’s familiarity with said accent, as South African natives no doubt have an entirely different opinion about Morgan Freeman imitating Nelson Mandela in Invictus than someone like me who don’t hear the language spoken very often.

It seems that there are three options that filmmakers can take in handling movie accents:

  1. Abandon using accents altogether, as this Guardian article suggests, as it did back in the day. “In Hollywood’s past, the voice of a film star was as much part of their persona as their looks. Had they distorted their voices, audiences would have felt as cheated as if their idols had worn masks. Therefore, stars rarely put on accents even when playing foreigners.”….
    Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg

    This one blogger actually praised Bryan Singer’s decision to forgo the German accents in his film Valkyrie, where all of the actors were told to speak in their natural accent. “We have an international cast — American actors, Dutch, German, British. To have everyone approximating German accents when, in reality, they’re supposed to be speaking German, which, I promise after the first 20 minutes, you’d be sick of it. It would ultimately sound silly. And it would distract from the drive of the plot. So, the decision was made pretty quickly.” Of course, the other side of the coin is that the mishmash of American/English/German dialects can be equally (or more) distracting, as this MSNBC review suggests. Some critics even call the decision ‘lazy’ and ultimately affects the entire movie’s credibility.
    ….

  2. Make all the actors learn to speak authentic said language and subtitle the film – The quandary with this is, people would be distracted from watching the actual film as they’re too busy reading the subtitles! With that said though, I didn’t have a problem with actors speaking in Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ, so it really depends on how the film is done. Besides, this route is certainly a far better option than having the actors’ voices dubbed by native speakers of a given language (as they did in some English/Foreign movies in Indonesia), which annoyed the heck out of me.
    ….
  3. Have the actors adopt the accents of the characters’ origin – this seems to be the most common in movies today, even at the risk of the accents being ‘butchered’ by the actor(s).

So readers, my question to you is this: How much weight do you put on it in regards to an actor’s credibility in a given role? In other words, do you think accent work make or break a movie?