The Corner

Counterexamples . . .

. . . to my assertion that: “Let’s face it, we just can’t do each other’s voices.”

A mighty host of readers want to tell me that Hugh Laurie’s American accent in the House TV show is impeccable. I’ll take it on trust, never having seen the program. (But see the fourth reader quoted below.)

Then:

One of the best Southern accents ever recorded was by Laurence Olivier in his Granada TV production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Lord Larry played Big Daddy and nailed it. . . . Contrast that with two of the most ludicrously bad southern accents ever recorded, both from Americans: Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s JFK and Rip Torn as Big Daddy in different production of COAHTR. I’ve lived in the South most of my 58 years and have never heard anything remotely resembling either of those two.

More claims for the Brits:

Kate Winslet does a good job of it, and Tracy Ullman is (or at least was in the day) amazing, in her ability to not just do a single non-descript American accent, but many different regional and class accents.

Yet more:

In HBO’s Band of Brothers . . . several English and Scottish actors pull off very credible U.S. accents, with special praise reserved for Damian Lewis (Capt./Maj. Winters), whose accent is so effective that my brother refused to believe my claims regarding Mr. Lewis’ English ancestry until I fished out a clip of the actor in an earlier BBC role. Lewis continued his perfect mimicry in the short-lived NBC series Life.

The flipside, of course, is encapsulated in the overwhelmingly disastrous attempts of the various Brits/Scots/Irishmen in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Ewan Macgregor’s accent is often hilarious, while Orlando Bloom’s Todd Blackburn speaks in what may be the single most pathetic version of an American accent ever attempted. Mercifully, he falls out of a helicopter, and is thereby rendered mute following the first half-hour, or so.

One Scot, Ewan Bremmer, does however pull off a very believable U.S. accent in the film, but at the end of the day, it’s hardly enough to redeem the rest.

Here’s advice from a pro (American):

As you rightly note, part of the problem is the notion that there is such a thing as “an English” or “an American” accent. It is precisely because actors tend to try to do “generic” accents that they end up sounding so awful. (OK, except for Van Dyke, who was supposed to be doing cockney. Gifted physical comedian, but with an ear of purest tin.) Forget about the various New England accents vs. the Deep South — The five boroughs of New York all have distinctive accents (even Brooklyn and Queens, and there isn’t even any kind of physical barrier between them — or between Queens and western Long Island, which has yet another sound.)

I keep hearing what an awful job [sic — JD] Hugh Laurie does as House, but there’s actually nothing in his voice that jumps out at me as I watch the show. It seems to me the character has an idiosyncratic way of talking — as most of us do. It doesn’t sound like someone straining to maintain an unfamiliar accent. Ditto Louise Lombard when she was on CSI.

But a lot of Americans are just horrible at “other English” accents and a lot of Brits couldn’t carry an American accent with a forklift. (I remember trying to watch a BBC adaptation of Dracula many years ago and I finally had to turn it off because Quincy’s accent was so dreadful, wandering uncertainly from Texas to Virginia to Louisiana, with stops at London and Cambridge.) When I studied acting, several hundred years ago, I got the best advice possible on the subject:  “Don’t try to do an accent, try to do a voice.” Smart actors get a recording of some particular person — a public figure, an actor in another role who has the desired sound — and learn to “do” that voice. The goal isn’t a Rich Little-style impersonation, but a consistant way of speaking that helps you keep like sounds sounding alike and the proper rhythm for the style of speaking. By being specific you learn to speak naturally, even if you don’t sound that much like your subject. (And to hide the theft, you’d try not to. That’s why when I used LPs of Shakespeare from the Old Vic for this purpose I’d never listen to Olivier or Gielgud, but concentrated on the supporting actors. British radio correspondents could be useful sources, Winston Churchill speeches less so — too distinctive.)

Churchill’s voice was indeed distinctive — English comedians (e.g. the late Tony Hancock) used to get a lot of laughs trying to imitate it. The late-Victorian and Edwardian English upper classes — Churchill’s generation and the one after — affected a sort of modified cockney in some of their locutions. Bertrand Russell was another case. Churchill also deliberately mispronounced words for effect, e.g. “Nahzee” for “Nazi.” Truly, the art of oratory has been lost. Even (I am pretty sure) setting aside political disagreements, I find our current president a potent insomnia cure. I have to read the transcript of his speeches the day after to see what he said.

And this from out of left field:

When I was in junior high, the Hebrew day school I attended, in cooperation with the drama department at a local high school, put on a full production of My Fair Lady in Hebrew (barad yarad b’drom sfarad ba’ erev — “The hail falls in southern Spain in the evening”). If you think it’s funny to hear Dick Van Dyke doing cockney, you should listen to someone trying to do a cockney accent in Hebrew. The girl who played Eliza Doolittle had to transition from Hebrew with a cockney accent to Hebrew with an upper crust Brit accent over the play’s duration.

I can relate. I studied Chinese in a class that contained a young man from Northern Ireland. Mandarin spoken with an Ian Paisley accent is something to hear. Old Chinese proverb: bie pa gui, bie pa shen, / zhi pa xi ren shuo Zhong wen — “Don’t fear ghosts, don’t fear spirits, only fear Westerners speaking Chinese.”

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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