It’s a big night–date night! You shave your face or your legs… maybe you shave both because date night (with a movie) is a special night. The movie is the Russian classic, ‘Anna Karenina’; the story of a married aristocrat and her affair with Count Vronsky. Russian story. Russian date. Perfect.
You’re in heaven as Kiera Knightly expresses her love for the Count. Your date, however, is in tears. You think, “Wow, didn’t know Russians were so sensitive.” Your date whispers, “This is set in Russia. Why are they speaking English with British accents?” You say, “Huh? I didn’t even notice.” See your date scowl. See your date exit the theater and walk off into the sunset never to text you again. All is lost. You shaved for nothing.
THE END. Okay, slightly dramatic.
But it raises the point–why DO we accept the English language and British accents as appropriate substitutes for the real language and accent of the land? Did you notice everyone in ‘Les Miserables’ sang in english with British accents even though the characters are French. And to add even more intrigue, the film’s major stars are American and Australian!
Imagine if the film, Lincoln, was shot by Russian filmmakers with Russian actors, and they spoke Russian with American accents. Too strange a concept, isn’t it? English has long been established as the lingua franca, unifying speakers of different first languages. Non-native English speakers have come to accept this, whereas English speakers take it for granted.
Since the beginning of Hollywood, the British accent was seen as the ideal representation of many foreign accents. One theory is that the American hears a British accent, labels it “foreign”, and voila! Additionally, for the sake of time and uniformity, the British accent is used because many of the finestAmerican and international actors are trained to do a standard British accent. Easy, peasy.
Hollywood movies have to play to a common denominator. People from Maine to Oregon must be able to understand every word spoken, and most audiences are accustomed to the British accent. It is perceived as clear and sophisticated. And since Hollywood is a business that is focused on making serious money, this is the “best” option. Sadly, sub-titled films to the average American, Canadian, and Brit
are not favored. Reading is obviously too much work.
Another popular Hollywood option is to have the actors speak English with accents of the country in which they are set. Some American audiences enjoy that but usually only if it’s done lightly and with an accent they are somewhat familiar. Some nouveau Americans (sounds nicer than “foreigners”) have commented on the use of their accents used by American or British actors: “sounds very silly…distracting”, “super weird.” Ah, you just can’t please everyone.
However, a great example of an actor doing a stellar Russian accent is Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. He should have received an Academy Award for Best Accent (on a side note, that award should exist)! Even your Russian date would be happy with him. Sigh, who wouldn’t be happy with Viggo Mortensen! Sorry, I got distracted.
The Reader, with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes (set in Germany) used the English language beautifully. German and British accents were blended so there was uniformity amongst all the actors from different backgrounds. They used typical German-accented vowels like “u-nee-form” for “uniform” and “beck” for “back,” but for clarity for the masses, they did not use a Z sound for TH, which is common for Germans. Other actors with very good accents: Matt Damon in Invictus, Charlize Theron in Monster, and of course, Meryl Streep in anything!
Often, actors get stuck playing a stereotype, as it takes not only accent but also attitude to bring home a performance. The dialect or accent coach assists this situation, helping meld new sounds, nuances and behavior into the actor fully so the character flows effortlessly and naturally. Accent training should be a part of acting training, bottom line.
With the coach, actors learn to roll Rs, drop Gs from ING, inflect lilts foreign to their ears. And they have to do this while shooting guns, running down alleys and blowing up cars. As the world is becoming a global village, people need to understand each other to communicate better. We use coaches for life nowadays…and accents are absolutely a part of life which must not be overlooked!
So, go find yourself a hot date (preferably with an accent) and cuddle up at the next big Hollywood release. Think about it from your date’s perspective and see if you agree that American cinema just might be filled with some snobbery when it comes to accents. But most importantly, enjoy your date–you shaved for this!
-Claudette Roche, accent coach