The Worst Southern Accents in Hollywood Posted by: Dan | 0 Comments
Given its proud history of crazy preachers, extravagant violence, incestuous political intrigue, hard headed goddamn women and war losin’, it is no wonder that the South has figured prominently in the motion picture industry.
And yet, some of the most iconic presentations of Southern characters in memory were performed by actors from outside Dixie. Think about it. Gregory Peck (“To Kill A Mockingbird”) was from California. Leslie Howard and Vivien Leigh (Gone With The Wind) were both Brits. Strother Martin and Paul Newman (“Cool Hand Luke”) were from Indiana and Ohio respectively. None of the leading characters in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” were from around here. Burl Ives (“Big Daddy”) was from Illinois, Liz Taylor (“Maggie the Cat”) was from Great Britain and we have already established Paul Newman’s (“Brick”) lack of credentials. And this latter example is of the film adaptation of a play by Tennessee Williams, who was as Southern as grits for godssakes.
So what makes some performances by ersatz Southerners genuine and some not so much? For the answer to this question I turned to my golf buddy Philip Martin, whose day job is Film Critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the president of the Southeastern Film Critics Association. We met recently in a local Mexican food joint to discuss this matter.
B&B: Why do you think some actors can pull off a Southern accent and others can’t?
Philip Martin: Part of it is a subjective thing. Kevin Costner’s accent is terrible as Jim Garrison in “JFK,, but I thought he was really good in “A Perfect World” although there are plenty of critics that cite that as an example of why he can’t do a Southern accent. To me, it sounded perfectly south Georgian, like some of my own people. Same thing with Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.” He sounded like the kid who played the character as a child who had a real accent. People who say that Hanks’ accent is bad just don’t understand that’s just the way some people talk.
B&B: Like Andy Griffith having to convince the suits at Desilu that there were folks back home in North Carolina that really sounded like Gomer Pyle.
PM: Exactly. Then there’s Keanu Reeves in “The Devil’s Advocate.” It’s not that his accent is so bad; it just comes and goes throughout the movie. But there are some Southerners who can’t seem to speak their own native tongue.
B&B: Like who?
PM: Julia Roberts is from Georgia. Either she never had an accent or she has completely lost it. See “Steel Magnolias” for example…..
B&B: I didn’t see “Steel Magnolias.”
PM: You’re kidding. Everybody saw “Steel Magnolias.”
B&B: Not me. I thought it would make me nervous.
PM: Ok. Trust me then. She was awful. On the other hand, her brother Eric Roberts does a good one. Kim Basinger is another Southerner who has done both awful, “Pret a Porter” comes to mind and credible Southern accents, like last year’s very bizarre “The Paperboy.” For real? You never saw “Steel Magnolias?”
B&B: No. Can we please get past this?
PM: Sure. Fire away, Rex Reed.
B&B: Thank you. It seems to me that British actors seem to do pretty well with the Southern accent.
PM: Yes, English speaking foreigners generally seem to be able to handle Southern accents better than non-Southern Americans although I must say the accents on the HBO series “True Blood” are among the worst I’ve heard, especially Stephen Moyer, who plays the vampire chief Bill Compton and New Zealander Anna Paquin (his real-life wife by the way) who plays the main character Sookie Stackhouse. Now, Ryan Kwanten, an Aussie, is a little better as Sookie’s dim-witted brother. But they’re all pretty terrible. Except for Carrie Preston. She’s pretty good. Then again she’s from Georgia.
B&B: But the Brits by and large are pretty good with it? How come?
PM: Well, I think it is due to the fact that Americans don’t have to worry about making themselves understood or understanding others, whereas the rest of the world pretty much has to be at least bi-lingual in order to get along in addition to being exposed to different varieties of speakers of English. For example, there have been Irish and Scottish movies released in this country with English sub-titles.
B&B: I had no idea.
PM: Not surprised. Then again, you didn’t even see…
B&B: Can we please stick to the topic at hand?
PM: Sorry. Anyway, I think it also has to do with the way actors are trained in England as opposed to the U.S. Obviously more Brits are classically trained than American movie actors. We tend to get our actors from the ranks of modeling or athletics who have no formal training other than what they receive on-the-job or with an acting coach.
B&B: Case in point: Burt Reynolds. Reynolds was a football player. He doesn’t have a discernible Southern accent to speak of, and he’s from Florida.
PM: That’s a different deal. Burt Reynolds is a vehicle. He is a persona. He is exactly the same in all of his movies. But the guys you mentioned earlier when we first discussed the subject were good. Paul Newman may have laid it on a little thick in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” but otherwise he made a good Southerner. Unlike George Kennedy in “Cool Hand Luke.” That sounded phony to me. However, this is how good Strother Martin was. Until you told me otherwise, I always assumed he was from the South. And again, it’s a perspective thing. I think a lot of female actors modeled themselves on Vivien Leigh.
PM: There’s a point. Anyway, Leigh’s accent in “Gone With The Wind” might not have been authentic. But it was terribly influential. And not all Brits are good at playing Southerners. Jude Law was terrible in “Midnight In The Garden Of Evil” and in “Cold Mountain.”
B&B: Any others come to mind?
PM: Yeah. A couple. Critics really slammed Nicolas Cage for his bad accent in “Con-Air,” but I think he was doing that at least sorta intentionally, as part of the whole in-joke context of the movie. Maybe I’m overthinking it. On the other hand, he did a pretty good (if superfluous) Southern accent in “Raising Arizona.” The weirdest (though pretty well accomplished) Southern accent that comes to mind is Gary Oldman in the futuristic sci-fi movie “The Fifth Element” in which he played Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, a character modeled on Adolf Hitler who talked exactly like Ross Perot. Oldman said he came up with this characterization because he was trying to make the character as scary as possible and the most frightening thing he could imagine was if the South had taken over the universe.
B&B: That is pretty scary. But it is also a good place to end. Thanks for your time.
PM: My pleasure. Thanks for the beer.
Arthur Paul Bowen is a lawyer and writer who lives in what he calls the “People’s Republic of Hillcrest” in Little Rock. He may also be found on his blog, The Moving Finger Writes.
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