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The good, the bad and the mangled

(Top row) Peter Sellers, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gary Oldman, Renee Zellwegger. (Bottom row) Russell Crowe, Sean Connery, Heather Graham, Forest Whitaker

By Finlo Rohrer and Katie Fraser
BBC News Magazine

The release of Valkyrie and The Reader have brought to mind a recurring problem for moviemakers and television producers - should actors stick to their own accents?

In Valkyrie, the story of Claus von Stauffenberg's attempt to kill Hitler and topple the Nazi regime, Tom Cruise sounds like Tom Cruise.

Not Tom Cruise with a slight German accent, but the usual vaguely East Coast-tinged Cruise of Mission: Impossible and Top Gun.

Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg
Tom Cruise is so well-known that if he started doing an 'Allo 'Allo accent, it would have everyone in hysterics
James King
Film critic

And at the same time, there's The Reader, another film set in Germany and tackling Nazism, which goes the other way. David Kross, the young German actor, does his lines in English with a German accent, as do Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

As the Anglophone film industry appears disinclined to ever stop making movies about the 1939-1945 period, it's a dilemma that is going to continue coming up.

Take Sam Peckinpah's 1977 epic on the horrors of the Eastern Front, Cross of Iron. A classic war movie it is. A classic example of coherent accents it is not.

Of the main characters, James Coburn as the hero, Steiner, attempts a German accent while James Mason as Colonel Brandt wanders in and out of one, and David Warner as Captain Kiesel speaks mostly in his best stage Received Pronunciation with only the occasional German tinged word. Maximilian Schell, being Austrian, keeps rather more consistently to his accent, as the baddie Stransky. All in all it's a bit of an accent mess.

So it's perhaps not surprising that the Valkyrie's no-funny-voices rule has its supporters.

"Tom Cruise is so well-known that if he started doing an 'Allo 'Allo accent, it would have everyone in hysterics," says film critic James King. "In Valkyrie it works because the opening [dialogue is] in German [even Tom Cruise] and it's done smoothly."

Kate Winslet
Kate Winslet does a German accent - only Germans know if it is any good

It can sometimes seem a natural thing in a period piece. In Roland Joffe's The Mission, the stars play Spanish parts with their own accents, Robert De Niro American and Jeremy Irons English.

The same tactic can be taken in television. When the BBC recently adapted Swedish author Henning Mankell's Wallander detective novels, the major cast members were British and speaking with British accents. Perhaps the producers were aware of the danger that if not done properly, a difficult and little-done accent could soon degenerate into something like the Swedish chef out of the Muppets.

And where accents are done now, they tend to be low-key affairs.

"These days when people put on a foreign accent they make them slightly less pronounced, not like in the days of Gary Oldman with his full Russian accent as the villain in Air Force One," says King.

Baltimore Brits

Oldman, despite his alarming Russian, has of course made a career out of playing American roles, and doing various accents convincingly. Peter Sellers was another master of accents. In Dr Strangelove he does a comedy German, an uppercrust Englishman and a mild-mannered American, all in the same film.

And how many of those who have recently become fans of the Baltimore cop show The Wire would have guessed that Russell "Stringer" Bell was from Hackney or that the Baltimore twang of Jimmy McNulty was produced by Dominic West, educated at Eton.

SOME RULES OF ACCENTS
English RP is similar to Roman
Bad Germans are played by Germans
Brits must play Americans well
Sean Connery does not do accents

And perhaps the greatest accents of recent times were furnished by Americans Gwyneth Paltrow and Renee Zellweger who did upper-middle class English as well as any Englishwoman.

But when things go bad they can go really bad. Everybody remembers Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but at least that was a comedy. How much worse was Forest Whittaker's frankly ludicrous British accent in The Crying Game, Russell Crowe attempting an English City boy in A Good Year or Sean Connery in most of everything he was ever in?

But context is everything. When Johnny Depp did Cockney in Jack the Ripper movie From Hell he was lambasted. When he did the same accent, again modelled on Keith Richards, to comic effect in Pirates of the Caribbean, it was regarded as amusing. In a good way.

It's all down to your expectations of what you're watching.

Evocation of place

"When you watch Russian plays or Greek tragedies they don't bother with an accent," says Sally Hague, dialect coach at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. "There's a convention that it's set around the characters or the action and not the place. Directors think that using dialect would be a distraction.

"But sometimes an accent would be central to evoking a place. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - it's all about the language of the Deep South that Tennessee Williams was using when he wrote it. It can be perverse not trying to do that accent. Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting. It couldn't have been done without the dialect."

Brando as Zapata
Marlon Brando did Mexican for Viva Zapata

And of course in some movies, accents and casting are offering a subtle code. In some war movies from days of yore, Americans play the heroes, English actors do the more acceptable Germans and the truly bad Germans are played by real Germans.

In some films about the Roman Empire or with other classical or period settings, English accents can be used by Hollywood to convey gravitas.

In Gladiator for instance, Roman-ness can only be properly conveyed by an English accent. Witness Joaquin Phoenix's rather alarming effort as Emperor Commodus. One might surmise that an English accent represents the "Old World" in a more general sense to an American viewer. But still, Tony Curtis, despite his Bronx accent, played a string of roles in ancient dramas.

In many American films the baddie is English or English accented. But you can also get a film like Die Hard, where Alan Rickman does a German accent for a double dose of baddie-ness.

Then you have an actor like Art Malik, born in Pakistan, but raised in England, doing a string of Arab terrorist baddies.

It all tests the audience's ability to suspend their disbelief.

"Films like Die Hard have had their day - no-one blinked an eye. Now people would think of those as out of place," says King.

Dick van Dyke
Dick Van Dyke has never lived down his cockney accent in Mary Poppins

There have been classic films where actors have not just put on accents but even "blacked up" to play exotic parts. We can still relish a viewing of Lawrence of Arabia because we know it comes from 1962, although we may find Omar Sharif [an Egyptian] as Sherif Ali a lot more convincing than Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal.

In Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata from 1952, Marlon Brando (born Nebraska, US) seems more ardent in his Mexican accent than Anthony Quinn (born Chihuahua, Mexico). Quinn got the Oscar.

But perhaps we care less about how convincing an accent is than we do about the quality of the film.

We are happy for Americans and Brits to do foreign voices in the right settings and to do each other, as long as it's well, but show us a rubbish film and we'll zero in on the bad accent.

And if you really want authenticity, why not just take the Mel Gibson route and do it all in Aramaic with subtitles.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I saw Valkyrie a few days ago and I was glad not to hear any silly accents. The opening scene of the film gives a narrative transition from German to English that allows the viewer to recognise that the characters are German, and then concentrate on the rest of the film. There is more to the portrayal of a character and their nationality than their accent.
Karen, Birminghan

I find it even more ridiculous to see Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform with an American accent. Take Daniel Craig's latest film Defiance for example. He managed to pull off a good Belarusian accent, so why should Cruise be any different?
Chris Bryan, Newport

One film missing from those listed above is the wonderful Schindler's List. Although some of the accents in that film were very shaky (Liam Neeson's German/Irish for one) that didn't detract from the film at all.

Generally I find it silly to have 'accents' in a film. Why bother when the characters probably wouldn't be speaking English anyway? Why not just have the whole film in the language native to the characters? The only time accents are necessary is for characters who are playing foreigners to English-speaking countries.
Heather, Willenhall

Why has Mel Gibson's ridiculous attempt at a Scottish accent in Braveheart not been mentioned?
Fiona McGhee, Glasgow, Scotland

I applaud Leonardo Di Caprio (in Blood Diamond) for the best attempt I have ever heard, from a foreigner, at a colonial Southern African accent. It was obvious to me (a South African/Zimbabwean) he had really worked hard at it and despite a few pitfalls, pulled it off beautifully. If he can put the work in, so should every actor - they're getting paid enough.
Ash, London

Another example - the recent series of Anne Frank, all the people in that had middle England accents… but they were polish.
Martha, Yorkshire

Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors was excellent. I had never seen her before and was convinced she was an upper-middle class English actress. If you ever watch an American film or TV programme where an English character is introduced, you know he is the baddie. And Anton Diffring always plays the German baddies.
Ian, London

Somehow I'm surprised that you got all the way through this article without managing the comic disaster of Enemy at the Gates - or did you just decide that it was too awful to contemplate?
Owain Williams, Regensburg

Everyone has an accent for that film/role or no-one does. I wrote a play set in Gaza last summer and I specifically said the actors should speak in their own accents rather than trying to do a bad impersonation of what Israelis and Gazans sound like. It worked. To my mind, and in these circumstances, it also allowed the predominantly British audience to identify with people speaking in 'similar' accents to theirs. All or nothing, no half-hearted attempts please.
Shelley Silas, London, England

The line that always makes me cackle is from Highlander - where you have Sean Connery playing an Egyptian asking Mcleod in his broad Scottish accent 'Haggis, what is Haggis?' Priceless
Helen, London

How can we forget House, while not a movie? Hugh Laurie's accent is something of a "Marmite" argument. Love it or hate? It's still secondary to a brilliant character played wonderfully well with mischief and fun by Laurie.
Marc Purdy, Newcastle

I'm astonished to find out Stringer Bell and McNulty are British - utterly convincing accents (and fine actors too).
Jay, London

Hollywood changes whichever aspect of history they like in order to suit their idea of an effective script, so it seems only appropriate and consistent to have Nazis speak with an American accent. As ever, though, it devalues the authenticity of a historical production - watch Das Boot and The Downfall to see and hear how it should be done.
David, Cheshire

I can only say - it all depends on the film. Mary Poppins is a magical film and Dick Van Dyke is absolutely brilliant in it. I can't understand why there was any fuss about the accent - it wasn't relevant. The film wasn't aiming at a presentation of reality London.
Tony, Bristol

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