by Zosha Millman
Objects in movies seem particularly explosion-prone. Cars, buildings, spaceships: on film they’re all poorly designed, ready to blow at any moment. And when they do, it’s something fantastic—big balls of flame and plumes of smoke streaking across the sky. Our action hero will finally stop running and turn to his associate, damsel, spared enemy, or random bystander. “Well that sh-oure is a mess of fai-yah,” he says with a winning smile, oozing Southern charm.
Most savvy moviegoers will be quick to tell you the explosion was just big-screen shenanigans. But many forget that the accent is, too.
If you’re looking for someone in the South who speaks with that dripping, plantation accent, you’d probably be talking to people who are at least 75 years old. But you wouldn’t know it watching most movies made in the last few decades, where actors dip below the Mason-Dixon line and drop their R’s like it’s a fai-yah sale. The truth is, movies ask their audiences to compromise on a lot of realism—from explosions to exposition—and accent work is just more of the same. But that aural shorthand in a heightened reality shapes perceptions in ways we don’t even realize.
Our real-life accents are a sort of summary of our lives: there is no such thing as unaccented English. Coded into our inflections and pronunciations are our experiences of race, gender, class—life. And like any disbeliefs that are suspended for a film or Chipotle burrito, accent work isn’t inherently bad. Arguably accent work doesn’t even have anything to do with acting ability. But it’s important to know what’s going into what you consume.
I came to the Pacific Northwest by way of the Midwest, hailing originally from New England. Most people wouldn’t know. I have, over the many years I’ve resided in this rainy haven of Seattle, adopted the largely flat inflection: homonyms bleed together, beginnings becomebegin-eens. I can hear some of the distinctions, but like many Pacific Northwesterners I am largely blind to most of the accented traits we bring to the table. To me, the Pacific Northwest carries no accent baggage with it.
Allegedly this is something much of the nation feels; local lore has it that newscasters nationwide commonly try to emulate the flat tone we use. But American English has actually been moving towards a “General American” accent for a while now. General American, the umbrella term for the continuum of accents commonly perceived as lacking ties to things like socioeconomics and location, is actually described a bit closer to a conservative, generalized midwestern accent. You’ve probably heard it. It’s the accent that much of the world likely now associates with America (aside, perhaps, from the exaggerated drawl of cowboy movies), given that an estimated two-thirds of our population speaks it.
Heck, it’s everywhere in the media: it’s present in about 90 percent of what’s heard at the movies, on TV, the radio, and so forth. The style spread even faster once it hit Hollywood. Between that and the increasing movement between towns, cities, and countries, American English accents (and most languages) are really just a dilution of the great melting pot.
But in other ways it’s entirely new to filmgoers, who walk into the theater and hear imagined accents from all over. Those accents are heavily but subtly used to code a character as an “other;” a succinct convention that may not even mean anything outside of the circles from which it separates. Why else would Jafar sport the only British accent in the fictional land of Agrabah?
When you see a film character with an accent, you’re seeing a kind of oral Chekov’s gun: If a character says they were born in the South, or Boston, or Jersey Shore, audiences expect that to be backed up somewhere. So in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire drops his r’s in the middle of words, even if someone of his character’s upbringing wouldn’t. Julia Roberts, who was born in Georgia, over-inflates a southern accent in Steel Magnolias to convey to the audience that she is Southern, not just from the South. It’s also why any film set across the pond prominently features British accents, even when the characters are decidedly not British. Ancient Romans are just as likely to have an American accent as they would a British one, or an Italian one, for that matter. The Brothers Grimm stars an Australian and an American actor, each putting on English accents, to play a pair of German brothers.
Does it make sense when you say it out loud? Probably not. But no one wants to be Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood.
At its most pure, an accent is used to show a cultural divide. On the TV show Vikings, the cast is populated from Australia, Canada, the U.S., and beyond. But given that cultural unity is one of the most important aspects of the show, it’s vital that there be some homogeneity to their tone. So the Nords speak English with a Scandinavian inflection, the Brits with an English one, and when they intersect they make all the actors speak the foreign, ancient languages they likely would’ve at the time.
I’ve lived a few places in my life, and been lucky enough to travel to even more. But for having a life that sprawled across so many time zones, I have no ear for accents. More than once I’ve walked out of the theater bemoaning someone’s accent before a friend informs me it is, in fact, real (I’m looking at you Anna Paquin). But apparently I’m not alone.
Over the years, researchers have shown us more and more evidence that the stereotypes we’ve developed aren’t founded on much. People are well aware that historians now believe that Old English sounded much closer to Modern American accents than Contemporary British, and so on. But clearly it’s very hard to unroot a feeling someone has about how a person should sound, given their background. The classification of characters—and by extension the people we’re expected to believe them as—often happens instantaneously. And the accent they use, their inflection, their tone, can be more important than the way they look.
You can’t tell people where the line of realism should be for a movie to exist. Gravity would never have happened, since NASA has approximately three backup safety protocols for when anything goes wrong. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a career of playing American commandos, officers, and agents while never once altering his heavy Austrian accent, and providing no reason why his character would have one. And there is room for accent work in films; just ask Daniel Day Lewis, David Oyelowo, or any other Brit who’s won acclaim for portraying an American icon. Audrey Hepburn—who was born in Belgium, but attended a boarding school in England at the age of five, and was famous for her prim upper-class British accent—affected a thick Cockney accent to land the transformation of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Whatever there is to say about the classist undertones of the story itself, it’s clear that the accent work was inserted with a point in mind.
But it’s worth asking why we associate accents the way we do, and what verbal shorthand we’re trying to communicate when we open our mouths. (Can we conscientiously shelve Jodie Foster’s uneven and distracting British accent in Elysium alongside the accents in the above paragraph?) Stereotypes are already notoriously slow to change, and things can move at a glacial pace when it comes to big screen portrayals. Sometimes they are rooted in some sort of strange tradition (like Bela Lugosi’s accented English becoming equivalent to “vampire”) that has nothing to do with anything at all. At this point it’s become such a ubiquitous mythology people often forget how they sway our perception. Other times it’s just a perceived societal divide, like a British Accent that carries with it a “snobbish” quality that Americans really respond to, whether we’re supposed to read them as a villain or just somehow superior in culture.
And these implications can be translated back into the real world as gospel. The intelligence of immigrants is judged for their grasp of the English language, even when all it means is they aren’t yet adept at expressing themselves in a second language. Many black people in Francefind it easier to affect an English accent to their French, because they get better service when they do. It’s become an aesthetic, just like shooting in black and white or adding in lens flair to a shot of a spaceship, but it’s one that’s masquerading as a fact. The truth is, like Keanu Reeves, accents don’t inherently make a story or character more convincing just because they’re there. And maybe it’s time we start fighting fai-yah with fire.