Movie accents: the good, the bad, and the mystifying

Dialect coach and voice actor Erik Singer released a video this week that analyses 32 film actors’ accents, pointing out what they do well and what not so well. There’s a fair range of performances and genres, with some notoriously bad accents and a few surprises.

It’s a highly entertaining video that lasts a little over a quarter of an hour.

I’d have liked it to be a bit more fine-grained – references to the ‘English accent’ belie the tremendous variety in that country, for example – and to include accents from places like Australia, New Zealand, India, and Canada. But I enjoyed the insight on things like posture and vowel variation, and Singer is a genial and helpful guide. Other videos in a phonetics vein can be viewed on his Vimeo page.

What film or TV accents have impressed you, for good or bad?

[via Wired]

21 Responses to Movie accents: the good, the bad, and the mystifying

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    I thought Martin Freeman did an impressive job with an upper mid-western American accent in the television series Fargo.

  2. I am glad to see Idris Elba appear twice in this video. I never watched The Wire; so the first I knew of Elba was when he joined the cast of The Office. To me, his American accent was perfect. I figured that he might be from somewhere in the Northeast; probably not New York City, but perhaps New Jersey or Pennsylvania. I was shocked to learn that he is English.

    Another non-American who excels at doing an American accent is the Australian actor Josh Lawson. He was one of the leads on House of Lies, and currently has a recurring role on Superstore. His American accent seems to me to be something close to an upper Midwestern sound. Like Elba, Lawson is flawless in the execution of this American accent.

    And then there are the versatile English comedy performers Matt Lucas and David Walliams from the sketch show Little Britain. Each is capable of a wide variety of American accents, all done masterfully.

    One cannot discuss foreign actors doing American accents without mentioning Hugh Laurie. There are many American television viewers who don’t even know that Laurie is English. I haven’t watched the show House; but I have seen clips and I am aware of how convincing he is. But, because I have seen Laurie much more in Jeeves & Wooster and in the sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie, I find listening to him talk with an American accent to be a bit jarring.

    While it is impossible for me to definitively evaluate American actors doing foreign accents, I’d like to nominate a few whose English accents are, to my ear, exemplary.

    Michael McKean and Harry Shearer are the first who come to mind; of course they portray Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls, respectively. I’ve read accounts from English commentators praising their accents.

    I would suggest that comedian Chris Hardwick does a very good southern English accent and perhaps a better Australian accent, and that Seth MacFarlane’s Stewie displays a passable educated English accent.

    And, finally, Johnny Depp’s posh English accent in the delightful (and unjustly criticised) movie Mordecai is a treat.

  3. […] Source: Movie accents: the good, the bad, and the mystifying | Sentence first […]

  4. roger says:

    The English accents that abound in films on the old movie channel from the 1930s-50s — they are sometimes called faux English. Some are less faux than others. Lister Sinclair, b. India, raised in UK, then a CBC broadcaster, called his own accent /mid-Atlantic/ or “all wet” (!). And author John LeCarre: He was the reader for one of his recent audio-books, A Delicate Truth. And if that reading was all his, end to end, there was considerable interest in the distinctive regional and class accents, variously English, N. Irish, South African, and U.S. The audio-book CD and sleeve indicated no other performer, just the author. If that was so, then characterization by means of the very different accents made the reading more like a dramatization. And it appears to have been just one voice, LeCarre’s, for all.

  5. Stan Carey says:

    The Wire was the first time I saw Elba too, and I assumed he was American. I haven’t watched TV’s Fargo but wrote briefly about the film’s Minnesota accents. Old movie accents, specifically how they differ from modern ones, were the subject of a recent Lexicon Valley podcast.

    Irish accents are notoriously tricky for outsiders to get right. Part of the problem may be the gap between authenticity and perceived authenticity. Someone I follow on Twitter said recently that Julia Roberts’s accent in Michael Collins was pretty good, and having rewatched it last year I have to agree; it’s certainly much better than is often claimed.

    Judy Davis and Toni Collette have impressed me with their accents in various films. It was a while before I realised Collette was Australian.

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Speaking of The Wire, I was impressed with Aiden Gillen’s American accent. He’s an Irish actor who played Tommy Carcetti, the character who is a Baltimore city councilman and later mayor. Gillen also plays Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in Game of Thrones.

  7. Erik Singer says:

    Thanks so much for the kind review! I’ve been a fan of your blog for a long time!

    The accent ‘titles’ intro-ing each clip were not my doing. I quite agree that they should have been more specific. And we did actually have some other regional English accents in there that didn’t make the final cut. Yorkshire, Liverpool, Devon, among others, if memory serves. They may have been felt to be too obscure for general audiences, but that’s just a guess. (I had nothing to do with the editing.)

  8. Brad Pitt playing an Irish Traveller in _Snatch_ was a pretty astounding performance:

    I can’t personally vouch for the accuracy, but it’s my understanding that it’s regarded as very good indeed.

  9. I wish someone would do this for the Netflix show Narcos. A Spanish dialect coach would have a blast with that show. All the actors for the Spanish speaking roles are from different parts of Latin America, so it’s initially somewhat of a bizarre viewing experience since most of them didn’t bother to use a Colombian accent. So you have one actor speaking with a Mexican accent, and then a different one with a Puerto Rican accent, which are very different. The lead in particular is pretty bad because he’s actually Brazilian and thus speaks with a very thick Brazilian accent. Which is unfortunate, because his character in real life was known for having a particular dialect of Colombian Spanish. At some point, I had to mentally shut out the accents in order to enjoy the show.

    • Or as I described it to my friend: “Narcos is like the equivalent of watching a show that’s supposed to be about some town in the southern US, but everyone on the show has California or NYC accents and the lead is played by a German actor trying (and failing) to do a specific type of Southern accent.” Okay that might be a slight exaggeration, but my point is, even for the untrained ear, the differences in accent are jarring.

  10. astraya says:

    The CDs which come with ESL textbooks now attempt to use different accents, and as far as I can tell the various British accents are authentic. But one CD had an actress who was obviously English attempting an Australian accent, and I simply couldn’t listen to it. Could they really not find an Australian actress or at least speaker in Oxford or Cambridge.
    And one recent recording had a man from Devon (in the story) speaking with an Irish accent. I’m not sure if I could recognise a Devon accent, but I can recognise a generic Irish one.

  11. Oisín Carey says:

    Irish accents I remember being impressed by are Sean Bean and John Hurt in The Field, and Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton in In America, both Jim Sheridan films (possibly not a coincidence?).

    Singer mentions actors sounding a bit stiff with a foreign accent, which I think sometimes comes down to the dialogue being written for a kind of generic film character, rather than someone with the stylistic tics, expressions etc. of a real person who would use the dialect in question.

    • Erik Singer says:

      This can be a factor, for sure, but even with great, idiosyncratic dialogue, the organic ownership (or embodiment, if you will) of an accent is sometimes missing or not what it should be, even when much of the accent is technically accurate. (One reason why native speakers of a language or accent are *not* the right people to help actors with dialogue. Please tell Hollywood.)

  12. Stan Carey says:

    Charles: That’s good to hear. I’ll pass the compliment on to a friend who knows him.

    Welkin: I can see how that could be very distracting. If I ever watch the show, I’ll listen out for it.

    astraya: Maybe they planned to hire an Australian speaker but the plan fell through at the last minute. Or maybe they were just cutting corners. It’s unfortunate either way.

    Oisín: I second your praise for the accents in The Field; I haven’t seen In America yet. That’s a good point on the dialogue itself potentially being the problem.

  13. David Keith Johnson says:

    Mr. Singer, every actor everywhere will bless you for calling out the usual problem – depriving the performers of time to prepare – when accents are not correct. However, in my experience, the ability to pick up and even work on accents and dialects is analogous to singing. While many experts will tell you there is no such thing as tone deafness, that everyone can be taught to sing on pitch, experience feels different. Some wonderful actor friends of mine, dynamite players, could not carry a tune, and others could never change their speech patterns convincingly.

    No doubt the worst accent accompanying a performance that I somehow enjoy anyway is Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. Horrible, horrible. Wonderful, wonderful.

    • Erik Singer says:

      While it is, of course, true that actors differ in native ability, actors who struggle can manage the task admirably, given enough time and support. And it is the very, very rare actor, no matter how naturally gifted, who can do a superlative job without working with a dialect coach.

      That said, I can’t sing. :)

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