Robert Altman on the Greta Scacchi character in The Player: 'I would never have cast an American actor in that part; she had to be someone foreign. I considered a Hungarian actress, I looked at a Pole. But you can't beat the way the English speak the English language; other accents are just too thick. But she had to be an alien.'
I don't know what it says on Greta's passport, but her parentage is Italo-Australian, and she grew up in both those places as well as England. Moreover, in The Player she plays someone called Gudmansdottir, which means she must be Icelandic. It's a small mercy she did not attempt the accent. God knows what Icelandic sounds like anyway - well, God and Meryl Streep maybe.
But . . . you certainly can't beat the way the English speak English. And if you are American, it is best not to try. A whole generation of moviegoers of a certain age can remember stuffing their knuckles in their mouths at Dick Van Dyke's battle with Cockney in Mary Poppins, a battle which Cockney won hands down. It was those spavined vowels which left us marked for life, and alerted us to the problems of accent ever after. Like the man in The Who said, we won't get fooled again - and certainly not by the likes of Meryl Streep.
A recent version of the same tussle surfaced in Spielberg's Hook, when Dustin Hoffman made a full-frontal assault on something he claimed to be Old Etonian, whatever that is. (Sounds like an aftershave.) What came out was Terry-Thomas trying to imitate Sid James.
In this context, the analysis of the Meryl Streep Berlitz school of acting ceases to be a duty and becomes a great pleasure. With La Streep, ze accent becomes the equivalent of painting by numbers. Each colour is accurate and blocked in correctly. But the finished portrait never adds up to anything moving. She did English for The French Lieutenant's Woman, and was as cold and estranging as the sea off Lyme Regis. Her opening lines from Out of Africa - 'I had a faaaarm, in Aaaafricaa' - were a riot mainly because no one knows what Danish sounds like and nobody cares either. For once the blank sponge charm of Robert Redford actually worked. He was playing an Old Etonian called Denys Finch-Hatton and he stole the show from under her nose just by talking the way he always does. An object lesson. She did Australian for the Dingo Ate The Baby film whose title mercifully escapes me right now; but then anyone can do Australian. She did English again for the film of David Hare's whinge about the state of England, Plenty, and actually did reveal a monumental selfishness so recognisable among a certain type of English middle-class woman.
But the high spot of a career spent as a zoo quest for rare and exotic tongues was her Pole in Sophie's Choice. I never knew that 'Emily Dickinson' translated into Polish English comes out as 'Emil Dickens'. Although mere print does little justice to the glottal-stopped strangulation of each of the vowels in that short name.
One can compile a long list of American actors making fools of themselves over accents; a list which reveals no unifying theory other than the verdict that, in the interests of civilisation, they really shouldn't try. There is Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty falling into the common American assumption that, because of their languid manner, all Englishmen are etiolated fags. There is Al Pacino mumbling method Mummersetshire in Revolution. There is Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, vocally stranded somewhere between Nottingham and Chicago. There is Gregory Peck, as Mengele in The Boys from Brazil, clearly fulfilling a lifetime's ambition to break away from his stiff-necked rectitude and revel in lines like: 'Ve vill ask ze qvestions'.
And then there are all the Jews in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ talking with a Brooklyn Jewish accent. A friend of mine swears that there is a moment when someone asks: 'So, howya doin', Lazarus?' To which one would like to hear the reply: 'Oy, one minute you're dead, the next minute you've risen . . . a man doesn't know where he is dese days.'
This transatlantic journeying of accent is a trap which awaits the Brits, too. We don't always make a good showing when trying on American. Bob Hoskins seems to be sufficiently reassuring to Hollywood for them to keep using him. But Mr and Mrs Branagh in their hilarious farce Dead Again are a strong contender for this year's Myra Breckenridge Award for Embarrassment.
Mel Gibson, being antipodean, can pass himself off as a Yank quite comfortably, but when he did Hamlet, he sensibly opted for an English accent. What is acceptable in Shakespeare has been passed down to us by practice and custom.
There is one actor who bestrides this whole problem like a colossus. He is a great cinema actor, and part of his greatness is that he never attempts an accent. I once asked Sean Connery why he never abandoned his Scots accent and he replied: 'Because, if I did, I wouldn't know who the fuck I was.'
He played a Russian submarine commander in The Hunt For Red October; an Arab chieftain in The Wind and the Lion; an Irish cop in The Untouchables; and a very particular kind of Englishman in the James Bond films. Any of these could be justified. Perhaps the Arab had a Scots governess as a child. Perhaps the Russian spent time undercover in the Scottish submarine bases; Bond, as Fleming tells us, was sent to Fettes School in Edinburgh after being expelled from Eton for some unspecified sexual misdemeanour. But the point is that whatever he's doing, Connery knows who he is. One doesn't want to whip it up into an existential problem; but it is more than can be said for most actors.
'Far and Away' (12) opens on Friday.
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