Tom Sutcliffe: Rooster's a bit too slow on the drawl

The week in culture

Share
Related Topics

It's something of an irony that, in most commentators' predictions, Colin Firth is squaring up against Jeff Bridges for the Best Actor Oscar. On one hand, you have a character for whom clarity of speech is a dream, involving a lifelong struggle against inherited impediment. On the other, you have a character who has no physical problems in speaking at all, but most of whose utterances are completely incomprehensible. In fact, somebody has already made an effective joke out of the startling muddiness of Rooster Cogburn's speech, posting a doctored montage of clips from True Grit on the internet, running its own surreal guesses at what's being said underneath on subtitles. And with that performance Jeff Bridges – always a mutterer of talent – has definitively sealed his place in the Cinema Mumblers' Hall of Fame.

He's in reasonably good company. Marlon Brando is certainly in there, both for his ground-breaking muttering in the first Godfather movie – (where the muffling was partly down to the heavy cotton-wool padding he'd stuffed in his cheeks to fill out Don Corleone's jowls) – but also for his winningly incomprehensible growls as Kurtz, at the end of Apocalypse Now. Sylvester Stallone has a place – for diction on and off screen – and Heath Ledger too, not a career mumbler in truth but given an honorary position thanks to the shit-kicking drawl he employed in Brokeback Mountain (which occasionally made you wonder whether Jack turned to sex up in the mountains because conversation with Ennis was never going to be a viable alternative). And I think there might be a special mention for Brad Pitt's role in Guy Ritchie's Snatch, though purists might object that comedy incomprehensibility (Pitt played a pugnacious Traveller with an accent so dense only one word in 10 got through) doesn't really count.

A friend who saw True Grit suggested that Bridges's mutter was a fruitless attempt to naturalise the over-literary nature of the Coen brothers' script. He looked at those bookish lines, with their ornately formal diction, and thought "How the hell am I going to make this sound real?" And his solution followed a path well trodden by other American actors before him, who identified rough edges and unprojected speech as the hallmark of life. I'm not so sure. I think Bridges was perfectly happy with the script and even enjoyed its grace notes. He just thought that Rooster would probably talk something like this – a man who doesn't much care whether other people can understand him or not, because he makes most of his points with a gun. But one thing you can say for sure is that 60 years ago his delivery would have been regarded as something close to a catastrophe for a movie – the kind of thing that would have had a studio boss ordering him back into a dubbing studio at once.

These days, of course, it's a badge of realism, and, perhaps emboldened by subtitled DVDs and the opportunity to re-run a scene until you can finally make out what a character's saying, directors and actors employ it pretty widely. Like most of cinema's badges of realism though it isn't actually very realistic. When did you ever, for example, see a character on-screen say, "Sorry, I didn't quite catch that. You're really going to have to speak a little more clearly." That's what would happen in real life if someone genuinely talked like this, but, unless the plot specifically requires a misunderstanding, the characters of movies inhabit a space of ideal communication in which meaning is never mislaid, however smeary the diction. Our exclusion from this space is part of the trick – the sense that our comprehension isn't an issue because we're not really there. If there was an audience they would project a little more clearly, obviously, but since there isn't they don't have to. And the ignoble thought occurs that there might actually be some performers hiding out in the verbal undergrowth here, knowing full well that the fine details of their performance may not be visible at all. Colin Firth – articulating every syllable including the stammered ones – puts every nuance on display so that we can judge it. Jeff Bridges delivers a kind of auditory impasto that effectively makes fine judgement of nuance impossible. They're both fine performances, but I hope the old-fashioned "unrealistic" one gets the prize.

It's always wise to tuck into a second helping

I saw an interesting tweet the other day: "How good is the Friends pilot? So good that you know 4 characters after SEVEN LINES". It was originally posted by Andrew Ellard, a script editor for The IT Crowd and he helpfully attached a link (http://t.co/ACfSYxE), so that anyone interested could check it out. And if you look you can see exactly what he means. It's really tight writing, and, looking back in hindsight, every line is comically typical of its speaker. But I'm not sure that Ellard has quite taken hindsight into account – or at least the fact that comedies often depend on us knowing what is typical of its characters in order to make a line funny. It's one reason why even the best written pilot always labours uphill, because its main job is to clarify the outline of a type or personality that later episodes can have fun filling in. And it's why no critic should ever categorically dismiss a new comedy before seeing at least three episodes. This was underlined for me the other night when I watched the first two episodes of Friday Night Dinner, Robert Popper's new sitcom for Channel Four. First episode? Well... meh, really. Nicely acted comedy of awkwardness and family in-jokes, but a little underwhelming. Second episode? Very funny indeed, I thought – because you can predict roughly how the characters will react, but not what specific form their reactions will take. And I bet the first episode will look funnier next time I look.

Isabella explores basic instincts

The Natural History Museum's new exhibition, Sexual Nature, is something of a mish-mash, a cabinet of curiosities assembled around the fantastical varieties of animal sexual experience, which includes detachable penises designed to block the advances of love rivals and bifurcated vaginas, with which female ducks can bamboozle the sperm of unwanted mates. On display are penis bones and jarred specimens of beasts with outlandish mating habits. Easily the best thing though, to my mind, was Green Porno, the name actor Isabella Rossellini has given to a series of short films in which she acts out the mating behaviour of various animals, with the help of brightly coloured sets and paper costumes. The one devoted to the mating habits of the duck is particularly lubricious, offering a penis-eye view of the inner chambers of the duck, but there's also an excellent film in which she outlines the hazardous congress of a spider, which has to creep up on the female and insert his sperm covered palps without getting eaten. And one in which the sado-masochistic practices of snails are given wild vocal expression by Rossellini herself. I'm not sure that their shameless anthro-pomorphism makes suitable viewing for a scientific institution, but they're available on YouTube if you fancy a bit of bestial action.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Mail Machine Operative

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: a duchess by any other name is just wrong

Guy Keleny
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US