Watch a vocal coach dissects what separates uncanny from excruciating when it comes to movie accents.
An issue endemic to filmmaking (at least since the introduction of the "talkie") has been the need for realistic portrayals of regional and national accents not native to the performer. In this video, vocal coach Erik Singer examines 32 recent accent-heavy performances and highlights where their strengths and weaknesses in the performances lie. The devil is in the dialect, and every filmmaker owes it to themselves to check this video out.
Often, filmmakers have resorted to a sort of aural shorthand (i.e., all the villains in films are British), and speak with a specific variety of accent known as RP, or Received Pronunciation, a variety of educated British accent, described by the British library as "instantly recognizable—often described as ‘typically British’." The American Equivalent, historically, has always been the Mid-Atlantic accent, which is less of a thing now, though it could be argues that both play[ed] into class anxiety on the part of their audiences.
One of the performances Singer singles out for praise is Phillip Seymour Hoffman's 2005 turn as writer Truman Capote in the film Capote, who had a truly one-of-a-kind speaking voice; Hoffman's "vocal quality and mannerisms are particularly like Capote's," says Singer, adding that the accent is "totally integrated" into the performance (Hoffman hits no false notes) and that this accent is also "integral to the character," and hence, the movie. Had his work not been so spot on, the film would have not been nearly as successful, and the late, great Hoffman almost certainly wouldn't have won the Oscar. Judge for yourself his success.
But what is it that makes the nuts and bolts of an accent work? One of the most famous accents in film is the Boston variety. Dissecting Michael Keaton's performance in Spotlight, Singer highlights one of the key elements of the dialect, its vowel sounds, and remarks that in this scene, Keaton pronounces the "on" in "c'mon' as an "ahn" sound (which is stereotypically representative of an often-imitated Boston dialect), though when he says the word "confirmation" just a moment later, his voice says the first syllable of the word as "awn". This may seem like splitting hairs, but when going for verisimilitude, every detail matters.
Among other performances Singer highlights for praise are Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger's Wyoming accents in Brokeback Mountain, which he singles out for their authenticity, as well as their consistency. The accents do not waver, but maintain their internal consistency all the time, which helps ground the audience in the story. It's an important note for filmmakers who will have to cut together multiple takes, shot days, weeks, or months apart and construct a cohesive persona from them.
The New York accent is another stereotypical sound heard in films. In fact, it might surprise audiences to learn that the Big Apple's accent is precisely what Heath Ledger (again) is doing in The Dark Knight, albeit, as Singer puts it, "a weird, idiosyncratic" one, though the film does take place in Gotham City. Again, Singer singles out the performance for its consistency, especially in the face of the "weird, tongue flick-y gesture" that was one of the tick's Ledger brought to the performance. One of the more interesting aspects of this voice is that it was wholly invented, there being no historical or regional analogue Ledger had to conform to. (Though, Tom Waits has been cited as Ledger's inspiration for the character.)
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdddIJd3bLc&ab_channel=bikram79
A huge challenge for filmmakers is the historical accent, here exemplified in the vintage Californian accent of (acknowledged master of voices) Daniel Day-Lewis, in There Will Be Blood. One of the key elements of the success of the performance, according to Singer, is the way in which Lewis builds "the accent and even the character" around the "posture" of the voice: Daniel Plainview's voice is the result of Lewis keeping his "tongue bunched up in the middle of his mouth—bracing against his molars—and he keeps his cheeks very loose."
"The accent is totally integrated into the performance"
To look at the performances here (and the video examines several more), it becomes clear how crucial not only the voices, but the performances of an actor are to any filmmaker. This is both obvious and easy to forget, especially for beginning directors, who are often overwhelmed by the technical aspects of film. This video is a good first stop for filmmakers thinking about accents in their films, and it's also an important reminder for directors, that they should focus on directing not just the camera, but the people in front of it.