Saturday, May 12, 2012

Accent-uate the Positive

For years now, I've enjoyed playing a game I call "Spot the Accent."  Whenever I'm watching a television show or movie with a non-American actor playing an American character, I watch that actor closely to see if I can spot any slips into his or her native accent.  It's not that I want the actor to fail or anything like that, so I don't know why I do it. I think what probably happened was that at some point I was watching a movie or t.v. show with a foreign actor playing an American and at one point, the actor slipped up.  If I noticed it, then given my OCD-like nature, I would become unable to stop myself from paying close attention to see if it happened again. And from there, probably, I guess, a new game was born.

From my studies, I have concluded that Australians generally do the best job at sounding American.  I've met some Brits who think that Americans don't do British accents well but that the American accent is easy for British actors.  But plenty of times, although the pronunciation seems basically right, there's just something, well, off about it.  I can't quite describe it.  It's . . . flat, maybe?  Think Daniel Craig in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  I think my long-standing adoration of Daniel Craig is well-documented, and he's the whole reason I went to see that movie, but even I couldn't help but noticing that he definitely sounded flat.  Just somehow not natural, not right.
For the record, I do this to American actors affecting foreign accents as well, but I just sort of expect them to fail, so that version of the game doesn't keep me interested.  I don't play it with Meryl Streep, either, but that's because she's INFALLIBLE.

I will say that as far as British actors go, Marianne Jean-Baptiste does an excellent job, although I'm pretty sure I once heard her say "idear" instead of "idea," but I've heard a few Americans say that before. 

But, generally, it's the Australians who do the best job overall.  Just look at some of Ms. Jean-Baptiste's costars in "Without A Trace."  Poppy Montgomery?  I just had to argue with a coworker recently about whether she was an American or not.  And of course, Anthony LaPaglia, well, he's fantastic.  He does slip up now and again, but in a way that makes you think he might be suppressing a regional American accent.  My sister RR has said she'd even be willing to go to a political fundraiser--and she hates hates hates listening to political grandstanding--if she could sit next to LaPaglia and ask him to do different accents all night.  She's willing to take the restraining order that would undoubtedly follow.

And more recently, of course, there's Ryan Kwanten, who is in "True Blood" (not a show I'm fond of, even though that probably makes me uncool) and has a guest appearance in a recent episode of "New Girl."  He's very reliable in his American sounding-ness.  He even does a good southern accent (although I do think sometimes he sounds more Texan than Southern), something that even many American actors just can't do accurately.  Just compare his work to his costars Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer.  Their southern accents are often painful to listen to.

So, my observations have made me wonder what it is about Australians that make them so good at sounding American.  Is it that their accent is similar enough to an American one that it's an easy switch?  Or do they just have good genes for phonetics?  I don't know the answer, but whatever it is, it works.  I'm very impressed.  They live and thrive in a country that's basically a death trap, and they are really good a faking an accent, an under-appreciated skill.  Australians, I salute you.