Date: Tue, 2 Aug 1994 14:11:01 CDT


Subject: Re: Forrest Gump

David Johns said:

Could it be that getting an accent right is just too difficult to

expect an actor to be able to do?

I was thinking about this last week as I watched Martin Sheen make a

fool of himself trying to put on an old-fashioned, upper class

southern accent to play Robert E. Lee in _Gettysburg_. At first I was

just annoyed by the exaggeration of a few characteristics of the

target accent -- sharp falling tone contours on stressed syllables,

stressed auxiliaries (and no contractions), rising clause-final

intonations, etc. -- but then I started wondering about how Sheen

would actually learn to do it right. Wouldn't he have to have a native

speaker on hand to model every single line? And wouldn't that native

speaker have to be a pretty good actor himself in order to get the

phrasing right for the required context?

I think it's worth pointing out too that Hollywood butchers more than

just southern accents. In _Gettysburg_ Sheen's accent sparkled in

comparison to the pitiful attempts at Maine accents by "Joshua

Chamberlain" and his soldiers, ...

I agree that poorly done accents are irritating, but what's the

solution? Surely we can't restrict roles to actors who are native

speakers of the characters' accents -- can we?

Points well taken: okay, we can't expect every actor to achieve perfection in

portraying a role calling for an `accent', and it would certainly be a

sorry business trying to find an ethnically-authentic actor to fill every

single role cast. But, in my original remarks on this subject, I attempted

to treat this as part of a larger issue: the way the South is perceived and

stereotyped. I still see it as akin to the way Native Americans

and African Americans have been stereotyped and forced to either assume

persona that someone else devised or sit on the side-lines. There has been

some progress made for those groups, but the portrayal of white Southerners

is still lagging behind. I think it adds a lot to see Wes Studi and other

native Americans prominently featured in films (yes, I know he is not an

Apache and that the Apache lines he spoke in _Geronimo_ didn't sound right).

But Southerners must either continue to be media clowns or else do their

best to discard Southern roots to have a chance at a serious role. We can

all name a slew of African Americans and even a few Native Americans now who

are known for their contribution to serious theater. How many Southerners,

drawl 'n all, have been allowed to make their mark? The problem, of course,

goes beyond the media industry, because it is popular perception that wants

a drawl to be part of a funny persona. But as long as the media caters to

those perceptions, it will be a white Southern variation on the Amos 'n Andy

syndrome. Yes, I'm human and I've laughed at some Amos 'n Andy gags, and

likewise for Hee Haw and the Clampetts, etc., but there is also a dark side

to all of this that feeds on disrespect for color, creed and accent. Since

Southern roles are so prominent in the movie industry, as it turns out,

you'd think there would be at least a few serious actors allowed to wear

their Southern accent as a badge of authenticity and that this would be seen

as a positive contribution to many of the films that have been mentioned in

this exchange. Instead, we are served up imitation after imitation. A lot of

this may be completely lost on the rest of the nation, but in the South, the

subtext penetrates.

So, I will attempt once more to disengage myself from this exchange (which is,

of course, totally gauche on my part, since I started it), before I am falsely

perceived to be some kind of a crusader for a Southern presence in the movies.

I have very little respect for the way the movie industry operates and less

patience for the mediocrity that it usually generates and that the public

seems to lap up. Its disease is much greater than the specific problem that

we have been addressing here. It's only in the context of the social dynamics

that the problem of drawl-'n-all in the movies is of any real import. Yet even

the fact that there is so little will to overcome the purely technical problem

or getting accents more-or-less right while gazillions are spent on every

other technical aspect of the film ultimately comes back to this.

Incidentally, a perfectly parallel situation exists in France where it is the

accent of the "Midi" that is reserved for clowns and must be imitated by

`real' actors from elsewhere when a serious role is called for such as in

_Jean de Florette_ and _Manon des sources_.

Mike Picone

University of Alabama