You might call it a pet peeve. But if this were a Hollywood movie set in the South, you'd have to call it a "pay-ut pay-uve." If you've ever actually heard a southern accent, then you know that the twisted vowels and sing-song delivery so prevalent in movies set below the Mason-Dixon line make it hard to keep up with the action. Not to worry. Since they're Hollywood films, losing track of the plot isn't a problem. Too many films about the South deal with two events: the Civil War (those magnificent hoop skirts! That bad slavery!) or the Black Civil Rights movement (those marvelous hairdos! Those nasty firehoses!)
Two upcoming releases may have you cringing along with me at the dropped r's that come straight out of some dialect coach's One-Size-Fits-All Southern Accent Toolkit. Those films are Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain and Tim Burton's Big Fish, based on novels by Triangle writers Charles Frazier and Daniel Wallace.
My sensitivity to accents might be explained by the fact that I grew up in Ohio, the so-called land without accent. Maybe it was the broken English of my Italian grandparents, or the fact that I learned to talk during a brief stint in Kentucky. My accent sent my New York-born and bred parents across the river to Ohio the first chance they got.
For whatever reason, I can hear the way Ohioans like me say "owe" for "o." That's called o-fronting, according to Erik Thomas, a linguistics professor at NCSU. And I can sure as hell tell the difference between the vocal stylings of Billy Bob Thornton in the much-caricatured Sling Blade and Danny DeVito's mush-mouthed drawl in Big Fish. Remember how Holly Hunter--who's from Georgia--perfected a Scottish brogue for The Piano? (Granted, she didn't have to say much.) But why can't Ewan McGregor, who stars as an Alabama storyteller, do the same in Big Fish? (You may remember that MacGregor is a Scot whose breakthrough film, Trainspotting, made Scottish accents cool for the post-Sean Connery generation.) Even The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, no Son of the Confederacy, dissed McGregor for his hammy accent.
As for Cold Mountain, there's Renee Zellweger, who hails from Texas and does an acceptably twangy turn as a tough cookie cowgirl. The only problem is the film is set in North Carolina (in..., um..., Cold Mountain--a real place that the filmmakers could have found on a map if they'd looked). Hey, the graduate student linguists at training at N.C. State tell me there are at least five dialects in North Carolina alone (and that's only counting the white people).
There must be some good reasons for these linguistic lapses. Perhaps it happens because the casts of these films are international. In Cold Mountain, there's Nicole Kidman, from Australia, Jude Law, who's English, and Brendan Gleeson, an Irish actor. Of the three, only Law convinces, with his lean performance and understated accent. In Big Fish, McGregor plays Edward Bloom as a young man, and then turns the character over to English bon vivant and inveterate blatherer Albert Finney. It's ironic that the one actor in the film who might have a claim to a decent southern accent--Billy Crudup, who attended UNC-CH--doesn't have an accent at all. I must have missed the part where his character grew up in Ohio.
But isn't perfecting an accent part of the job? What Jon Lovitz used to say with such flourish on SNL: "Acting!"? Actors seem to have plenty of assistants to provide manicures and massages while they hang around in their trailers on the set. Perhaps they should devote some of that time to working with their dialect coaches. (I suspect some of them think they're soaking up the southern lifestyle by being in a trailer all day.) I noticed that each of these films listed just one dialect coach, so maybe that's the problem. DCs have been downsized like the rest of us. Too many mouths to teach.
We all know the real reason why we are inundated with these laughable attempts at southern speech. There's no payoff in linguistic accuracy (or any other kind of accuracy for that matter) when the world prefers stereotypes of the South. One canny linguistics graduate student pointed out that Julia Roberts comes from Georgia, but her exaggerated accent in Steel Magnolias was a side-splitter. Stereotypical features like r-lessness, "ah" for "I," and breaking (where one-syllable morphs into two) rule the day. What's worse (for those of us who aren't linguists), satisfying viewer expectations regarding southern stories follows the same pattern.
The bright spot in all this is finding I'm not the only film enthusiast with this problem. Everyone I spoke to about this issue, whether southern-born or a transplant, knew exactly what I meant. Barbara Kingsbury, Madstone Theater publicist and woman-about-town, thought Ewan McGregor was aiming for a Shelby Foote-style drone, but missed the mark. Her friend Jack Cornell wanted to cast Bernie Reeves, Mr. Spectator, as the Finney character. Maybe we can start a lobbying group, and invite some linguists to join up. But things probably won't change until people who know and care about the South start writing and directing more films and demanding more out of their actors and dialect coaches. Until then, expect to be disappointed by versions of the South on screen that you can't recognize, right down to the words coming ay-yut of the character's mouths.