There's nothing like a bad accent to ruin a movie

July 02, 1994|By Frank Bruni | Frank Bruni,Knight-Ridder News Service

In "Blown Away," Tommy Lee Jones tries his tongue at an Irish brogue, and sounds to these ears like the genuine article.

Co-star Jeff Bridges seems to be going for a Boston inflection, and comes up short.

Alas, Mr. Bridges' is the more common fate.

Actors love accents, which seem a simple way to evoke a drastic transformation of persona, the kind Oscar loves.

Why do you think Meryl Streep gets nominated every time she blows her nose? Because she never blows it in the same accent twice.

But accents don't love actors back, and the cost of these failures to the movies is steep.

"A bad accent," essayist Joe Queenan once observed, "is the cinematic equivalent of a festering Limburger cheese planted on a sumptuous dinner table, making it pointless for the gourmand to try thinking about anything other than that peculiar odor."

Here, then, is a collection of such odors, their pungency measured in relation to one of the worst accents in recent film memory: Melanie Griffith's labored, intermittent Southern drawl FTC in "Bonfire of the Vanities."

One Griffith equals a conventionally foul accent. Four Griffiths equals an especially smelly one.

* Kevin Costner, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." In one scene, he sounds American; in the next, British. The movie is not about multiple personality disorder. Three Griffiths.

* Demi Moore, "Mortal Thoughts." She's tryin' ta get dat New Yawk-uh thing goin'. She's tryin' real hard. She's failin' real miserable-like. Two Griffiths.

* Nick Nolte, "Lorenzo's Oil." Supposedly Italian, he sounds like he's in a "Saturday Night Live" send-up of a Ragu spaghetti sauce commercial. Four Griffiths.

* Debra Winger, "Shadowlands." She starts with a Brooklyn-esque accent, misplaces it, finds it, then gives it to the Salvation Army. Gets Oscar nomination. Two Griffiths.

* Sean Connery, "The Hunt for Red October." It's obvious why he's defecting from the Soviet Union: He can no longer stand having to talk like this. One Griffith.

* Holly Hunter, "Once Around." A Southern actress plays a Boston woman raised in an Italian brood. You calculate the chances of success. Two Griffiths.

* Barbara Hershey, "Shy People." Toothless in the swamps of Louisiana, she cooks up a spicy Cajun cant. She should stick to Lean Cuisines. Two Griffiths.

* Keanu Reeves, "Dracula," "Much Ado About Nothing." Not content to mangle a British accent once, he attempts it twice. Three Griffiths.

* Olympia Dukakis, "Steel Magnolias." The only thing more nauseating than her overwrought Southern accent is her smug look as she intones it. Four Griffiths.

* Al Pacino, "Scarface." He renders his Cuban accent so emphatically you can practically see the spittle coming off the screen. Two Griffiths.

* Diane Keaton, "Crimes of the Heart." Sounds nothing like a Southern woman, not even one who dresses like Annie Hall and prattles on about a shrunken ovary. Three Griffiths.

* Matthew Broderick, "Glory." Is he from Boston? The South? Katmandu? This isn't his regular speaking voice, but then it isn't anyone's regular speaking voice. One Griffith.

* John Travolta, "Urban Cowboy." His Stetson is clearly squeezing the part of the brain that governs vocalization. Texas never sounded this dorky. Three Griffiths.

* Sean Penn, "Casualties of War." An accent of undetermined origin that's absolutely mesmerizing in its enormity and intensity. So awful it's almost heroic. Four Griffiths.

* Tom Cruise, "Far and Away." The top gunner jets over to Ireland and sets his sights on a proper brogue but never quite locks in his target. One Griffith.

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