A Southerner’s Movie Guide, Part XIV

19.  Our Speech

The experts will tell you that there is more than one Southern accent.  This is true, but they all gather together as a marker of Southern that has been widely recognised for a long time—like barbecue.   For Hollywood a Southern accent usually is outre’, a sign of ignorance or villainy as discussed in preceding chapters. On the other hand, historically prominent Southerners (Washington, Jefferson, etc.) and other Southern characters viewed favourably always talk in the movies like they are from Chicago–they are honourary Yankees.  Only bad or inferior people talk Southern.  

Years ago I saw a docudrama about the James Monroe administration.  All of the characters except John Quincy Adams were Southern:  Monroe, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun.  But the only one who had a Southern accent was the bad apple: Calhoun. This is the kind of thing that Northerners assume without even thinking about it. 

Hollywood is playing to long-standing Yankee prejudice.  Noah Webster with his Connecticut dictionary and generations of Yankee schoolmarms have established “proper” American speech as a sign of respectability, of social superiority over the masses. The result of this Puritan conformity and social ambition is to make standard “American” English the most boring and uncreative form that exists of the marvelous English language.  Southern English, alas diminishing every day, is a natural, living cultural expression, charming and creative.  Foreigners, without Yankee prejudice, tend to recognize this.

Hollywood and the American public would be shocked to learn that early settlers of Virginia talked like Southerners, as did Southern English people in the Shakespearean era.  The Oxford English now supposedly characteristic of the English is a much later development.  See Cleanth Brooks, The Language of the American South.

Yet, now and then, actors of knowledge and of professional dedication to authenticity do make an honest effort.  Interestingly, it is Brits and Australians who are the best at this.  They are more professional and more observant of reality than Hollywood celebrity types and do not suffer from an artificial assumption of Southern inferiority.  This might relate to the fact that Brits, and Southerners alone among Americans, are native English speakers from way back. 

The best I have seen is in the crime drama (T) Judas Kiss (hard to find and not to be confused with a sodomite film with the same title).  Brits Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman do a beautiful job of sounding naturally like New Orleans detectives.  Aussie Jack Thompson is on target in (X) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, an otherwise objectionable film.   Aussie Russell Crowe in (T) A Beautiful Mind shows a brilliant man can have a Southern accent.  He also does it well in (T) A Body of Lies.    Swiss-born Jim Caviezel plays a good Southerner with a perfect accent in (T) The Thin Red Line (1978 version). 

Matt Damon does good with our speech in **All the Pretty Horses as does the Scot Ewan McGregor in (T) Jane Got a Gun–as the villain, although there is no reason for the villain in this case to talk Southern.  Another recent success is William Dafoe as the Louisiana cop and Matt Dillon as the criminal in (T) Bad Country.   Vincent D’Onofrio is very professional as a good guy in **The Whole Wide World and the bad guy in (X) Fire with Fire.

Sometimes a good job is aimed at but hard to sustain through a whole film and the accent becomes intermittent.  This is true with Henry Fonda, playing the Texan Admiral Nimitz in (T) Midway and (T) In Harm’s Way.   (The new version of Midway does away completely with the Southern accent. It is certainly deceitful to eliminate Southerners from the heroic pilots.)    Also true of Charlton Heston in **Three Violent People and Stacy Keach in (T) James A. Michener’s Texas.  In (T) Fort Dobbs Virginia Mayo struggles to talk with a Southern accent about half the time as do Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin in (T)Cat Ballou.

Some Northerners like John Wayne (some of the time)  and Walter Brennan, who did a lot of Southern characters,  and  Southerners like Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, speak in an authentic pre-Webster  American speech, which merges Southern and Western into a believable  natural character.  Certainly, Wayne and Brennan were justified in persisting in using their distinctive, immediately recognisable characteristic American speech on all occasions.

The moguls of Hollywood are ignorant of everything that is authentically American, but unwittingly they have made the signature Western speech Southwestern.  Often the characters in Westerns, even the good guys, talk like Southerners whether they are or not.  In the movie **Riders of the Purple Sage, Ed Harris, New Jersey born, gives the Western hero a definite Southern accent although the story is apparently set in Utah.  The same is true of the Australian star and other actors in the TV series (T) Longmire about a Wyoming sheriff.  Owen Wister would be pleased.

Alas, in many recent movies, even if not objectionable in content, the Southern females talk like Valley girls (as do most American women in the films these days).   Hollywood does not understand that the voice of a cultivated Southern woman is the most beautiful sound on earth.  Or perhaps they do know this and want to destroy it out of resentment.

A curiosity:  a recent French World War II film called Frozen Front.   In the English dubbed version, many of both the American and the French soldiers have Southern accents.

Why, in the recent (X) Factory, does a serial killer from Buffalo, New York, have a Southern accent?  Come to think of it, why do murderers and vicious gang leaders alwayshave Southern accents in movies and television?  When they make movies about Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and Ted Bundy will they have Southern accents?  When they make a biopic glorifying Bill Clinton will he have his natural Southern accent?

20.  Hollywood Does Bush the Lesser

I forced myself to watch Oliver Stone’s takedown of George W. Bush called (X) “W”.   I have a morbid curiosity about cataloging trends among the fashionable pseudo-intelligentsia.  The film, like previous productions of the same auteur, is doubtlessly providing multiple thrills for the type in Europe and America.

I hold no brief for Bush Minor, a morally and intellectually defective man who has done irreparable damage to our country.  If anything, the film, while exposing his defects clearly, is actually too sympathetic.  Bush is portrayed as an almost tragic figure.  But his career is not tragedy–it is a nasty farce.  Tragedy requires a fall from on high.  One gets the impression, no doubt intended, that George W. was inevitably doomed by being a Texan, a Christian, and from an ambitious family.  This impression is re-enforced by the background country music.  But, of course, Bush is no Texan and a man who calls Islam a religion of peace does not have much standing as a Christian.  The Bushes are museum quality specimens of Connecticut’s contribution to America.

There are natural limitations to docudrama, essentially a form of fraud which makes up acts and words from imagination and applies them, with a pre-conceived agenda, to actual events.  The purpose is usually propaganda rather than history.  Of course, some of our most celebrated historians these days do the same thing.   Josh Brolin gives a good try at being W.  but it does not work.  He is more masculine than Bush and he lacks that slight hint of squeeze-faced New England ninniness that dominates Bush’s face.  (What, me worry?)  Brolin’s screen accent is more Southern than Bush’s, doubtless to make the point about the evil of being from Texas.

The portrayals of Cheney and Rumsfeld don’t convince me–neither Richard Dreyfus nor Scott Glenn show enough arrogance and force.  Colin Powell, as played by Jeffrey Wright, is not very convincing in addition to being portrayed as more noble and independent-minded than the real thing.  Barbara Bush is played by Ellen Burstyn as feisty, but she misses the supercilious, arrogant Yankee flavor of Babs’ demeanour. Thandi Newton, however, does a great job of presenting the insipidness of Condi Rice.  I am undecided about James Cromwell’s portrayal of Bush Major–perhaps because one has less feel for his private persona than the others.

My favourite moment is when candidate Bush avows that he will read the whole Constitution and even learn parts of it if necessary.  Reminded me of freshman history students who have never read the Constitution and make no intellectual connection with it if they do.

There are some things that one won’t get from this highly doctored account of history.  For instance, some words never appear in the two hours:  Douglas Feith, Office of  Special  Plans, and Project for the New American Century.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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