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Acting in the Thick of Accents

Movies* The big names of yesteryear kept their American pronunciation along with their personas. Not so in today's world.

July 23, 2002|ANNE VALDESPINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An imposing figure in a long, black military coat studded with brass buttons appears on deck. His men salute, addressing him as "comrade captain." He barks orders in a stern Russian accent that sweeps viewers back to the Cold War era.

Who is that tough Red navy officer with the stiff, bureaucratic air and the voice as frosty as a Siberian winter? It's Harrison Ford, that quintessentially American star who with his latest role as a Russian submarine commander in "K-19: The Widowmaker" hopes to surprise fans with a previously undiscovered talent--his ability to flesh out his character with a foreign accent.

It's a risky move for a marquee name with an established career, says David Alan Stern, a former Hollywood dialect coach, now professor of dramatic arts at the University of Connecticut. "If your career and your public persona is based on a very strong identity, certain elements of which never change, basically you're perceived as a personality more than you're perceived as an actor. It's always a huge risk if the public is going to accept you, regardless of whether it's performed well."

Almost every review of the film, which opened last weekend to a disappointing fourth-place finish at the box office ($13.1 million), made note of Ford's accent, some in a mocking manner: Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote that "[Ford] speaks with an accent so slight it's like the speech equivalent of a fake mustache." Desson Howe of the Washington Post wrote, "His Russian accent works at the beginning of his sentences, then the American brogue creeps back in."

Critics and audiences expect far more from American actors than they once did. Decades ago, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne and other top actors kept their heroic personas, no matter the role. "It would have been surprising and a risk if they had played a British lord or a Southern sharecropper," Stern said.

It was beyond surprising when Clark Gable donned a dubious Irish accent for "Parnell" (1937) and stunning when Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for playing Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman with a not-so-authentic accent in "Captains Courageous" (1937).

But today's movie stars must leap into all kinds of parts requiring accents. In general, American actresses such as Meryl Streep and Gwyneth Paltrow have had more success than their male counterparts. Consider: Brad Pitt's severe Austrian accent in "Seven Years in Tibet" (mein Gott!), Nicolas Cage's over-the-top Italian in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" (mamma mia!) and Kevin Costner's British accent in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (crikey!)--a performance described as "More Sherman Oaks than Sherwood Forest" by one critic.

Accents spin actors out onto thin ice, but when rendered articulately they can be critical to the story line and add as much atmosphere as location shoots and special effects. For "K-19," the producer, star and dialect coach agreed that Russian accents were necessary because of the film's global casting.

"I felt it was the best decision," said dialect coach Howard Samuelsohn. "We had British and Canadian and Icelandic actors and a couple of real Russians, and Liam Neeson's Irish and Harrison is all-American. Kathryn [Bigelow, the director-producer] thought they should all sound like they're from the same world." (As opposed to those old World War II movies in which the Yanks sounded like themselves and the Nazis sounded like Prince Charles' polo team. Or as in last year's "Enemy at the Gates," another military tale in which some of the Russian and German officers had accents but the Red army heroes spoke like Brits--Joseph Fiennes sounded like he went to Oxford; Jude Law sounded like he went to a few pubs.)

Another reason for the accent in "K-19" was that Ford felt it would help him play the character, Samuelsohn said.

"I said, 'Do a little of what your idea of a Russian accent is,' and I heard him and thought, 'He can do this.' And he said 'It's my grandmother.' So I felt confident all the way through."

Samuelsohn and Bigelow agreed that the Russian accents should sound as natural as possible. There would be no rolled Rs and no confusion of Vs with Ws. (No Ensign Chekov from "Star Trek.")

"I used Harrison as kind of the center of the wheel," Samuelsohn said. "He was the guy that I wanted everyone to sound like whether they were from Britain or Scotland, and if I couldn't get them to be as Russian as I would have liked, I would err on the side of them sounding more American, like Harrison."

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