Meryl Streep may be the acknowledged Queen of Accents, but even she could come in for criticism when she starts mouthing off as former three-term British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, a biopic opening December 16. Any filmgoer with fingers nimble enough to Google past video clips featuring the real Mrs. Thatcher will be able to check on the audio fidelity of Streep’s accent.
American actresses have periodically come under fire for attempting to cross the Atlantic vocally on screen. Anne Hathaway has already said that she’s bracing for possible flak over her try at a Yorkshire accent when One Day, the movie version of David Nicholls‘s bestselling romantic novel, opens on Friday (August 19).
It’s a road Hathaway has traveled before. She was the target of similar potshots when she donned an English accent along with 19th century frocks to play Jane Austen in Becoming Jane (2007), though film critic Peter Bradshaw declared in The Guardian at the time that her “accent is more or less in position”.
Two U.S.-born actresses who have generally received excellent notices for nailing their English accents in recent years, despite initial grumbling when they won coveted roles as Brits, are Renée Zellweger and Gwyneth Paltrow. The Texas-born Zellweger dropped her drawl for Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and its 2004 sequel, as well as Miss Potter (2006), while Paltrow went English in Emma (1996), Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Sliding Doors (1998). Interestingly, both women worked with the same dialect coach, the London-based Barbara Berkery.
What’s not acceptable is the neither-here-nor-there affectation known as the mid-Atlantic accent, which Madonna hauled out when she starred as an American in the turkey The Next Best Thing (2000). The movie was made after Madge had become romantically involved with British director Guy Ritchie and was spending much of her time on the other side of the Big Pond.
The diss in the accent game can cut both ways. When English actress Vivien Leigh was cast as über-Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, that most iconic of American roles, in Gone with the Wind (1939), a collective howl of affront went up in the American press. (No one seemed as insulted that another Brit, Leslie Howard, had been cast as Ashley Wilkes, GWTW’s southern aristocratic weakling.)
While Leigh managed to offer a fairly convincing Southern drawl in the Margaret Mitchell classic, many golden age British actresses barely bothered trying to sound American, even when playing Yanks. Think Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, and Jean Simmons.
More recently, an English accent has in no way hampered the rise in Hollywood of Brits Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz, Thandie Newton and Rebecca Hall (though Hall is half-American, thanks to her mom, opera diva Maria Ewing). Ditto for Australians Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett (who won an Oscar for playing Katherine Hepburn, the ultimate New Englander, in 2004’s The Aviator) and Anglo-Aussie Naomi Watts.
All of them have repeatedly demonstrated praiseworthy American accents on screen — although, no matter how flat their vowels, if you listen hard, at some point a trace of their native accent slips in.
Which American actress do you think has the best English accent?