Years ago in the film Love Actually, British Colin Frissell can’t find a girlfriend at home. So he journeys to the U.S. in search of one. To his surprise, he finds himself a hit with American women the moment he opens his mouth. It seems American women dig British accents. Of course, this was hilarious to me because I’ve been exposed to British accents since I can remember. (I blame PBS and my mother’s undying crush on Laurence Olivier). So this phenomenon didn’t really surprise me, although my crushes on British actors have been totally incidental. Naturally.
Flash forward to last week. A few of us were chatting about the latest Into the Storm trailer and analyzing what we could of Richard Armitage’s American accent. While I couldn’t separate his voice from the background noise, a few said they thought the accent pretty decent. Then I heard something to this effect:
“As soon as he spoke American, he lost part of his sex appeal.”
My mouth nearly fell open at the heresy before my inner anti-fangurl exclaimed “that’s right, he’s British!” One chatter recounted how one favorite actor’s sex appeal leached away the moment he spoke in an American accent (dreadfully). This brings me to another meandering thought: it that why Americans are so keen on foreign actors getting American accents right – is it because of the aural dissonance, or the resulting perception of declining sex appeal? They’re just not that hot without the Queen’s English? There’s no real reason why this should be except maybe prove the adage “everything is greener on the other side of the street,” or pond, as the case may be. I picture RA trying out a Chi-caw-go accent with me listening incredulously and wondering what I ever saw him. Would I beg him to “speak British” again? Could that possibly happen if I were wearing a blindfold?
I can’t decide how I feel about RA sprouting an American accent. I do know what if he fails to impress in the few scenes, I won’t be able to take him seriously the rest of the movie. It sets my teeth on edge to hear an accent done poorly. Truly, I’ve reacted the same way with other actors. But will I find him less sexy? I don’t know yet. Maybe the wet shirt will make up for that.
What do you think? Honesty will get you kudos. Total heresy will get you cookies.
[I want to preface this post by adding an addendum to the previous post regarding The King’s Speech. I don’t want anybody to come away with the thought that my problem was severe as his. What he did was truly heroic, as Colin Firth said in an interview. My issue flowed from partial deafness; garbled sounds equaled garbled speech. Once my parents and school therapists realized one caused the other, my speech impediment was basically controlled by age 11. My comments mainly concerned experiences as child and efforts not to lose ground as an adult. I don’t feel as badly plagued as he was, but can truly empathize and identify. So, there is nothing brave about me.]
Anyway, believe it or not, I’ve been ramping up to talk about my first exposure to fandom, except for maybe the bits about blizzards, dogs and computers. I actually drafted a partial post about an adult fandom experience but realized that if this was to be an introspective view, I needed to explain my thoughts. But everytime I questioned why I behaved a certain way, it led to earlier and earlier experiences requiring more peripheral explanations. So, I’m going to chuck it all and take things way back – before I was born.
When my mother was 16 years old she developed a fascination for a young British actor, named Laurence Olivier. When Wuthering Heights premiered in 1939, she made her boyfriend (my father) take her to see it so many times, he finally refused. Way before he became Sir Larry and Lord Olivier, she knew LO would be considered a great actor. In fact, she would shake her fist and exclaim, “I knew he would be great, before he was great!” I was small child when the film was broadcast on televison for the first time. While she squeed and exclaimed and sighed, my father would smirk, shake his head and walk out of the room. This was my first experience with a fangrrl. I looked forward to repeats just to see my proper mother behave so unseemingly, although my parents’ reactions signaled it was all silly and fun.
Later I paid more attention to the actors and thought they talked funny. Then I realized I could understand every word. Remember this was before anybody realized my hearing problem.Thus was born my love of British films. Because of the lilting tones and crisp diction, I could hear every syllable and consonant. When a speech therapist informed me I wasn’t talking like others’, I loosely patterned my speech after the Received Pronunciation type British accent in an effort to enunciate clearly. Pygmalion with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller was one of my favorite films. British actors became my personal speech therapists and Laurence Olivier headed the list, spurred on by my totally smitten mother. We watched Wuthering Heights every single time it was broadcast (along with anything else LO made). When finally after viewing Love Among the Ruinsfor the upteenth time I admitted, yes, LO was a great actor, she loudly cheered, “yes, he’s finally gotten to my daughter!” Her crush continued some 47 years until her death. Wow, that’s what I call a loyal fan.I wonder if her crush would have lasted as long in this internet age of information access. I suspect my mother would have preferred not knowing facts disclosed about LO in recent years. But in her time, the star system and satellite media panted rosey pictures of its actors and so, my mother managed to preserve the innocence of her fantasy. In a way, that’s kind of sweet.
Speaking of sweet, I thought this picture is just that:
Richard Armitage realizes he has fans while on Red Carpet at BAFTAs 2007
This weekend I finally saw The King’s Speech. It interested me for several reasons, the least of which is it’s an Oscar contender for Colin Firth as best actor and the film as best picture. It intrigued me that the premise was about King George VI’s severe stammering. (He nickname was Bertie in the movie). I wondered how it could be presented in both an entertaining and informative way, why dealing with a painful and uncomfortable subject. I was keen because I have a speech impediment too.
Mine isn’t stammering. Rather it is same as British actor Jeremy Brett’s, rhotacism, the difficulty in saying the letter “R.” I am hearing impaired (profound loss in one ear, mild-moderate in the other) caused by being given too much oxygen at birth (I was born premature). Since I couldn’t pronounce what I couldn’t hear, I had to be taught the location of sounds, like consonants at the end of words. Apparently if some sounds aren’t learned during early speech development, like the Western distinction between the letters “R” and “L” for the Japanese, the speaker has a very difficult time producing it. I learned to approximate the “R” sound through speech therapy as a child and home grown efforts as an adult. On good days, my speech sounds like an accent nobody can place. On bad days, my diction is mushy at best. Sometimes I’m just too mentally tired to enunciate clearly. Only rarely do I stammer but that occurs under great stress. However, no matter what day I’m having, speech is a conscious constant effort because I’m always aware it’s my primary visible means of communicating with other human beings and of how I’m perceived.
So I felt personally connected to Bertie’s plight. He was a public figure, born to be a ceremonial figurehead and boster the morale of his people, but speaking was the bane of his existence. Plus he had to endure the discomfort and embarrassment around him as he struggled to express the simplest thoughts. He was locked into a vicious circle of fear of others’ expectations, anxiety over his notion of duty, and reactions of listeners. However, Bertie was so determined to fulfill his duty that he was able to overcome his impediment with the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue played brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush. His stammering was never cured; he learned to compensate so that it wasn’t so apparent. Although the story took place in rarefied circles with people we commoners can never really understand, at heart it was a simple story of a man trying to overcome his personal demons, albeit on the public stage. I certainly could empathize and came away with the thought that no matter how history treats George VI, his effort in this regard was truly commendable.
Colin Firth did an exemplary job as Bertie. I can imagine how challenging it was for an actor with no speech impairment to portray a historical figure with such a severe one in an accurate and believable manner. Just as it’s difficult to enunciate proper in this context, it’s equally a linguistic effort to do the reverse. I was acutely aware of how much work Firth put into that role. I would love to ask him in an interview what techniques he used to accomplish his task. (Also, he had to use the royal accent with vowels so rounded and syllables so strangled, that it’s dialect of it’s own.)I listened to the real speech, which was also depicted at the end of the film. King George sounded as if he were employing mere pauses for dramatic effect. The movie showed the physical and mental gymastics used during those pregnant pauses. I’m sure that other people like me with speech impediments nodded along with each line, knowing our own exercises and things we do to compensate every time we open our mouths.
I’m pleased the film highlighted the difficulties of people with speech impairments. When I was a child, many tended to associate hearing/language problems with low IQ which doesn’t necessarily correlate at all. A counselor actually told my mother I should transfer to a “special school.” Until I learned to compensate, I was often treated impatiently and retreated into silence as a result. I hope that those who rooted for the Bertie at the end of the film remember that feeling when they encounter people with language difficulties, especially children. Don’t be uncomfortable or wonder where are we from, just wait and listen.By the way, after the movie I suddenly remembered a stumbling block I encounter when I listen too long to another with a speech impediment: it becomes infectious. Because proper enunciation isn’t hard wired for me but consists mostly of smoke and mirrors, my tricks slip away. This dawned on me when trying to talk about – wait for it – Richard Armitage. Bizarrely I could say his first name but could barely get out the surname, when normally I had the opposite problem. Then I noticed I dropped syllables and slurred whole words. Jeremy Brett once said he had to practice elocution daily. Very true, my man, very true.
So I shall restart my exercises by repeating “Richard Armitage.” That’s not too bad actually. And as a treat for getting this far, Dear Reader, here’s more shiney:
Guy finally gives a damn; Robin Hood S3.9; RichardArmitagenet.com