' ' Cinema Romantico: Accents ’n Stuff

Monday, January 31, 2022

Accents ’n Stuff

Back in 2006, the Paleozoic Era of this blog, meaning no link will be forthcoming, I wrote a review of “Mission: Impossible III.” In it, I briefly reference the scene where Tom Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt employs a bad Italian accent after breaking into Vatican City. At least, that was the exact adjective I used to describe his attempt at speaking Italian: bad. This description piqued the curiosity of Friend of the Blog Rory. He wondered if Tom Cruise’s Italian accent really was bad. So, he found a few clips of Tom trying out Italian and played them for an Italian woman in his department at Duke University. Her analysis: that even though you could tell he was clearly not Italian by contrast with an Italian native speaker in the scene where he passes a priest, she was nevertheless impressed by his pronunciation. I had been owned. 

It was a formative experience for me. Deeming Cruise’s Italian accent bad was merely a reflexive tic, I realized. Who am I, American Midwesterner, to judge anyone’s Italian accent. “Like I really know what I’m talking about,” George Costanza once said to Cheryl Fong upon ostensibly approving the taste of a just opened bottle of wine. I took that experience to heart and now refrain from judging an American actor’s foreign accent as good or bad. I’m really only qualified to judge central Iowan accents anyway. If I enjoy an accent, like I did Amy Ryan’s in “Gone Baby Gone”, I’ll say it. And if I admire an actor for attempting an accent, like I did Canadian Kevin McGarry in Hallmark’s “The Wedding Veil” because NO ONE attempts accents in those movies, I’ll say it too. Are they good accents? I haven’t the foggiest. 

That came back to me just recently when I noticed the above tweet by film and culture freelancer Patrick Gamble. After all, there have been innumerable reflexive dismissals of the Italian accent Jared Leto sports as tragic Paolo Gucci in “House of Gucci.” Peruse the social media channels or the Letterboxd reviews and you will find all sorts of would-be witty knee-jerk disparagements of the way Leto is speaking. Ask an Italian, though, and hey, you might find a whole different appraisal. Indeed, Gamble’s significant other essentially mirrors the assessment of the professional Italian dialect coach Garrett Strommen whom Heather Schwedel asked about the various “House of Gucci” accents for Slate. And while Strommen did confess that Leto had a tendency to overdo the voice by adding extra syllables, he also explained Leto did much right, especially hitting his consonants, even going so far as to wonder at one point if Leto was Italian because he did not initially recognize him in all that makeup. 

The first comment on Gamble’s Tweet, from Jessica Kiang, concurs, saying “He’s quite convincing as an Italian, less so as a human being.” Though she qualifies the latter in a parenthetical by saying “In a good way!” And this, of course, in the end, is all that matters. Madeleine Stowe’s English accent in “Last of the Mohicans” kinda came and went and so what? You’re gonna sit there and tell me she didn’t breathe fire? I am out of  my jurisdiction in judging Leo’s accent in “Blood Diamond” but damn if I didn’t love his zealous commitment to the part. And what of Claude Rains in “Casablanca” playing a Captain in the Third Reich in his native English timbre? It ain’t the accent; it’s the performance. 

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