Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Presumably, film has an advantage over literature and theater in that it doesn't require translation. Since a film exists mostly in images that are accessible to anyone with eyes, it's logical to assume that a film made in Timbuktu needn't be altered in order to be understood and enjoyed anywhere in the world. Such an assumption, however, is obviously illogical in the United States. Films from abroad have rarely fared well in the U.S. To make them at least approachable to Americans, distributors have resorted to applying subtitles to the films or to dubbing them with English-speaking voices.

I recall watching a television interview with native South African actress Charlize Theron not long ago and I was struck by her perfectly inflected American accent, despite her admission that she had chosen to abandon her native Afrikaner accent in order to find work in Hollywood. She spoke about her problems in casting calls, despite her striking good looks, because of her poor English and her thick accent. What the interviewer didn't pursue was why Theron, who was ostensibly being herself in the interview, wasn't relaxed enough to revert to her natural manner of speaking. She spoke a little Africaner, and pronounced her name the way it's pronounced by South Africans. but she spent the entirety of the rest of the interview speaking in a generic American accent.

In an increasing number of movies lately, Aussies and Brits and Irish and even non-English speakers - particularly Germans - are passing themselves off as Americans. Their presence in America films corresponds, of course, to their absence in Australian or British or German films. While I am not advocating race or gender-specific casting in theater or film, I find this trend objectionable for many reasons.

Never mind the prodigious number of foreign filmmakers who answered Hollywood's call. None of them had to pass themselves off as Americans - even if a few of them have tried to pass themselves off as something else that they weren't. Inside every foreign filmmaker, I'm sorry to say, there's a Cecil B. Schlemiel trying to get out. 

I won't claim that only American actors have the right or the ability to convincingly play Americans.* And I am entirely sympathetic to foreign actors' problems in being cast in leading roles in American productions. In the 1950s and '60s, numerous actors in Europe worked in other countries. French and Italian co-productions frequently cast French actors Alain Delon or Annie Girardot or Jean-Louis Trintignant, while also casting Spanish actors like Francisco Rabal or German actors like Hardy Kruger alongside Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, or Vittorio Gassman.

Previously, in Hollywood films, a foreign accent (unless it was British) almost guaranteed being cast as the villain. Some actors chose to give up their accents and others refused to do so. David Niven never altered his speech in any of his films. Neither has Michael Caine. For some foreign-accented actors with enough talent, it didn't seem to matter. But many others were doomed to type-casting.

A new generation of actors, however, is apparently determined to avoid being limited in their choice of roles by acquiring American speech that is scrupulously devoid of any foreign accent whatever. This doesn't pose a problem in most films, simply because the majority of movie roles aren't meant to be taken seriously in the first place. Who cares what accent Hugh Jackman uses when he plays Wolverine? (Shouldn't Thor have a Swedish - rather than a British - accent?) But what if a role requires an actor to have a regional American accent? When I saw Cold Mountain, for example, I was bemused by the presence of British and Australian actors on the screen in what was supposed to be the American South (but what was really Romania). Renee Zellweger, as one of the few Americans in the film, won an Oscar for her supporting performance, showing, I suppose, that blood is thicker than water. 

Lately, there have even been roles of historical African-Americans, like Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave and Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, that have been given to the British actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo. These aren't just roles for actors of African descent to play, since history, especially in the case of King, is familiar to everyone. The performances of Ejiofor and Oyelowo have been acclaimed by virtually everyone. So my disappointment that African-American actors, descended from slaves, couldn't be found to play both roles is partially placated. And in the two previous films in which I noticed Oyelowo (The Help and Jack Reacher), I wasn't aware that he was British. But because he was playing a supporting role in those films, it didn't matter. 

African-American playwright August Wilson famously engaged theater director and critic Robert Brustein in a debate over the casting of actors in roles that differ from their ethnicity. Wilson insisted that only black actors should be cast in black roles, Asian actors in Asian roles, Hispanic actors in Hispanic roles, etc., not simply because ignoring it violates the playwright's or screenwriter's intentions but because only a black actor could possibly comprehend the psychology and motivations of a black character. 

I wonder what Wilson thinks about the casting of Afro-British actors, whose parents neither witnessed nor took part in the Civil Rights movement, as African-Americans. 

* After John Wayne was cast as Genghis Khan, Omar Sharif was cast as Doctor Zhivago, and Alec Guiness was cast as Prince Feisal (to pick only a few of the more laughable examples), such an argument gets a little silly.      

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