To put on an accent is to invite criticism. We all remember those performances in which an actor has taken a flying leap at mimicking a linguistic form that is not their own and either nailed it, or sailed so far off the side of the balance beam they’ve landed on a broken ankle. In the former camp, in my books: Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker (it’s like she was born in Australia!) and Ben Schnetzer in Pride (he’s not from Northern Ireland?!). In the latter camp, well, you should hear my “Anthony Newley’s ‘Oirish’ accent in Doctor Dolittle” impression.
That’s why when Wired teamed up with the dialect coach Eric Singer for Technique Critique, a 2016 video essay in which Singer assessed the performances of 32 actors doing accents, it was like Christmas for me.
Singer, a curt but engaging expert, walks us through what makes certain performances either soar or sink: Kate Winslet’s open and theatrical “oral posture” (how much she opens her jaw while speaking) means her Polish accent in Jobs doesn’t quite get there; Jake Gyllenhaal “nails” his Wyoming accent in Brokeback Mountain by pushing the vowel sounds back in his mouth.
As an autistic person, so much of my life has been built around masking – in essence, seeming “normal” – by copying turns of phrase, pronunciations and idiolects from popular screen media, so Singer’s accidental how-to guide delighted a part of me I’ve only recently begun to understand. I also love to find out how things work, occasionally by taking them apart and tinkering with them, so discovering the linguistic moving parts of accents and speech has really hit all my special interests at once.
The video essay was such a hit that Singer returned for many more – including ones taking in actors playing real-life characters, and “conlangs”, the fictional languages spoken in fantasy and science fiction works – and jazzed millions of viewers about linguistic notions like the uvular africates in Klingon or the Ugandan vowel sounds Forest Whitaker used to embody Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland.
Indeed, so popular were Singer’s critiques that the series has now expanded to involve dozens of other experts, from the crime scene analyst and investigator Matthew Steiner examining the forensics in crime scenes from movies and TV shows, to the former CIA chief of disguise Jonna Mendez waxing lyrical about Megan Fox’s quick-change in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and offering the immortal aside “here you have Ben Affleck playing my husband” about Tony Mendez in Argo. And, as a 37-year-old non-driver who still harbours fantasies of becoming a late-blooming stunt person, the US rally champ Wyatt Knox’s breakdown of hair-raising driving scenes was a must see.
There’s nothing we as human beings like more, to our secret shame, than squashing down our stifled dreams and existential terror by pretending we’re experts in, say, how to give the impression you were born somewhere you weren’t. “Well, I definitely would have done it differently,” we scoff. For those of us who once went to drama school or harboured Oscar-winning fantasies in the shower, it’s our equivalent of the “she’s got no bodyflight” moment from Strictly Ballroom: au contraire, fate, we are the experts here! A “new video” notification from the channel is always a cue to glue myself to the laptop, and I hope that Wired continues to diversify not just the topics but the chosen experts, too (so far, the lineup has been very white).
But what’s fascinating about Technique Critique is how often our strongly held dinner party opinions are obliterated by the actual experts: that accent you thought was hokey is actually a spot-on masterpiece of regional oral posture; the hacking scene that seemed like something out of an airport potboiler is actually true to life.
We live in an age of increased access to false information where all voices are encouraged to “join the conversation”; as the writer and former Man Booker prize judge Rick Gekoski put it some years ago, “the notion that some opinions are better than others – fairer, deeper and more cogent – seems to be slipping from our grasp”. There’s something so reassuring – essential, maybe even thrilling – about expert opinions being given the spotlight in the manner they are in Technique Critique. And, but, despite this, I will die on this hill: Anthony Newley’s Irish accent in Doctor Dolittle is worse than Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney one in Mary Poppins. Thank you and goodnight.