Friday, August 8, 2008

Hush ... Hush, Y'all

I've been on a bit of a Bette Davis kick recently, which I'll start to worry about only after I buy several wigs and Judy Garland records. For years, my Comic Book Guy impression has been aided in part by the sneering line, "Now I know whatever happened to Baby Jane," and a few months ago I realized that I had absolutely no idea what had happened to Baby Jane. I found out, though. She became a crazy drunk.

I'd always sort of liked Bette Davis as a kid, for no real reason I can determine. I know the horrendous pop song had nothing to do with it, because that was one element of eighties schlock I managed to avoid, leading to an exchange in college that went something like:
Me: I've always sort of liked Bette Davis.
Someone Else: Is it because of her... Bette Davis eyes?
Me: No.
Someone Else: Oh.
Me: Why would it be that?
Someone Else: What?
Me: Why would it be because of her Bette Davis eyes? I mean, who else's eyes would she have?
Someone Else: It's—
Me: I dunno, are you suggesting that Bette Davis has surplus eyes that aren't hers, enough that someone would need to try to signify which ones were hers and which ones were someone else's? Like, maybe she just goes harvesting eyes and keeps them in a bag?
Someone Else: No, it's a song.
Me: Why would I know that?
Someone Else: It was a hit in the eighties. You know, (singing) "something, something, got, Bette Daaaaaavis eyyyyyyyes..."
Me: That's just really, really great, man.
Someone Else: It was a popular song!
Me: No, seriously, thanks.
Someone Else: (smiling) You're a dick.
Me: (smiling) I dunno, man, maybe you want to sing some more?
Someone Else: I seriously hate you.
Me: How about Bananarama?
Okay, so some of that may have been made up, but I genuinely had never heard the song and wondered, aloud, why someone would go to the effort of denoting which of the eyes Bette Davis had belonged to her.

Anyway, I always sort of liked Bette Davis, and I can only guess it's because she had a cool character in Death on the Nile. Of all the classic Hollywood beauties, her movies were the only ones that I could come across while channel flipping and forego my usual litany of complaints about old movies. I also found out that she played Mildred in Of Human Bondage, which I think greatly improved my experience when reading the book, since Maugham's writing has always been long on self-doubt and short on rich characterization.

Thanks to the five-at-a-time Netflix plan we're on, I've been able to plug a lot of holes in my moviegoing knowledge, and so one day a few weeks ago, the "she's a crazy drunk" revelation about Baby Jane presented itself, but left me wanting to see some other Bette Davis classics. All About Eve and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte went into the queue shortly thereafter. To be honest, I'd always wanted to see the latter based on Dick Butkus saying, in an interview, that provoking an audience reaction like "that scene where the head comes rolling down the stairs" was part of his motivation for beating the shit out of people on a football field.

Hush, Hush seems like a decent movie. Like 90% of movies I watch nowadays, it's good enough to keep me entertained but not gripping enough that I can't write something — this, for instance — while it's on. Unfortunately, its competence and beautiful outdoor scenes and Davis' enjoyable insanity aren't doing enough to take my mind off the accents.

I'm not a southerner by birth, and I actually abhor most variants of the accent, but I know it well enough to know when it's being done badly. Regrettably, that's pretty much the default condition for most actors' attempts at it. Authentic southern accents are probably the second most difficult accents to replicate, just behind New England. Like New England accents, most people mistakenly believe that there's only one accent, rather than about half a dozen, in the south's case. Most actors seem to venture a generic "Southern" accent, and that's probably for the best. But it means that success comes with the price of inauthenticity. When they go for something specific, failure is almost inevitable. Almost everyone in this movie attempts a Louisiana accent, and almost everyone in this movie sucks at it. (The only one who doesn't seem to be trying for one at all is Olivia de Havilland, and I can't applaud her for this enough.)

The whole effect grates on the ears and takes the audience out of the story. It's difficult to become absorbed by a narrative when you can't help but remain at arm's length from it, the better to notice Bette Davis or Agnes Moorhead see-sawing between accent and no accent.*

* — I should note at this point that Agnes Moorhead's accent is by far the worst in the movie, which brings my grand total of things known about Anges Moorhead to two. Both negative. The other thing is a brief scene in The Firesign Theater's How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? A car salesman is trying to pitch the benefits of a car to the protagonist, so he flips on the car's TV. (It's helpful to understand that this car has an entire house's worth of stuff inside it and seems to defy all laws of space and time, with a climate control that can change the climate to Land of the Pharaohs and literally take you there.) While other devices are flipped on and begin to fill the soundscape with whirrs and clicks and tinny voices, the two men watch what is apparently a gladiator movie. The protagonist keeps trying to identify people as Steve Reeves, and the car salesman repeatedly corrects him, leading to this exchange:
Protagonist: Well, tha—that's Steve Reeves!
Salesman: No, that's Anges Moorhead.

One thing it also does is remind me of my response/wish list regarding Hollywood accents:

1. They Don't Impress
Look, I think it's cool that Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and a few others can flawlessly put on a variety of accents. But unless it's something an actor does very well and in a variety of ways, it's little more than a gimmick. A multitude of accents definitely bespeaks a certain unique ability that should be applauded, but one or two usually seems like stunt casting. The experience becomes less "this person is a whole different character" and more "this is Actor X attempting Accent Y!" Worse, the more difficult the accent, the more obvious it often becomes that the actor is laboring more over how his mouth is saying the words than he is over how his facial expressions, posture and timing say them. The acting becomes almost entirely vocal.

2. English People Aren't Bizarrely Expensive
They're not. There are a lot of them. Like, 65 million or something. Seriously, there's a whole country full of them, and a lot of them leave it, and you can find them everywhere. For instance, if you want to have sex with one, just go to Majorca and wear a bandolier filled with flavored malt beverages. If you want to cast one, there are an awful lot in Hollywood as well. They accept American dollars, which they can then exchange for their money, which I believe is called "quid" or "lorries." What you don't need to do is, say, cast a girl with a great pair of breasts who looks and acts like she has a developmental disability as Mary Boleyn and the Jewish-American girl who died of a broken heart when her husband turned into Darth Vader as Anne Boleyn. Also, there are something like 145 million Russian people, and a huge number of them know English because their country, which was at war with us for 45 years, encouraged their children to learn it. You could cast three of them instead of casting a Danish guy, an Australian girl and a Frenchman to play Russians in London. Almost invariably, the person who's affecting an accent in a film fails to turn in a performance so unique and excellent that no native citizen of the country in question could have duplicated it.

3. Only Regional Jingoists Give a Damn
Nine times out of ten, the absence of an accent is better than the presence of a bad one. I have yet to read a review where someone panned the movie because Actor X was supposedly from Texas and yet had a flat, generic Mid-Pacific Accent. In fact, attempting an accent at all runs the risk of offending or annoying the natives from the area from which it originates. West Virginians like to mock Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, and Carolinians find much of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil risible. Sometimes the attempt reaches such levels of contemptibility as to provoke universal disgust — viz. Jimmy Fallon simultaneously mutilating a great Nick Hornby book, the Red Sox World Series celebration, the feelgood story for Red Sox Nation and a Boston accent in Fever Pitch. On the other hand, not attempting the accent often brings a sense of relief. Unlike the rest of us, natives can feel a sense of gratitude in not being made to sound wicked retahhhhded in front of the rest of the world. Like the rest of us, they can immerse themselves in the movie instead of charting how badly an actor's doing. Also like the rest of us, they can rationalize the lack of accent countless ways. Maybe the person went off to college in another region. Maybe his parents didn't have strong accents. Maybe he took elocution lessons. Maybe he moved there when he was a kid. Pretty much the only people who won't fill in the blanks and make it make sense on their own are the sort of petty, insane regional jingoists who expect the movie to be a celebration of their area and culture and irrationally expect it to flawlessly present it to the rest of the world.

Which brings us to Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Probably the worst aspect of affected accents is the way they efface the unique or beautiful voice that you could otherwise be hearing. Quite a lot of people watch Bette Davis movies to hear Bette Davis, and the plot is somewhat secondary to the iconic voice. If you could create a device that ejected splintered fragments of polished brass and then somehow teach it how to speak English and smoke, I imagine it would sound just like her. She might have come from Massachusetts, but it doesn't really matter. That voice is hers alone and was born and died in her voicebox. What possible benefit can come from obscuring it behind a thrown-together Louisiana accent for a movie that's already playing fast and loose with the concept of mind control? When your plot sort of hinges on a far-out concept, two hours of voice work isn't really going to bother anyone if the story is good enough. This is why people can watch Keanu Reeves for 136 minutes in The Matrix without wanting to stab another person, and why when watching The Matrix Reloaded they cannot.

Bottom line: leave Bette Davis alone. Kill Keanu Reeves.