“Eets not ahh tumahh!” Arnold Schwarzenager once famously exclaimed in Kindergarten Cop. Well, that’s not an American accent either, buddy.
In Hollywood’s version of reality, it’s always springtime in New York, the US is the only nation capable of saving the world from alien invasions, and everyone (including the alien invaders themselves) speak American English.
American movies are rife with inaccuracies, and foreign accents are no exception. While on occasion, a film is so good that an actor’s garbled dialect can be overlooked (like Mike Myer’s mangled Scottish accent in Shrek), frequently the accent is so atrocious, it’s distracting (like Nicholas Cage’s southern drawl in Con Air).
The following is a list of the worst movie accents and the actors that made them famous.
1. The ‘I’m More Than A Pretty Face’ Bad Accent
The Culprits: Harrison Ford in The Widowmaker, Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet and Keanu Reeves in Dracula.
Oftentimes when actors are known more for their good looks than their theatrical abilities, they’ll accept a role that requires them to speak in a foreign accent. They do so in the hope that audiences will begin to take them seriously. Usually this involves an American playing a Brit, and sometimes this works well, like in the case of both Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jone’s Diary and Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, whose accents were widely applauded for being nearly perfect versions of the real thing. But then there are the pretty-faced actors that attempted a foreign accent and failed to the point of humiliating themselves.
2. The ‘Lucky Charms’ Irish Accent
The Culprits: Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own, Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly and Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away.
Although a few (a very select few) non-Irish actors have been able to pull of the Irish lilt (namely Cate Blanchett in Veronica Guerin), most wind up sounding like amateurs at a leprechaun audition. Brad Pitt (in The Devil’s Own) and Julia Roberts (in Mary Reilly) tried and failed, but no one was as bad as Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away.
Why a casting director would think that Mr. Jones could play a convincing Irishman when he can barely play a convincing American is any one’s guess.
3. The American Accent in Ancient Greece
The Culprits: Brad Pitt in Troy, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood
While at least Jones and Reeves gave the UK accent an honest shot, some actor’s don’t even bother to try. Perhaps they’ve finally learned better, as Brad Pitt apparently did during the filming of Troy, when he forwent any attempt at a Greek accent and stuck with his North American one instead.
Or maybe they’re just lazy, as would appear is the case with Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In a movie where every other character is speaking in a British accent, Kevin Costner is speaking in a mostly North-American drawl, with the occasional Old English word thrown in here and there for authenticity. Considering the fact that the film is set in a time period when the U.S. wasn’t even in existence, the fact that the principle character is speaking in an American accent is jarring to say the least.
4. The ‘What the Heck IS That?!’ Accent
The Culprits: Angelina Jolie in Alexander
Sometimes an unidentifiable accent is intentional, like when a character’s origin country is a fictionalized one. Tom Hank’s character in The Terminal is one example of that.
But sometimes the accent an actor is striving for and the one that the World hears are two very different things. Like Sacha Baron Cohen’s disappearing and reappearing Austrian accent in Bruno or Angelina Jolie’s ‘Greek’ accent in Alexander, which left many theater-goers confused. Was she Egyptian? Middle Eastern? Romanian?
5. The ‘I Can’t Do a 13th Italian Accent so I’ll Just Do a British Accent Instead’ Accent
The Culprits: The entire cast of Gladiator
In Movie Land, the British accent is the go-to accent for any actor starring in a period piece set outside of the US or England. It doesn’t matter if that film takes place in medieval France, Italy or ancient Egypt, apparently the English accent provokes an ‘old world’ feel like no other.
The film Alexander is a prime example. Although it’s set in Macedonia, most of the actors speak with a Scottish accent (with the exception of Angelina Jolie, who speaks garbly goop). Or Gladiator, which is set in ancient Rome but has all of it’s principle characters speaking with a British accent (or in Russell Crowe’s case, his native Australian accent).
One theory behind why this is is that a more historically-accurate accent would be too distracting for mainstream American audiences. The Italian accent, for example, might bring to mind mobsters or pizzeria owners, which isn’t the tone a director wants the set for a film like Romeo and Juliet, for example.
6. The ‘I’m So Cool I’ll Use My Own Accent, Thank You’ Accent
The Culprits: Tom Cruise in The Valkyrie, Arnold Schwarzenager in Kindergarten Cop and Sean Connery in—well, every movie.
No one’s more infamous (or ridiculed) for this than Tom Cruise in the film The Valkyrie. The film was set during World War II and every actor with the exception of Cruise either speaks with a British or a German accent. The fact that he was the only actor—and the lead at that—speaking in an American accent made it all the more obvious that Tom Cruise was once again playing the only character he knows how to play: himself.
Arnold Schwarzenager is another actor who can never be anyone but himself: a giant, muscleman from Austria. It makes no difference if he’s a robotic hitman from the future or an American undercover cop, every line is spoken with the same long ‘a’ sound and garbled ‘gs’. “Eets not ahh tumahh!” He once famously shouted in Kindergarten Cop. Well, that’s not an American accent either, buddy.
Nobody beats Sean Connery though. Sir Connery is King when it comes to being unable to disguise his heritage. While he may be a talented, Oscar-winning actor, Connery’s accent in The Intouchables was voted ‘the worst movie accent’ by readers of Empire magazine.
“Whether he’s a Russian sub captain (The Hunt for Red October),” asserted the magazine. “Or an English King (First Knight and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) always that baritone Highland burr remains.”
While audiences everywhere would appreciate it if bad accents like the ones heard in Dracula never saw the light of day again, it’s unlikely that this will happen anytime soon.