Rarely “Spot On”: British Actors and Their American Accents

October 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Michael Sheen in "Masters of Sex"

Michael Sheen in “Masters of Sex”

Michael Caine in "The Cider House Rules"

Michael Caine in “The Cider House Rules”

Eve Hewson in "The Knick"

Eve Hewson in “The Knick”

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"

Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”


Clive Owen in "The Knick"

Clive Owen in “The Knick”

If you’ve spent time in London–or just read its newspapers–it won’t be long before you come across a review of a British actor playing an American character in a play, movie or TV show. “His/her accent is spot on!” the critic will invariably say, but how could he tell, not being American? In fact, the “spot on” assessment is rarely true. While most British actors can perform American accents without embarrassing themselves (unlike most American actors doing British accents), their work almost always suffers from two major problems: exaggeration and a complete absence of regionalism.

British actors supposedly find American accents easy because doing them requires “subtraction” from their native accent. (The same theory holds that American actors attempting British accents must add to theirs, addition being the harder task.) Nevertheless, most British actors playing Americans fall back on two tricks: elongating their vowels and overemphasizing their r’s. While it’s true that Midwestern vowels tend to be flatter than their Eastern or Western counterparts, they are not loooonger. As for the heavy r’s, the actors employing them sound more Irish than American. Another dead giveaway that the actor is British is speed: talking veeerrry slooowly is an actor’s crutch, not an American characteristic.

Even actors who manage to avoid exaggeration fall into the mistake of creating an accent so bleached of regionalism that it doesn’t exist, except onscreen. One would think that actors from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would assume, given the rich variety of accents in their homeland, that a huge country like the United States would have even more. But no: the prevailing idea among British actors is that there is such a thing as a Standard American Accent. A good example is Michael Sheen playing Dr. William Masters in “Masters of Sex.” Yes, he manages to sound American, but where is his accent from? Not Cleveland, where Masters was born, or New Jersey, where he prepped, or upstate New York, where he went to college. Listening to Sheen is like meeting a Dutchman: though his English and inflections are seemingly American, his accent is untraceable.

Those actors who break the no-regional-accent rule do so with wildly varied results. Michael Caine’s Maine accent in “The Cider House Rules” sounds nothing like any American accent, New England or otherwise. At times it sounds Cockney, hardly surprising as Caine has used his own thick Cockney accent in virtually all of his movies, whether or not it made sense for the character. (See “The Quiet American,” in which he plays a Cockney-accented foreign correspondent in 1950s Vietnam, when such journalists were invariably Oxbridge types.) That he won the Oscar for “The Cider House Rules” is proof not of his success in the role but of the Academy’s tendency to give Oscars for lifetime achievement rather than nominated performances.

In sharp contrast, every accent Daniel Day-Lewis does is flawless, the product not only of his enormous talent but research and hard work–three to five years of grueling preparation for each of his roles. As Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” he speaks in an intricate blend of Yankee, Irish and Wisconsin that explains Plainview’s origins better than any visual montage.

Notable American accents by non-Americans can be found in the new TV drama “The Knick,” set in New York at the turn of the 20th century. As Dr. Thackeray, Clive Owen speaks in Gilded Age tones that were probably inspired by Day-Lewis in “The Age of Innocence.” Though Owen does well with the accent, he is completely outshone by Eve Hewson, whose character Nurse Elkins is from West Virginia. Unlike Owen, Hewson is Irish (and the daughter of Bono and Aly Hewson), which might explain her facility with accents; her real-life speech is Dublin with trans-Atlantic overtones, though you’d never know it here. Her performance is all the more impressive because Appalachian accents are so hard to imitate (and, for natives, hard to lose)–twangy and lilting, with flattened vowels. Yet Hewson never falters, displaying a deft touch in every scene. It’s an accomplishment that can hardly be exaggerated: seamless, unforced and spot on. I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis would agree.

The Newly Announced Peg Entwistle Biopic

October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Still from "Peg Entwistle's Last Walk"/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

Still from “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk”/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

I was in New York a couple of weeks ago when two friends emailed within an hour of each other to tell me that a feature film on the actress Peg Entwistle had been announced in the trades. Tony Kaye (“American History X”) is slated to write and direct the film, and producer Arthur Sarkissian promises the result will be “in the vein of…Vertigo and…Seven.” http://deadline.com/2014/09/actress-death-hollywood-sign-movie-jumped-off-h-peg-entwistle-836778/

When I started researching Peg Entwistle’s life for my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign in 2006, the accurate public record of her life was tiny, consisting of three or four photos, her nationality at birth (English) and her suicide from the Hollywoodland Sign in 1932. The amount of erroneous information, however, was enormous. It included her career (she was not a wannabe starlet but a successful and accomplished Broadway actress); her background (she was brought up not in England but as a naturalized American in New York and Hollywood); her motivations for suicide (which were not as much professional as existential). Among the falsehoods was the assumption that Peg’s choice of the Hollywoodland Sign was a message to the film industry. It’s a great bit of symbolism, except that the Sign was nothing more than a billboard for the Hollywoodland tract at the time. Because I knew the history of the Sign and live along the route she took, it was obvious that Peg chose the Sign for two simple reasons: it was high enough to do the job and in 1932 so isolated that no one was likely to stop her. As I progressed in my research, the misinformation kept coming. Even the date on her death certificate was wrong–it appears as September 18th, the date her body was discovered. But because Peg went to the Sign on the evening of September 16th and could not have survived her fall for long, the date of her death was clearly September 16th.

Many of the lies about Peg came straight from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon , whose chapter on her tragic end was accepted as fact until I set about correcting it. I identified the book’s half-nude portrait of Peg as a fake, which should have been obvious since the only feature the model shared with Peg was her platinum blond bob, a ubiquitous hairstyle in Hollywood at the time. Yet everyone, including her family, had taken Anger’s word for it.

As a way of telling Peg’s story, I made a short feature film about her fateful climb to the Sign called Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk, incorporating the footage into my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign. After I put the short on YouTube in 2007, it caught the attention of tens of thousands of viewers, including James Zeruk, Jr., who was researching her life for a book. James helped me to find Peg’s family, who generously made available a trove of playbills, photographs and documents about her life. Most importantly, I was able to interview Peg’s half-brother, Milt Entwistle, then 92 and the only living person with direct memory of her.

Under the Hollywood Signwas released in 2009. Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk remained on YouTube until this year, when I pulled it off to release it on DVD and Vimeo, along with her biography, as Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of An Actress. http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361

Last year I published an ebook consisting of Entwistle family photos, the script of the biographical documentary and the production diary of Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk. http://www.amazon.com/Peg-Entwistle-The-Hollywood-Sign-ebook/dp/B00FSOGCV4
Zeruk’s book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide was also published last year.

Biopics can’t be entirely invented, and I can’t imagine whose work Tony Kaye will draw on for his script if not mine and James Zeruk’s. Because alternative secondary sources don’t exist and many of the primary sources can only be found in the Entwistle family’s archive, I await Kaye’s film, assuming it gets made, with considerable interest.

Learning To Say No

September 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

di85A5o9T Today I said no to writing a script based on a promising story that interested me very much. My reasons were two-fold. First, my vision for the project–a thriller set in a specific timeframe–clashed with that of the man who proposed the project, who seemed increasingly to want a biopic based on his life. Second, it became clear that although he’s not a writer he expected to collaborate on the script, despite the fact that (as I told him at the outset) I write alone. Turning down the offer was the right thing to do, as anyone could see. But the fact that I should have said no sooner wasn’t obvious to me, and that’s what this post is about.

Thirty years into my career, it still seems more natural to say yes than no, a fact I attribute to my gender and upbringing. Women are socialized to be agreeable, to say not only yes but thank you for every morsel they’re offered in life and for years I did, to my detriment. Before striking out on my own professionally, I didn’t get promotions or raises. This was not because I was undeserving but because I had no idea of how to ask for them, or even that I should. Saying yes was the default setting in my personal life as well, which explains why I stayed in relationships that weren’t working–for me, that is. As recently as few years ago, I was talked into serving on the Hollywood Homeowners’ Association, a brief disaster that could have been avoided if I’d simply followed my instincts and said no.

It wasn’t until my son was growing up that I realized how different males are in this regard. When answering the question “Do you want…?,” he would automatically say no, and nearly every time. Though he often reversed himself immediately, his default setting was refusal. At the time I thought it was funny but in retrospect it seems quite serious: saying no gives you power, even if you happen to have very little of it.

These days I say no much more than yes. In fact, I just did it again, on a much smaller business matter. The asker seemed unperplexed by my refusal, which probably means it was no big deal for him. But it was for me.

In a Time of Drought, Remembering Hollywood’s Brief Independence

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Clausen's Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Clausen’s Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

When I was making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I was surprised at how many of the people who signed my releases wrote “Hollywood” rather than “Los Angeles” as their address. A century after its incorporation into Los Angeles, Hollywood’s history as an independent city seemed to endure in the minds of residents, whether or not they were fully aware of it.

Hollywood went from mostly unsettled land to a metropolis in a matter of two decades. Most of what is now the district of Hollywood was purchased in 1877 by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox, a wealthy Kansas couple who came west to Los Angeles and, after the death of their only son, went looking for a rural retreat. After laying out streets and building a home, they deeded property to churches and enticed other like-minded Christians to move to their town. New residents opened businesses and grew citrus and exotic fruits like pineapples and avocados. But by the turn of the century, Hollywood was more than a farm village: it had become a resort for city dwellers who came by bicycle and streetcar from downtown Los Angeles. Two restaurants catered to daytrippers, and the rather grand Hollywood Hotel provided lodging for those who wanted to stay longer. Among the town’s charms was its microclimate: noticeably cooler than downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood was known for its ocean breezes. (In spite of Hollywood’s tall buildings, these can still be felt near Sunset and Vine, and sometimes carry a whiff of salt.)

In 1903, Hollywood was incorporated as a dry, Godly city: the un-Los Angeles. Its first laws were sumptuary: no alcohol for any purpose, either at home or in businesses; no gambling, no brothels. Its dryness was absolute: liquor going west from downtown had to be transported around Hollywood, a substantial detour that pleased neither merchants nor the Los Angeles City fathers. Though Harvey Wilcox, the stricter of Hollywood’s founders, died in 1891, his widow Daeida (despite her remarriage to Philo Beveridge, a bon vivant who enjoyed flouting the law by drinking wine) kept up her husband’s teetotaling tradition.

Things might have continued along these lines for a while longer if not for the problem of water. Hollywood had very little, and more often than not found itself in drought. The start of construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1905 allowed City Hall to present the town with an ultimatum: either become part of Los Angeles or make do without its water. Knowing the town wouldn’t survive without access to the Aqueduct, Hollywood gave up its independence, becoming part of Los Angeles in 1910. Today, in the fourth year of a severe drought, it’s difficult to argue with the decision.

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct


Yet Hollywood still feels distinct from Los Angeles, even in the midst of its current building boom. In 2000, a referendum was launched to return Hollywood to independence, but Los Angeles fought hard against it and it failed. Today Hollywood’s seven years as an incorporated city are remembered through its bylaws, which reside in bound volumes the Los Angeles City Archives. But Hollywood’s larger legacy is quotidian: its customary use by residents when giving their address.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-i-ranches-orchards-and-laws/

http://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-ii-city-of-churches/

The Journey Is Greater Than The Destination

September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

Copyright Hope Anderson Productions

Copyright Hope Anderson Productions

For years I’ve been working on a novel. It was inspired by a trip I took shortly after finishing my first documentary, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” in 2001, though at the time I had no sense of it as anything more than an adventurous vacation. Soon after I returned from it I flew to New York, where JTSK was in a festival; it showed on September 8th. As fate would have it, I got back to Los Angeles hours before the attacks of September 11th, and for a long time no one wanted to think about documentaries, or entertainment in general. After marketing JTSK as much as I could during that grim time, I made its previously planned companion, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” By this time it was 2005, and my 2001 trip had receded long enough for me to start writing a novel based on it. As I was finishing the first draft, I moved to Beachwood Canyon, which involved selling one house and buying another that turned out to more of a fixer than expected. When I was finally settled, I began preproduction on my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign, another long-simmering idea. Although I initially thought I was making a little neighborhood documentary, Beachwood’s history turned out to be enormous, and UTHS grew into a major project: thirty interviews, many hours of footage and hundreds of images. The project kept me occupied for the next three years, at which point it was late 2009. In 2010, I finally dug out my novel and starting writing again. Every summer since then, I’ve done another draft; now, four years later, the result is tangible: a 355-page manuscript about a journey, and the embodiment of my own long trek.

Beyond the films and moving house, why did it take me so long? There isn’t any simple answer, but it’s clear that reading novels doesn’t teach one to write them. And writing novels doesn’t equal finishing them: a previous attempt ended in frustration. (Recently I learned that Joyce Carol Oates’s late husband left a novel–his only novel, chipped away at for decades–unfinished when he died. It was not reassuring.) From a practical standpoint, the work would have gone faster if I had revised printed drafts rather than doing it on my computer. Because the novel existed only virtually, a number of gaps and errors went unnoticed for too long. But the biggest setback came during the summer of 2013, when a Time-Warner technician cut the power and crashed my computer. (He had assured me that I could keep working while he ran new cable to the house.) When everything went black, I lost the draft I was working on, including a substantial part of the last section. Although I had saved a previous draft on Dropbox, I was never able to recover what had disappeared. Worse yet, I was afraid to look at the manuscript, much less work on it, for several months.

But eventually I did. This summer I knew I had to finish so I soldiered on, finally getting to the end on Labor Day. This month I’ll send the manuscript out to some friends who have kindly volunteered to be my first readers. After that, I’ll work on selling it. One way or another, it will be published. But let’s face it: we’re not living in the Age of the Novel and no one really cares. So why did I bother? Because, with the exception of my (easily fulfilled) goal of motherhood, all my ambitions have paled in comparison to my desire to write a novel: it’s a dream I’ve had since the age of twelve. Accomplishing it has taught me many things, one of which is to love the process, not just the result. And even if only my friends and family read it, my reward has come already: I’ll soon be starting two new projects, neither of which would have come my way if I hadn’t persevered on this one.

Waiting For Rain In a Bone-Dry Canyon

August 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

The "Wood," 8pm Friday, August 22, 2014/Hope Anderson Productions

The “Wood,” 8pm Friday, August 22, 2014/Hope Anderson Productions

August in Southern California is a very dry month, the prelude to an even hotter, drier September. Those of us who live in canyons live in dread of fires, which can start from a single match or cigarette–hence the NO SMOKING signs that tourists somehow ignore. In the fourth year of a great drought–the worst on record in California–we are waiting for the winter rains.

On Friday night, I looked north and to my surprise saw an unusual amount of cloud cover at the Hollywood Sign. It seemed to be a harbinger of better days to come, so I got my camera and took this photo.

Art and Posterity in New York: Part II

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in "Sex With Strangers"

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in “Sex With Strangers”


"Split-Rocker" by Jeff Koons/Hope Anderson Productions

“Split-Rocker” by Jeff Koons/Hope Anderson Productions

Last week, between seeing the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney and visiting Koons’ monumental “Split-Rocker” topiary sculpture at Rockefeller Center, I attended a performance of “Sex With Strangers” at the Second Stage Theater. Written by Laura Eason and starring Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, the play explores art, media and success, both the old-fashioned and new, Internet-oriented kind. The title is taken from a fantastically successful blog (and subsequent best-selling books) whose author, a hyperactive young writer and roue named Ethan Strange (nee Kane), arrives at a rural writer’s retreat during a snowstorm. There he barges in on the only other resident, a talented but obscure writer named Olivia Lago, who is putting the finishing touches on her second novel.

Olivia’s first novel was badly marketed as chick lit and sold poorly, but it attracted its share of fans, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning author named Ahmet, a friend of both Olivia’s and Ethan’s. Olivia soon learns that Ethan’s reason for coming to the retreat is not his own looming deadline for a screenplay but meeting her, the author of the novel he loves. In short order, Ethan convinces Olivia to reissue it under a pseudonym and as an e-book, about which he creates an instant buzz via Twitter. He then sets about selling her new novel by providing an introduction to his literary agent. Ethan also quickly embarks on an affair with Olivia, who despite qualms about him and his past (both sexual and literary) is bowled over by his powers (both sexual and literary).

Who could blame her? Ethan is an immature jerk but a Jedi Master of the Internet. He knows how to get his work in the hands of readers, since his half-million Twitter followers hang on his every word. Applying his special brand of salesmanship to Olivia’s literary novel, Ethan launches a spectacular new career that is not only beyond her abilities but her imagination. Before Ethan, Olivia is like Emily Dickinson, destined (in the best-case scenario) for posthumous fame; after Ethan, she’s like Jonathan Franzen, widely read and financially successful but still literary.

Having gone to “Sex With Strangers” mainly to see Anna Gunn, I had deliberately avoided learning the plot beforehand and was more than a little disturbed by the parallels to my own life. I’m finishing a novel that I have little idea of how to sell, though so far no Ethan Strange has to come to my rescue. As the play makes clear, the old publishing model is dead: ebooks and marketing via social media are the new reality. Then there’s the Janus-faced Internet, which makes it possible for me to find historical materials for my documentaries, publicize them and (lately) sell and rent them to viewers. Yet it also cheapens my ebooks and documentaries, just as it has devalued music. Now that art is “content,” the perception is that it should be free. The sole difference between the real online world versus that of “Sex With Strangers” is that in reality, no one wants to pay for anything.

During intermission, I struck up a conversation about these topics with my seat mate, who told me he was a painter. When I asked what kind, he said, “Fine art. I work for Jeff Koons.” What a coincidence! I confessed that the Whitney retrospective had left me liking Koons’ art less rather than more, and asked what he thought of it. “I’m not a fan,” he said flatly. Though he praised Koons as an employer and a man and said that he enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the studio, he agreed that having assistants do all the sculpting and painting was unprecedented. When I compared Koons to Willie Wonka–“He has a chocolate factory but he’s not making the chocolate”–he offered, “Some people say he’s a charlatan.” He then showed me photos of his own paintings, which were technically and artistically superior to anything in the Koons oeuvre, and so different that I could hardly imagine the same artist creating both.

Seeing “Split-Rocker” in Rockefeller Plaza the next day, I felt some of my old delight in Jeff Koons’ work. But the parallels between him and Ethan Strange, and between me, my seat mate and Olivia, gnawed at me. Perhaps the real test of art comes after the artist’s death, when the Emily Dickinsons of the world rise up to reign supreme. But in the earthly realm, artists have to eat.

Related article:http://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/art-and-posterity-in-new-york-part-i/

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