When Brooklyn-born Anne Hathaway was cast in the very British female leading role of Lone Sherfig’s adaptation of the bestselling novel One Day, howls of objection were heard on both sides of the Atlantic. How dare they cast a Yank as Emma Morley? Then again, similar cries were sounded when Renee Zellweger was cast as Bridget Jones, and she ended up being, um, spot on (Brits say that, right?). But when One Day’s trailer hit a couple of months back, skepticism returned; Hathaway’s a good actress, but (to most ears, anyway) that is not a terribly good British accent. That said, the Bad Accent Hall of Fame is a very crowded place, and hers is nowhere near the top; here are our picks for the ten spottiest dialect artists in cinema history.
Kevin Costner: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991), Thirteen Days (2000), The Company Men (2010)
The crown for king of bad movie accents is a hotly contested one, but we’ve got to give the nod to Costner, whose come-and-go-like-the-wind “British accent” in 1991’s woefully misbegotten Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves pops up in pretty much any conversation on problematic dialects. But that’s not his only memorable misstep in the field. His Texas accent in A Perfect World and his New Orleans one in JFK were both a kind of vague, all-purpose Southern drawl — not terribly accurate, but passable and not distracting. The same can’t be said for his ear-splitting Massachusetts dialect in the otherwise-excellent Kennedy drama Thirteen Days, which has all the nuance of a Catskills comic doing a bad JFK (“This is ya repaaaht caaaaahd!”); though lack of prep time has always been his excuse for his half-assed vocal work in Robin Hood, it was good to see that in the ten years between Thirteen Days and his second stab at a Northeastern accent, in last year’s Company Men, he still hadn’t bothered to learn how it was done.
Keanu Reeves: Dangerous Liasons (1988), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
And speaking of people who just can’t get it right… we have Mr. Reeves, who made not one, not two, but three disastrous attempts at the British dialect, with each one more absurd than the last. He took his first crack in Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liasons, but that was a small enough role as to not do any serious damage. The same can’t be said of his fourth-billed turn in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which his “Hello my name is Simon”-styled accent and high school drama club theatrics basically derailed a stylish and otherwise well-acted slab of Gothic horror. We can only assume director Kenneth Branagh hadn’t seen Dracula (or had heavy pressure to include more bankable names) when he cast Reeves in his film version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing; it’s not quite as bad a performance (or accent) as the previous picture, but next to such expert performers and melodious voices as Branagh and Emma Thompson, Reeves looks particularly incompetent. After that film, he appeared to learn his lesson and steered clear of Brit roles, but he did dredge up a laughable Florida “Southern” accent for The Devil’s Advocate; since then, he’s mostly confined himself to flat-voiced “whoa” turns.
Robin Williams: Good Will Hunting (1997)
Let’s make ourselves clear on this: Robin Williams is very good in Good Will Hunting, reining in (most of) his usual tics and affectations to give a direct, simple, and often moving performance. What is not so good is his “Southie” dialect, which appears to consist of his regular speaking voice, stopping to drag his “a”s (“Ya like aaaaht?” “Yah, I goth’cha caaaaahd”). He got an Oscar for his work (as did Tim Robbins for his similarly strained Boston brogue in Mystic River), so the bad accent clearly wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it is a bit of a distraction. If only there had been anyone on set from Boston to help him out…
Dick Van Dyke: Mary Poppins (1964)
You’ll have to search far and wide to find a bigger Dick Van Dyke fan than your author, so it’s downright painful to include him on a list of the ten worst anything. But that Cockney dialect of his in Mary Poppins… good heavens. In all fairness, he was cast in Disney’s musical fantasy to be funny, not to be Marlon Brando; the wildly popular TV comic probably wasn’t all that concerned with doing a nuanced Cockney brogue. But still, his “cheery-oh, strike a light, guv’nor” vocal work all but sinks an otherwise enjoyable performance.
Demi Moore: Flawless (2007)
If you’re an American actor playing a British character against Michael Caine, the most famous English accent alive, well, you’d better bring your A-game. But if we’ve learned one thing over the past two-and-a-half decades, it is that Demi Moore seldom brings her A-game. “Moore’s embarrassing attempt to pull off a British accent is unwatchable — until it’s explained she’s supposed to be an Oxford-educated American,” wrote critic Kiala Kazbee in The Portland Mercury — in a review headlined “Demi Moore Has a Terrible Accent.” Kazbee has a theory: “Five bucks says this plot device came up, oh, nine or so weeks into filming, after several dialect coaches were hired and fired.”
Tom Cruise: Far and Away (1992)
As fashionable as it may currently be, we’re not going to take the opportunity to join in on the Cruise bashing; for all of his weird personal stuff and PR missteps, the guy has crafted some genuinely skillful performances (Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July, Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men). That said, his turn in Ron Howard’s justly forgotten would-be epic Far and Away is not one of those great performances — primarily due to his giggle-inducing Irish brogue, which sounds equal parts Seamus McFly and the Lucky Charms leprechaun. “Why can’t ya say ya like me hat, Shannon!” he insists. “Why can’t ya say ya like me sewwwt!” Whatever, Shannon, just don’t say you like that terrible accent.
Sean Connery: The Untouchables (1987), The Hunt for Red October (1990), First Knight (1995)
Connery won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, in which he played Jim Malone, a touch Chicago Irish cop with an inexplicable Scottish accent. It’s nearly as odd as the Scot accent of Connery’s Russian sub captain in The Hunt for Red October, or the Highland burr that British King Arthur sports in First Knight (a film also notable for Richard Gere’s “British accent” as Sir Lancelot, a bit of dialect work that makes Costner’s Robin Hood sound comparatively accomplished). On one hand — hey, Connery, how’s about a little effort, eh? On the other hand — c’mon. It’s Sean Connery.
Jon Voight: Anaconda (1997)
We were this close to including Al Pacino’s ridiculously over-the-top Cuban dialect in 1983’s Scarface (from Untouchables director Brian DePalma, incidentally), but it got bumped for the downright silliest white actor’s attempt at a Latino accent-o: Jon Voight’s celebrated (in bad movie circles, anyway) turn as Paraguayan snake trapper “Paul Sarone” in Anaconda. “Forcing his mouth into an upside-down bow, narrowing and slightly crossing his eyes and speaking in a shrill ominous wheeze with an indeterminate accent, Voight parodies Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now by way of The Godfather,” wrote Stephen Holden in The New York Times — and that was one of the kinder notices. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle put a bit of a finer point on it, noting that Voight “does to the scenery what the snake does to the supporting players.” For his trouble, Voight got a richly-deserved Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Best Actor (though he lost to an un-accented, but still terrible, Kevin Costner for The Postman).
Mickey Rooney: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Rooney’s broad, caricatured, and altogether offensive portrayal of I.Y. Yunoioshi all but destroys Blake Edwards’s otherwise delightful adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella. Rooney performs the role in “Yellowface” make-up, with giant buck teeth, and sports the typical hack comic’s version of an “Asian accent” — i.e., turning the “l”s into “r”s (“Miss Gorightry!”). It’s a shameful lapse of taste in the picture, and one that basically everyone involved spent the following years apologizing for. That is, except Rooney, who insisted as recently as 2008, “Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it — not one complaint. Every place I’ve gone in the world people say, ‘God, you were so funny.’ Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, ‘Mickey you were out of this world.'” Uh huh.
Sarah Holcomb: Caddyshack (1980)
Miss Holcomb’s name recognition isn’t nearly as high as the other thesps on this list; she only appeared in four films, all of them between 1978 and 1980. But while you may not recognize the name, the fans of Caddyshack (and there are many) would recognize her face — and her voice, an odd and utterly inexplicable attempt at an Irish accent. “WELL, TANKS FER NAHTIN’!” she screams at Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), and for thirty-plus years, audiences have looked at each other in utter confusion. What is that accent? Why does she have it? The DVD’s bonus features explain it, a little; screenwriters Brian Doyle-Murray and Harold Ramis based the film on their experiences as in Illinois country club caddy, and Ramis recalls that there were always female Irish exchange students working there. And with that iron-clad logic in place, Holcomb’s Maggie O’Hooligan (yes, that’s really her name) was made a proper Irish lassie, and has befuddled audiences ever since.