It’s not often that accent coaches make headlines, but when one who worked on the set of The House of Gucci spoke to the Daily Beast last month, she made a swipe that quickly spread around the internet. The accusation levied? That the heavy accent Lady Gaga deploys in the film, which catalogues the fall of the dynasty that founded and initially ran the famed fashion house, “sounds more Russian than Italian.”
Director Ridley Scott backed up his star, and declared Gaga’s performance to be “deeply Italian all the time.” But it wasn’t the only accent he’s defended to the press in the last few months, though. Those in his other recent film, The Last Duel also attracted attention, this time from the other end of the spectrum. No meatball had been too spicy for the largely American and British actors in Gucci, but the leads in Duel, also American and British, played French characters who spoke like, well, Americans and Brits. Not a splash of béarnaise to be found. To me, the opposing approaches both worked perfectly for the tonally very different films in which they were deployed, and made me realize that I may never need to hear a “good” accent in a movie ever again.
The Last Duel stars Adam Driver and tells the story of a rape case in medieval France that illustrates the ways in which power, property, and the treatment of women are braided together. In an interview last month, Scott revealed that he wasn’t exactly fixated on creating perfect historical accuracy when it came to the accents. “In The Last Duel, there’s no French accent. That would have been a disaster,” he told Deadline. “Who cares? Like shut the fuck up, then you’ll enjoy the movie.” But despite the fact that no one attempts a French lilt, most of the leads are speaking in modified voices of some sort. Jodie Comer abandons her Scouse accent in favor of plummier, more BBC period drama-standard tones. Her co-stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Driver make mid-Atlantic gestures, speaking with inflections that can best be described as, well, old-timey. The guys’ accents are not entirely convincing, but are subtle enough not to be distractingly so.
House of Gucci stars Adam Driver and tells the story of a murder in 1990s Italy that illustrates the ways in which power, property, and the treatment of women are braided together. But while Duel was largely serious, Gucci is campy and satirical, a film about excess that is itself deeply excessive. Its faux-Italian accents range from Jeremy Iron’s lofty non-attempt to whatever Jared Leto was doing, with his “olive oil soaked veins” and Rs rolled so aggressively that they still echo in my ears. The varied and generally highly entertaining accents were among the most fascinating parts of the film, which polarized critics but won me over with its commitment to reining absolutely nothing and no one in.
Both movies feature great performances, but without the kind of remarkable, subtle-but-not-too-subtle accent work that used to be the gold standard of prestige movies, and that, among her many other gifts, helped make Meryl Streep the most Oscar-nominated actor ever. But with all due respect to Meryl, I don’t miss that style at all.
The Last Duel’s decision to largely forego accents is part of a broader trend, present in films and TV shows like The Death of Stalin and Chernobyl. When Chernobyl was released, Craig Mazin addressed the fact its largely British cast didn’t attempt Russian accents while performing in the acclaimed HBO/Sky Atlantic limited series about the 1986 nuclear disaster. They’d tried asking actors to perform the accent in auditions, but abandoned the approach early on. “What we found very quickly is that actors will act accents,” Mazin said at the time. “They will not act, they will act accents and we were losing everything about these people that we loved.”
And even when actors are doing a lot more than “acting accents,” the accents can be one of the few qualities of a performance that audiences take away. There are not very many easy-to-describe ways to measure an acting performance. One of the classics has been drastic weight gain or loss, or other dramatic physical transformations. Those choices (and similar ones, like the padding donned by Leto in Gucci) take roles away from actors who already have the body shapes that Hollywood sylphs must contort themselves to attain. But they persist, perhaps in part because we have few universal techniques for talking about what it is that actors actually do. Transformation becomes a short-hand for commitment, a way for actors to let us know that they didn’t just roll out of bed and read off of a script. Abandoning hyperrealistic accents asks performers to let go of these crutches. It asks a bit more of audiences as well—that we accept on screen what would be obviously implausible in life, and that we find ways to assess performances in the absence of eye- or ear-catching transfiguration. As Alison Willmore wrote for Vulture, “Maybe it’s just easier to talk about an actor’s physical transformation than it is to ask why we care so much about the illusion of historical accuracy.”
I’d love to see more films forgo accents altogether, and I’d also love to see more broad, hit and miss accent attempts like those in House of Gucci. Both ends of the spectrum nod to the audience: The non-accents in Duel remind that this is fictionalized, this is art, just as the over-the-top ones in Gucci do the same. They ask us to suspend our disbelief—to shut the fuck up for a minute and enjoy the movie—rather than grasping for a perfect realism that’s ultimately unachievable, and even worse, often boring.