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Cinema’s top 10 worst British accents

With Oscar season nearly upon us and with it the now seeminly customary Meryl Streep Oscar nomination, I’ve noticed that a number of American friends have asked me my thoughts on The Iron Lady. Specifically, my thoughts on how convincing I find Meryl Streep’s Thatcher.

Yet even when I tell them I haven’t seen the film (I’m just not in a rush to see it on the big screen and am more than happy to catch it on netflix in a few months time), they still ask for my opinion — nationality apparently bestowing expertise on the matter.

From the few clips I’ve seen on TV or the Web, and echoing what most critics have written, Streep’s Thatcher seems decent to me. Whether Streep’s Thatcher dislodges Greta Scacchi‘s somewhat cougar-ish take on the former PM in Jeffrey Archer: The Truth remains to be seen.

What is clear from the little I’ve seen is that Streep (unsurprisingly) will not be entering the Hall of Shame for awful Hollywood British accents. The following are my personal favorites. Let me know yours in the comments — including bad attempts at American accents (it’s only fair).

10. Nicolas Cage in National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

Almost certainly unfair to include as while it is hideously bad, I think it was intended to be hideously bad, and boy did Nicolas Cage succeed in that respect. Included, more than anything, because I think all top ten lists of this nature (something of a creatively bankrupt idea) could be improved with some Cage-branded craziness — it’s like a crack addict’s impersonation of Jimmy Stewart.

9. Josh Hartnett in Blow Dry (2001)

In the (rightly) forgotten hairdresser comedy Blow Dry, the (rightly) forgotten all-American heart throb Josh Hartnett tries hard but fails to convince with an Irish accent… Wait, he’s meant to be doing a Yorkshire accent? Really?

8. John Lithgow in Cliffhanger (1993)

John Lithgow has done some great work in the past, a performer who can be effortlessly at home in comedy or drama. At other times, he seems happy to serve up the audience a big slice of honey roast ham. Cliffhanger was definitely one of his more porcine performances. Warning: clip is not suitable for work — though arguably none of them are.

7. Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934)

Some people would have you believe this is one of the great dramatic scenes of cinematic history showcasing the titantic talent of Bette Davis. Others might counter that it’s am-dram caterwauling delivered in the world’s least convincing cockney accent. Both groups are right.

6. Don Cheadle in Ocean’s 11 (2001)

Actually, forget Bette, Hollywood’s worst cockney accent belongs to Don Cheadle. Here’s Don dubbed in German. Trust me, it’s the only humane way to listen Don Cheadle in Ocean’s 11.

5. Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Like the Nicolas Cage entry possibly an unfair inclusion as accuracy was hardly the point, but dude, Harrison Ford acted this in earshot of Sean Connery and so is deserving of either opprobrium or massive props.

4. Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap (1998)

That’s right, I’m dickish enough to include a child actor on this list. <Fill in your own Lindsay Lohan joke here>

3. Keanu Reeves in Dracula (1992)

Considering the difficulty Keanu Reeves often seems to have in portraying a functioning, coordinated human being, it was probably a bit too much of a stretch to ask him to do anything as nuanced as acting a different nationality.

2. Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins (1964)

You can’t have a list like this and not feature Dick Van Dyke, it’s expected of me and were I to omit it, many of you would invariably comment on it. And while it is a terrible accent, it’s also utterly charming and in no way spoils the movie. Bert probably fell on his head falling from a chimney, knocked his head, and developed foreign accent syndrome.  I believe Henry Mayhew documented this as being very common among Victorian chimney sweeps.

1. Russell Crowe in Robin Hood (2010)

Unquestioningly, Russell Crowe‘s accent in Robin Hood was a triumph. What sort of pr*** would argue otherwise? Definitely not me.

STAY TUNED for next Monday’s post, on travel and cinema.

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24 responses to “Cinema’s top 10 worst British accents

  1. Spinster February 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Hilarious.🙂 Even my mimicry of the accent sucks, so it’s rare that anyone hears me do it despite my length of time here thus far.😐

  2. Expat Mum/Toni Hargis February 17, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    I can’t do American accents to save my life, but I don’t get paid to do them either. I didn’t think Lohan’s accent was too bad, but of course Bette Davis and Dick Van Dyke were by far the worst. However, the biggest raspberry goes to the outrageously arrogant Russell Crowe for telling an Englishman (who was trying to tell him gently that his accent was crap) that he was wrong. I mean really?

  3. Kate Allison February 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Can I start a list of nominations for good Brit accents?
    Christopher Guest & co — the boys from Spinal Tap — are at the top of my list.

    • awindram February 17, 2012 at 8:38 pm

      Yeah, they can go in along with Streep. I’d also add James Cromwell to the list.

      • Da La July 28, 2015 at 2:36 pm

        What did those in the UK think of Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones? I couldn’t hear a difference between that and a real English accent, but we don’t pick up subtleties that natives would pick up. My pick for worst American accent was the woman who played Mrs. Utterson in the TV show Jekyll (Linda Marlowe – can’t find a clip). I loved the show but almost had to stop watching – so grating. Mark Addy, on the other hand, does an incredible job with the accent – I’ve never heard him miss even a phoneme.

    • Da La July 28, 2015 at 2:42 pm

      Chris Guest might come by it honestly -isn’t he a peer in the UK? I think he has dual citizenship.

  4. Jack Scott February 18, 2012 at 5:34 am

    We’re off to see the Iron Lady tonight so we’ll see if Meryl nails the accent. I suspect she does. My favourite faux Brit-speak has got to be Dick Van Dyke – Cor blimey, Mary Poppins.

    • ML Awanohara February 18, 2012 at 11:53 pm

      @Jack
      Someone on Twitter said that Anthony’s inclusion of Dick Van Dyke in the above list was unfair on the grounds that nothing about Mary Poppins was realistic — so why single out DVD’s accent? I think this person has a point, especially if you’re a kid watching the film. What’s reality got to do with it?

      So, how was Meryl, and was the film as terrible as everyone says?

      • awindram February 19, 2012 at 6:08 pm

        In fairness, he said naturalistic not realistic.

        One of the things I’d argue that is naturalistic about MP is the accents of the rest of the cast. MP’s sense of whimsy means we don’t think twice that Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert is speaking in an American accent (the same is true when DVD himself speaks in an American accent in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang despite having an English accented father and English accented children).

        DVD in his normal voice wouldn’t be a problem. Yes, the film is full of moments of flight and fancy and that means DVD decision to attempt an accent doesn’t scupper the film in the way it would were Streep to completely fail at convincing us she’s meant to be Thatcher.

        We could just as easily look at DVD’s accent from the opposite angle. MP is a film that is not naturalistic, where we suspend our disbelief and accept that a nanny can use a brolly to drift around on jet streams, where chalk drawings come to life, where laughter can cause you to drift up to the ceiling. In this world, DVD’s grossly inconsistent accent could be argued breaks through that artifice. DVD’s cockney accent works as a verfremdungseffekt.

        More prosaically, to not include or reference DVD is simply too big an omission for a British audience reading a list like this. Unfairly or not, DVD’s accent is held up in the UK as the worst attempt at a British accent. It’s the one everybody references. Had I not included it, I guarantee that lots of people would have commented on it. As it is, I tried to play with that expectation by saying that the accent isn’t as bad as people make out in the context.

    • Kate Allison February 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm

      DVD’s accent coach was Irish and couldn’t do it any better than DVD could, according to DVD himself.

  5. ML Awanohara February 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    @Anthony
    What I find curious is what a male-dominated list this is. The only two women — Bette Davis and Lindsay Lohan — are the oldest and the youngest. Bette perhaps can be excused as she acted in the days before Method acting, verisimilitude — when it was enough to be a mega-star with a transatlantic accent (pre-Streep). And as you indicate above (in your inimitable style, particularly as I’m no Method writer), it’s not entirely fair to include Lohan.

    When I think of Americans doing Brit accents nowadays, I always think of the women: Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love and Emma; Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary; and now Meryl Streep as Maggie T. All of those are quintessentially English roles, yet as far as I can tell, the Yankee ladies have pulled them off with aplomb! So what are we to conclude from this — that we tend to give American women actors less of a hard time when it comes to Brit accents than we do the men, or that they’re better than the men (less lazy perhaps?).

    • awindram February 20, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      I don’t include Gwyneth because im of the view we should all pretend she doesn’t exist. Her accents in those films are bland, not worth raving or getting upset about.

      Renee’s accent was in my opinion okay.

      Similar lists to this that I looked at on the web included Anne Hathaway and Madonna.

    • awindram February 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      i also toyed with the thought of Juliette Binoche in Wuthering Heights, but realized it was just bizarre hearing her try an English accent rather than te accent itself.

  6. awindram February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Other Notables: Winona Ryder could have just as easily featured as Keanu for Dacula. Indeed, I thought of having that as a joint entry. Was going to include Heather Graham in From Hell but couldn’t find a decent clip of her in that film. Julia Roberts does a terrible Irish accent in Mary Reilly but then I remembered that I was making a British list so shouldn’t include it – something the anglophenia blog always seems to forget.

  7. ML Awanohara February 20, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    So has the time arrived to make a parallel list of English actors who’ve attempted to come off as American? Since I tend to favor women’s movies, the actors that immediately spring to mind are all women: Kate Winslet, Tilda Swinton & Kristen Scott-Thomas. There are recent examples for Winslet and Swinton (Carnage and We Need to Talk about Kevin, respectively), while in Scott-Thomas’s case I’m thinking of a couple older works: The Horse Whisperer and Random Hearts (where her accent definitely showed a few chinks).

    I always cringe a bit whenever I watch actors of their caliber attempt to put on an American accent. But I suspect this hypersensitivity says more about me than it does about them. After living in Britain for as long as I did, I will always see these women as part of the British “tribe” no matter how many attempts they make to cross over — including, in Winslet’s case, an extended stay in Manhattan. (Likewise, I have trouble seeing Scott-Thomas as French, even though she’s been married to a Frenchman and has lived in Paris for decades.)

    Apparently, I’m not alone in this. As the Bloomberg movie reviewer put it of Swinton in the Kevin film:

    It’s just hard to view her as a Manhattan professional moving to suburbia with her chubby hubby, played by (talented) John C. Reilly; a more mismatched couple would be hard to find. Try as she does with the American accent, Swinton comes across as impossibly European.

  8. Pingback: Top 10 Worst Attempts at a British Accent « Culturally Discombobulated

  9. Andrew March 3, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    I am not sure that it is really fair to criticize Russell Crow’s accent in Robin Hood. Any actor using any modern accent is going to be incredibly anachronistic and inauthentic. The story is typically set in the late 12th and early 13th century, 300 year before Modern English came into being and hundreds of years before Englishmen brought their language to America or Australia. If RC decided to say all his lines in Pig Latin with a French accent, it would only be slightly less authentic than any British actor saying the lines in his own accent.

  10. Romulan.Ale May 14, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    I think the point of at least half of the clips I saw were supposed to be bad British accents. Mate!

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