What do Cher, Dennis Quaid, Barbra Streisand, John Travolta, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Meg Tilly, and Mickey Rourke have in common with Laurence Olivier? A time ear for capturing the subtleties of foreign accents.
In the appalling 1980 remake of the appalling 1953 remake of the appalling 1927 film The Jazz Singer (the first appalling talkie), aspiring rock star Neil Diamond is forced to leave home, ostensibly because of a feud with his father, played by Laurence Olivier. To the unsophisticated moviegoer, the antagonism between father and son might seem to result from the natural desire of the elderly Jewish cantor to see his son follow in his footsteps.
A defter analysis of Neil's insubordination could be ascribed to the normal tensions between the Old World patriarch and the upstart immigrant kid. But each of these readings is wrong. The reason Diamond decides to leave home and abandon his cultural heritage is to escape from Olivier's horrendous accent. "I hef no son!" thunders Lord Larry at a critical moment in the film. Yes, and you probably hef no bananas, either.
Olivier's accent in The Jazz Singer is one of the monumentally bad accents in the history of cinema, an accent so Promethean in its awful-ness that a Jewish friend of mine refers to it as "an act of unintentional yet nonetheless unforgiveable anti-Semitism, virulent beyond all conception." Yet it is a testimony to Olivier, lord of the truly bad accent, that his work in The Jazz Singer was by no means his worst, but was in many ways the final germination of a lifetime spent honing his skills as a practitioner of the truly grotesque accent. Who can forget Olivier's odd squawking in The Betsy, in which his attempts to capture the inflection of an American auto tycoon end up sounding like a cross between Jedd Clampett and Scrooge McDuck?
Similarly noteworthy are his frightful Central European accent in the Frank Langella Dracula, his bizarre Sudanese accent in Khartoum, his terrifying Russian accent in The Shoes of the Fisherman, his Ooh-La-La sub-Chevalier imitation in--how you zay thees?--A Little Romance, and his unjustifiably neglected, yet hilarious, French-Canadian accent in The Forty-Ninth Parallel.
Of course, it is Olivier's legendarily bad German accents (Marathon Man, The Boys From Brazil) for which he is best remembered. Yet what is most fascinating about these accents is not so much that they are bad--how should I know? I don't speak German--as that they fulfill the essential criterion for a truly bad accent: they literally take a film prisoner, making it impossible for the viewer to concentrate on anything else. A bad accent is the cinematic equivalent of a festering limburger cheese planted on a sumptuous dinner table, making it pointless for the gourmand to try thinking about anything other than that peculiar odor.
In the epic scope of his bad accents, Olivier has but one serious rival: the indefatigable Marlon Brando, whose vocal gymnastics have eviscerated films as varied as Burn!, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Viva Zapata!, The Missouri Breaks, and Mutiny on the Bounty, in which he concocts the single worst accent in motion picture history. (It's worth noting that some of the finest bad accents appear in remakes, as if the only way of distinguishing the sequel from the original was by imbuing it with accents too horrendous to ignore.)
What distinguishes Brando from Olivier is the utterly serendipitous nature of his bad accents. Olivier has a bad French-Canadian accent in The Forty-Ninth Parallel and a bad Jewish accent in The Jazz Singer, but in each case he is using a bad accent in keeping with his bad role in a bad film. Not so with Brando, who often adds a bad accent whether the role calls for one or not. Witness his turn in Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks, where Brando elects to play the psychopathic bounty hunter Lee Clayton with a brogue so thick and attention-getting that even Victor McLaglen might have demanded Gaelic subtitles--Brando has the dubious distinction of becoming the screen's first Irish cowboy, a path that few have followed. Many critics have faulted Jack Nicholson for his diffident performance in this film, but it is my belief that the Man Who Would Be, But Was Not Yet, Jack, heard the Big Fella's accent during rehearsals, correctly sized this up as a no-win situation, and decided to quietly bank his paycheck and wait for the whole thing to blow over.
To this day, critics debate what Brando was up to in The Missouri Breaks, the conventional wisdom being that the mischievous actor took the measure of Penn, concluded that he was dealing with a creampuff, and simply decided to have himself a bit of fun. I disagree. It is my earnest belief that in using that diabolically wee Irish accent, Brando was attempting nothing short of a linguistic revolution: speaking, not as he imagined a 19th century Irish gunslinger might, but as he imagined a 19th century Irish gunslinger--and, indeed, all Irish people--should. In short, Brando was attempting to redefine the Irish accent right in front of our eyes, hoping that future generations of Irish people would speak with a brogue learned not at the knee of Sweet Mother Mackree or the equally Sweet Rosie O'Grady, but by watching a really bad Arthur Penn film. Of course, I could be wrong about this.
Clearly, one of the great tragedies of the 20th century is that Olivier and Brando--two of the most colossal hamburgers of all time--never had the chance to trade bad accents in a bad film together. It is equally clear that, with Olivier's death and Brando's legal defense problems, there is no one on the scene who can match their innovative-ness. (True, Meryl Streep does many, many accents, but, as is usually the case with this monotonously talented human, she does them rather well.) Yet it is a mistake to think that the movie industry is completely bereft of linguistic marauders. In recent years, Olympia Dukakis, Mickey Rourke, Meg Tilly, Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid and Cher have each indicated a willingness to gather up the torch that has tumbled from Olivier's hand, and in the fullness of time may yet achieve similar immortality. Probably not in a remake of Richard III, though.