Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Dialects and Perception...

Watched Brando in a movie from 1967 called Reflections in a Golden Eye last night. It's one of those southern gothic things...based upon a Carson McCullers novel, Brando's accent is so thick at times it's almost impossible to decipher what the hell he's saying. Angela kept turning to me and asking, "What did he just say?" Elizabeth Taylor is also in it and she's at her callous best. But the movie is pretty bad. Brando stepped in as a favor, more or less, to Taylor and John Huston, the director, after Montgomery Clift died. When I first saw it years ago I was dumbfounded by Brando's eccentric dialect choice. And then a couple of years after that I listened to a live radio broadcast of an interview with Tennessee Williams. Suddenly it hit me. Brando was doing a dead-on impersonation of Tennessee Williams. How clever.

But the whole thing got me thinking about accents. Nearly every actor thinks he can do great accents. Nearly every actor is wrong. I used to do a lot of work down at a LORT D theatre in Virginia called Mill Mountain. I loved that theatre (they went under about six months ago, alas). Anyway, a good buddy of mine, Ernie Zulia, was the Associate Artistic Director there for some years and I would sometimes wander over to his office for a very specific fun thing I liked to do: look at the thousands of resumes and headshots he would get in the course of his day. I could spend hours doing that. And Ernie, cool guy that he is, used to just pile them up on a big chair as they came in. I'd walk into his office and he'd point to the stack of resumes and just go on about his business and I'd sit there quietly ruffling through them and occasionally giggling. So I noticed that nearly every actor in the stack felt compelled to list their "accents and dialects." They would say, somewhere down toward the bottom of the page, usually under the "miscellaneous" section: Dialects: British, American South, New York (those were always the big three) and then they'd get a tad more specific - German, French, Russian, Australian, Indian, Italian, etc. Sometimes they'd get weird - Cherokee, was one I remember. Huh? Casting Director: "Um, could you give those lines again, this time try it in a Navajo dialect." Actor: "I'm terribly sorry, I can only do Cherokee." Casting Director: "Ah, yes, I see that now here on the resume. Pity."

The other thing that used to tickle me was the "Age Range" that was sometimes listed up near the Height and Weight and Contact Number. This was really just unpredictable. Actors with wonderful credits on their resume, seemingly clear-thinking, talented people, would just fall apart when it came to this "Age Range" business. I remember one guy put down: "Age Range - 18-96." Oh, boy. So again, a scenario came to mind. There's a play called Night of the Iguana. One of the principal characters in it is an old man named Nonno. Nonno is decribed in the play as being 97 years old. Casting Director: "So, if you wouldn't mind, please, take a look at Nonno on page 26." Actor: "Excuse me?" Casting Director: "Yes, Nonno on page 26, please." Actor: "Do you have my resume in front of you?" Casting Director: "Yes, yes, right here." Actor: "And what does it say?" Casting Director: "Pardon me?" Actor: (getting upset) "What does it SAY?" Casting Director: "Say?" Actor: It says AGE RANGE - 18 to 96! Nonno is 97! I CAN'T DO 97! I CAN PLAY 96! 96! NOT 97!"

Actors obsess over their resume and headshot. It's understandable. We control so little in the business we've attached ourselves to so when we finally have something we can control, like a resume and headshot, we tend to get very obsessive. We show the pictures to everyone to get their opinion: friends, relatives, acting teachers, cab drivers, anyone who will take a moment to look at an 8x10 shot of us. "Do you think that little smile is too much like a smirk? Cause I really don't wanna come across as a smirker. What do you think? That blouse. Do you think it looks like something Melissa Gilbert would wear? Cause I really don't wanna bring Melissa Gilbert to mind. My hair. What do you think? I've parted it about a eighth of an inch higher than I usually do cause I'm trying to come across as a little smarter than I am in real life. What do you think? Is the picture of me smarter than the real me?" It gets silly, really it does.

But, having written all that, I love it. I just adore it. I would sit for hours in Ernie's office all those years ago, giggling at the resumes and headshots...but not AT the actors, I wouldn't think they were fools, no quite the opposite, I LOVED their little peccadillos, their private obsessions on how others perceived them. Actors are the most amusing, interesting, aware people I know. I love being around own kind. And I love reading what they hope for themselves and love reading what they've done that they're proud of. Actors, with their resumes and pretty shots of themselves, are exactly like people....only more so.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go practice my mid-central-urban-ethnic-second generation-Irish Maryland dialect.

See you tomorrow.