Like kudzu, a Southern accent on film can be a bit overwhelming.
And something of a sticky wicket.
My own personal worst is Olympia Dukakis in “Steel Magnolias.” She sounds, at best, as if she’s starring in a summer camp production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” Nicholas Cage’s Texas drawl in “Con Air” is pretty dismal too, but Texas is not my territory, accent wise or otherwise. So I’ll leave it to the Texans to decide for themselves.
However, here are a few Southern accents, honeyed or not, I’m partial to (and this, please remember, is only a partial list; there’s more to come in another installment):
Vivien Leigh: First as Scarlett O’Hara, the quintessential Southern Belle in “Gone With the Wind,” then as Blanche, the quintessential faded Southern Belle in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She won Oscars for both.
Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in “Driving Miss Daisy”: Tandy (who, incidentally, created Blanche on stage opposite Marlon Brando) not only captured a Southern sound, but she gave it the slightest Southern Jewish twinge. Freeman, whose work was vastly underrated by a liberal gaggle of reviewers made nervous by whom he was betraying, understood exactly the pitch and sound of a generation of African-Americans in the South who didn’t get a break coming or going. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance, but its spot-on accuracy made people uncomfortable. While Tandy won for her work, the Academy more contentedly awarded Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot.” (NOT that he was undeserving…)
Robert De Niro in “Bang the Drum Slowly”: As a terminally ill young catcher from Georgia taken under the wing of his team’s very popular and very polished pitcher (Michael Moriarty), De Niro captures both the cadences and the body language of someone in the small-town South.
Julia Roberts always sounds slightly Southern, intentionally or not. That’s probably because we’ve so identified her with her hometown Smyrna, Georgia. Even her pretty woman prostitute was supposedly from Atlanta. Her Oscar-winning portrayal in Erin Brockovich” called for something broader and she handled it just fine.
Like Roberts, Joanne Woodward is a native Georgian. As the split-personality heroine of “The Three Faces of Eve,” she goes this way and that way and just about any way she wants. Her Eve White has the softly simpering sound of a downtrodden Southern wife while her counterpart, Eve Black, is Southern slutdom incarnate. Watch her flounce across the room in her new dress in front of her bewildered husband. Giving him the slightest come-hither look, she says, “Oh, it’s got a little skirt to it, I see.”
Burl Ives as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is as booming as he is intimidating. We all know Big Daddy’s like this.
But even he doesn’t boom as well as the immortal Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah say…Ah say…”). God bless you, Mel Blanc. Pure genius from a man who probably never tasted a grit (as Joe Pesci would say in another good amalgam of Southern-speak, “My Cousin Vinnie,”) in his life.