Why do Boston accents make good actors look bad?

boston-accentsImage Credit: Ali Goldstein/NBC; Andrew CooperLet me say right up front that I’m from Boston. So maybe it bothers me more than most to see so many actors butcher my hometown dialect. But seriously, why is it so damn hard to do a convincing Boston accent? I was reminded of this recently watching Leonardo DiCaprio mangle his vowels in Shutter Island. You’d think that after laying waste to his Beantown accent in The Departed, someone might have pulled him aside and given him a few tips or gotten him to a Red Sox game, where he could drink a few frosties with the locals in the bleachers and maybe learn a thing or two. But, no. It was the same honking mess. And he’s not alone.

Recently, I’ve sat there wanting to jab a knitting needle into my eardrums listening to Julianne Moore on 30 Rock, Tim Robbins in Mystic River, and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Apparently, there’s something about pahking the cah in Hahvad yahd that makes it the Bermuda Triangle for actors trying to infuse their characters with a little local color. It’s downright bizah.

“It’s like anything else in acting,” says Hollywood dialect coach, Jess Platt, “if you sound like you’re trying to do it, it’s not going to sound natural. The whole idea of doing an accent is you’re not supposed to sound like you’re doing an accent. It shouldn’t draw attention to itself.” For the record, Platt has worked with Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, Michael Caine, Geoffrey Rush, and Mike Myers, so the guy knows what he’s talking about.

So who are the worst offenders in his opinion? “I watched The Departed and I heard some pretty horrible accents going on. I didn’t think Leonardo DiCaprio’s was any good.” But Platt says it isn’t just Boston that gives good actors trouble. “Do you remember the film Pollack? Marcia Gay Harden had one of the worst New York accents I’ve ever heard, and I’m from New York. I was shocked by it and yet she won the Oscar!”

Don’t get me wrong, there are some folks who can do Charlestown or Southie convincingly. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Denis Leary come to mind. But that’s because they’re from there. Anyone who isn’t probably shouldn’t even bother unless they’re Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone. Honestly, it’s as embarrassing for them as it is for the folks who coughed up ten bucks to see their films. And if you think I’m being tough, just take a listen to the hodgepodge of suspect dialects in the trailer for Ben Affleck’s upcoming flick, The Town. It’s a shame Affleck couldn’t play every role. And as for you, Blake Lively, you’re on watch…

Read more:
‘The Town’ trailer: Ben Affleck’s Beantown cops-and-robbers flick looks legit

Comments (97 total) Add your comment
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  • Madd

    Leo’s accent in Shutter Island was terrible, yes, but I didn’t have a problem with it in The Departed. I didn’t really have a problem with Robin Williams’ either. Julianne Moore….not good.

    • me here

      only people from Boston would care if the accent was correct or not…. for the rest of us… we don’t care! If the movie is good so what! This goes for every other accent out there.

      • me here

        BTW I would like to see Meryl Streep try it…. sure she would nail it!

      • Ceballos

        I think you have a point about people from Boston being the ones who mostly have an issue with this, and that it extends to every accent out there.

        I can’t speak on his accent in “The Departed”, but I thought Leo turned in a great performance overall in that movie, while, to Chris, listening to him in that movie was nails on a chalkboard.

        From personal experience, I remember being flabbergasted that the obviously Mexican Salma Hayek was playing a Puerto Rican character on “30 Rock.”

      • Brie

        You’re right about most people not caring about a bad accent because they won’t notice it, unless it’s badly mangled. Boston just gets called out because it’s recognizable and lots of actors give it the old college try. I have to give them credit though…I’m from Michigan and few TV shows/movies set here have had the actors attempt our accent, and those that do tend to go with the Upper Peninsula version regardless of where the show is set. Al Pacino in “You Don’t Know Jack” is a good example, he definitely waivered in his attempt and often ended up on the Yooper end of the spectrum.

      • orville

        I thought I was imagining that, but you’re right–he was trying Yooper for some reason (and mangling it). I’m originally a Yooper (the accent tends to linger–my co-workers get a kick out of it). I don’t think I’ve ever heard a good imitated Yooper accent. Even Jeff Daniels didn’t quite manage it.

        And I find that imitated Canadian accents are almost as bad. They almost always go way to broad.

      • orville

        Oops–“too broad.”

      • Linsay

        To Be Honest, the Boston Accent is difficult to hear even from regular Boston people. It shouldn’t be voluntarily repeated. It sounds awful from people who grew up in Bosotn as well as actors trying to speak it.

      • Robert

        Are you kidding me? Julianne Moore’s accent ruins the episode for me. And, I’m not even from Boston. The same goes for most terrible accents. You’re constantly reminded that the person isn’t doing it right. That takes away from the work.

  • Sarah

    Julianne Moore on 30 rock was awful.

    • Adrienne Dinen

      I completely agree. It was so bad.

    • Lesfull

      In fairness, I think it was supposed to be over the top.

      • lia

        also in fairness, SOME PEOPLE SOUND LIKE THAT. and yes its just as annoying in person.

    • Kevin

      Pretty sure they wanted her to ham it up… it makes the NY vs. Boston jokes funnier.

    • E.

      Yes, but Julianne Moore’s over the top Boston accent was PART OF THE JOKE!

      • Robert

        People saying Julianne Moore’s over-the-top Boston accent is “part of the joke” don’t know what they’re talking about. The producers and cast have already confirmed and even backed her as being authentic. Stop playing mind games to protect the actor and the show. She’s just terrible. Simple and plain.

    • Suzanne

      She worked in a pub in Kenmore square.

    • V

      My understanding is that her accent is pretty much real (she actually worked in Kenmore Square??? for a while, where she heard it and picked it up).

  • Alissa

    Julianne Moore’s accent makes me stare at the screen going WHAT. STOP THAT. STOPPPPP THAT. beyond that, I’ve been able to overlook most of the bad Boston accents. although I will be fair that sometimes they sound better than really Bostonians…in that you can understand them, at least. haha. I love Boston, but every now and then I cannot for the life of me understand what someone’s saying.

  • Johnification

    One of the main ways an actor learns an accent is by immitation, and it sounds to be like the dearth of good Beantown accents is a self-perpetuating problem. I don’t know anyone who has a really strong “real-life” Boston accent, either.

    • Kerrin

      Then you haven’t met my large (lahhhge) extended family!

  • Amber

    I’m not from Boston, but I tried to watch Gone, Baby, Gone and turned it off within five minutes, because the two leads had no discernible accent. However, Julianne Moore’s accent was absolutely atrocious. Makes me glad I don’t watch 30 Rock. I didn’t Leo’s in Shutter Island because he kept mumbling, but he sounded good in the Departed.

    • Karin

      Well if you turned off Gone Baby Gone you missed a hell of a good movie and that’s just dumb.

      • will

        Loved Gone Baby Gone! Amy Ryan was robbed I tell ya! ROBBED!

      • L

        Funny, the lead male (Casey Affleck) in Gone Baby Gone is from Boston… but I thought he did a terrible job with it, it just sounded like he was trying too hard and just ended up with a really awful, totally unrealistic accent. I don’t get it. I’m from Boston and I can’t understand WHY IN THE WORLD people WANT to talk like uneducated people, HELLO!

  • Buffy Freak

    Julianne Moore’s was pretty bad…but at least she was doing comedy so maybe she was trying to be that bad. But when it’s bad in a drama, it can be really distracting.

  • Skip182

    The reason they don’t do convincing Boston accents is because people can’t stand them. Anyone who has ever visited Boston can attest to this. You can’t have the hero be someone you want to punch in the face every time he opens his mouth.

  • TRIM

    Who cares! Leo is the best!

  • Brett Blattman

    the irony of this…Robin Williams, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden all won Academy Awards for these performances.

  • TQB

    Well, I’ve lived in Bahston for 12 years and I know PLENTY of people with really strong Boston accents. I think the problem is that if you get it right, you sound like an idiot. Wasn’t Tom Hanks in “Catch Me If You Can” also attempting a Boston accent? Because that too was terrible.

  • Kristina

    I live just outside Boston now and I have to say, Julianne Moore did a REALLY bad job. But then again, maybe it was Tina Fey poking fun at Bostonians? Making Moore over-exaggerate the accent? Or not…

    And I’ve been here over two years now and so far my landlady has the thickest accent I’ve heard yet and she grew up just west of Boston. I’ve known some Southies who don’t have an accent quite like hers. You hardly hear it in the city.

    • Vince from NYC

      I think your right Kristin. The accent was a bit over the top just like the show is.

  • James Howlett

    .;

  • Kristina

    And I’ve always wondered this but why can’t Americans to decent accents for any other country? And why are the British so good at American accents? I can always tell when watching a British film who is American. Is it just me?

    • Kristina

      *do decent accents… clearly I need to proof read

    • DT

      I think that with the Brits, it’s a matter of lattening out how they usually speak, whereas American accents by and large are flatter and plainer and they overcompensate when they try to deliver the peculiarities of an English accent. I’m from the South and alot of actors seem like they got their vocal stylings from old eps of HEE HAW, so unless you’re a Midwesterner or a Californian, your accent is going to be screwed up if the actor is not from the region, basically.

    • Mikka

      I don’t know. Some Brits are good but others are horrible. I think it’s because they watch more of our TV than we watch of theirs. The Australians are fantastic at American accents. They claim it’s because they grow up watching American TV. It must be true.

  • Emily

    I have lived in Boston since I was 8 years old and I don’t know one person who has an accent this strong. It is really something you hear only in certain areas. So it bugs me that every person from Boston in a movie HAS TO have a terrible accent. Most of us speak with no accent at all.

  • Kate

    It goes to almost angering me, I grew up in Quincy and apparently have no discernable accent. And the fact of the matter is they are all trying to do some sort of Revere accent on Kennedy thing. Seriously don’t any of them bother to listen to Matt Damon’s normal speaking voice? Or Mark Walberg’s? Heck, Denis Leary’s isn’t actually a Boston accent, it is Worcester!

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