When I was nine years old, my family moved to Belgium from Florida for three years (courtesy of the US Army). The greatest consequence to come out of that move was that I learned how to speak French. My mother placed me in a French-speaking, Belgian school on SHAPE military base, and I was then forced to care about the language, if I wanted to pass the 4th grade.
Fast forward and you have me now, a Francophile who has an affinity for all things Francophone because I live in an English-speaking country. My ears perk up when I hear the language in public…I will strike up a conversation with almost anyone in French. My French isn’t perfect, but I try, and I suppose people appreciate that.
My love for French gets me into linguistic pickles. I hear melodic French words in my head that sound entirely wrong when pronounced by American tongues. Foie gras is NOT “foy grass.” I don’t care if you’re from Texas. I correct people when they pronounce “vinaigrette” as “vinegar-ette.” Do they really care? Not one iota. Worse, I am rather critical of awful accents in movies. If you’re going to be paid millions to act, gosh darnit, hire a dialect coach and get it RIGHT! Or the casting director should hire someone native to that region to lend authenticity. (Just for kicks, you can find a great list of bad accent acting here. My personal favorite is Cool Runnings. Leon with a Jamaican accent is HI-LARIOUS!)
If you have seen Tyler Perry’s Temptation, then you know there are other issues in that movie greater than language. But my pea brain stuck onto Vanessa Williams as Janice, the French-obsessed owner of a matchmaking company. The character went to Paris for two weeks and returned with a French accent so bad that Pepé Le Pew was offended. It stank up all her scenes. Throughout the movie, I cringed whenever Janice spoke. It was horrrrrrrible, I wailed in the theater. The caveat is that the bad accent was a plot device; Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s character yanked the wool from over Janice before the movie ended and accused her of being a phony.
Someone asked me why, if I knew that Williams was an American actress, did her interpretation of a bad French accent rankle so much? I sputtered and spouted about how actors and actresses should try to be as correct as possible when attempting accents, or not attempt it at all. I was accused of (gasp!) elitism. I don’t entirely agree with that. But I do think that, just as so many native French speakers have graciously ignored my clumsy syntax and quasi-Southern US & Belgian French accent, mayhaps I should show some appreciation that actors and actresses do try.
What do you think? Am I being too hard on them? Or should they do better?