Aristophanes wrote in his play The Frogs: "High thoughts must have high language." Hopefully those thoughts are conveyed through that language in a clear and eloquent tongue, but sadly this is not a conspicuous practice by many American actors.
Robert De Niro has been celebrated by both critics and fans as one of the greatest American actors and/or movie stars of all time. Was he distinguished in The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter? Definitely. Was he exceptional in Raging Bull? Absolutely. But I have a problem with the way Robert De Niro speaks.
One of the "greatest actors of all time" should be changed to "one-of-the-greatest-actors-who-plays-characters-who-grew-up-in-New York". Because there is no doubt he is from New York, whether it's a comedy or a drama, he sounds the same in every single film. I may expect the regional accent when he plays the stereotypical Italian from the lower east side, but what does the east coast of the United States have to do with an 18th century Spaniard in The Mission or Captain Shakespeare in the fantasy Stardust?
I love New York City and Robert De Niro is a good actor. I don't dispute his talent. He has a presence onscreen. He works hard. He obviously has great work ethic or he wouldn't have built up such a formidable resume and garnered the respect of his film community. But why can't his voice get him out of the city?
De Niro is in that small upper echelon of famous, handsomely-paid working actors, so he stands out all the more because his speech is nowhere close to a standard American dialect that is taught in most voice and speech classes. Or is it taught anymore? Because he's not the only one. And while many movie stars are forced into types by casting agents and studios and their own agents or managers because it keeps them working, and because banking on the charisma, the "it" factor, the established personality of an actor is what will keep people going to see the movies and make that person into a movie star, how does this make an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman truly great if they almost always use the same dialect?
Even if Hollywood heavyweights like Will Smith or Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts don't sound like they are from NYC, are they really on the same level as Gary Oldman or Ralph Fiennes or Meryl Streep, or any actor who becomes lost in each role so that we don't really know who they are or what they sound like as themselves?
The Ridley Scott film Gladiator has topnotch action sequences, good performances and high production values. But I could not get past Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus, muttering and slurring throughout the film, a strident contrast to the fine lyrical enunciations of Derek Jacobi and Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Russell Crowe, and Connie Nielsen (English isn't even her native tongue).
This speech problem seems to be my particular pet peeve. In countless conversations about film or TV, the issue of how an actor talks doesn't seem to bother anyone else but me. But when I have a hard time understanding the words being mumbled out of someone's mouth, I lose the meaning. And I lose my suspension of disbelief. And I stop believing in the characterization and the intention.
Too many shows are full of actors who speak badly. The LA theatre scene is packed with young hopefuls, trying to break into the big time, who cannot enunciate and cannot project. And no one expects them to work on their vocal skills. And why should they? It's the path of least resistance. If I could achieve a lucrative career just speaking the way I normally do in each and every role, I probably wouldn't try either. The words of the character Henry Higgins were never truer.
"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.
If you spoke as she does, sir, Instead of the way you do,
Why, you might be selling flowers, too.
An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other
Englishman despise him.
One common language I'm afraid we'll never get.
Oh, why can't the English learn to set
A good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely
disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years!
Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?"
Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady