Speaking in Dialects

[x-posted at The Rumpus]

Tim Monich has five times as many IMDB credits as Jason Schwartzman, but we know for whom Brooklyn tolls. This week’s New Yorker profile of Monich won’t change that, of course, but it does offer a riveting look at the world of Hollywood dialect coaches.

Movie accents are one of those things we don’t notice until they go bad, but, as Alec Wilkinson reports, Monich has worked with tons of stars, including Hilary Swank in Amelia and Matt Damon in Invictus. Whatever the role, Monich can rely on his incredible archive of sound recordings—more than six thousand of them, all filed in boxes bearing names like “USA A-H” (American dialects, Alabama to Hawaii).

The world of elite dialect coaching, as you might guess, is a small one; Monich received his start from a student-of-a-student-of-a-student of the man who provided the inspiration for Henry Higgins. (The New Yorker identifies Higgins as the Pygmalion character, but here, at The Rumpus, we’re on fine terms with My Fair Lady.) Thankfully, Wilkinson walks us through the entire process, showing how, under Monich’s aegis, Brad Pitt perfected the speeches memorialized this summer in the Inglourious Basterds trailer. Sooooun gud?

It’s all accessible––Wilkinson spares us any IPA or epiglottal consonants––and it’s all fascinating. Where else will you hear Gerard Butler compare Speak with Distinction to Ulysses? In fact, the whole thing recalls Rebecca Mead’s great 2003 profile of Jaime Pressly, “The Almost-It Girl.” (Like the Monich piece, it sits behind a subscription wall; what’s with The New Yorker burying its best Hollywood-from-the-margins stories?)

But there’s one key difference between Wilkinson’s profile and just about any other piece of Hollywood journalism, and I think it imbues the profile with much of its oomph. In no other story quoting so many celebrities—and Pitt/Damon/Swank are only the start—do they all talk about one relatively average guy. It becomes a weird, inverted world where Leo and Liam rub elbows with Monich and the regular folks he interviewed while building his archive. For a moment, or maybe just for an unruly vowel, the actor-viewer relationship reverses.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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