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Archive for March, 2013

Yesterday’s matches were never even close. Keanu and Liz left Kevin and Reese choking in the dust of their extraneous vowels and elongated syllables.

The last matches of the first round feature contemporary actors, including the money favorite to win the whole thing.

The first game pits yet another Scalawag – Georgia-born Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias – against New Yorker Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer.

Roberts speaks with the same accent many Southerners do these days, which is to say, not much of one at all. But for Steel Magnolias, she flattens her terminal r’s like roadkill, and gives every pronounced vowel that pseudo-aristo ‘aeh’ sound.

Apparently the “Closer” that Sedgwick plays in The Closer is supposed to be from Atlanta, which apparently is supposed to explain why she inserts an ‘ey’ where a short-vowel-sound would otherwise appear (i.e., she ey-inserts ey-an ey-‘ey’ whey-ere ey-a short-vowel-seyound weyould . . . OK, you get the idea).

In the second match-up, British actor Andrew Lincoln from The Walking Dead takes on an adversary even more terrifying than a herd of Walkers – Nicolas Cage in the immortal Con Air.

Lincoln’s accent isn’t always bad, which is what makes it so atrocious when it comes roaring up, seemingly out of nowhere, like he’s been bitten by Jerry Clower instead of a zombie.

I can’t find a decent clip from the show online, but that hardly matters since I don’t see how anybody can stand up to Cage’s “Put the bunny back in the box.”

Seriously. “Put the bunny back in the box.” Every other bracket may be a waste of time.

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In yesterday’s action, Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye narrowly avoided the upset bid by Burt Reynolds & Jon Voight in Deliverance.

This match was a lot closer than it deserved to be. Have you listened to Brando in that movie? His accent is offensive both to Southerners and to closeted Army officers.

The second match of Day 2 was chalk, with Dan Aykroyd in Driving Miss Daisy beating George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke in a runaway. Brando and Aykroyd will match up in Round 2.

Day 3’s first match sees Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate going against the tournament’s most recent entry, Kevin Spacey in the new Netflix series House of Cards.

An actor as accomplished and versatile as Spacey is a bit of a surprise entry in this tournament, but he overdoes the silkiness of his South Carolina congressman’s silky drawl. He actually sounds like what real Southerners sound like when they’re making fun of how some Southerners talk.

Keanu Reeves’s speaking voice doesn’t sound natural when he’s speaking in his natural speaking voice, so whose bright idea was it to make his hotshot lawyer/son of Satan a Southerner, anyway? Did I miss the part of the plot that explained why being from the South was in any way important to who his character is, or what he does? It’s entirely possible that I did miss that part, since I’ve never been able to watch the entire movie, largely because Keanu’s accent is so bad.

Place your votes:

Today’s second match pits two great actresses against each other: Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof versus Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama.

Elizabeth Taylor was a beautiful woman and an electric screen presence who played Southerner after Southerner without ever quite mastering the accent. We could have picked from any of a number of movies, including her pairing with Brando in Reflections, but we decided to go with one of her best, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

And, yes, I know we’ve let Paul Newman off the hook twice now, but his accent in Cat, or in Cool Hand Luke, was never as distracting as his co-stars’.

Reese Witherspoon grew up in Tennessee, so – like with Burt in Deliverance – I’m going to blame what happens in Sweet Home Alabama on a Hollywood suit, telling the Southerner she doesn’t sound Southern enough. Her accent’s supposed to thicken as the movie goes on, but mostly it just grates.

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The first match-up of the Dixie Babble Bad Accent Tournament ended in the first upset, as #4-seed Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain upended overall #1-seed Half the Cast of Fried Green Tomatoes. In yesterday’s other match, Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear edged out Kevin Costner in JFK, setting up a showdown between Oscar-winning actors in Round 2.

Day 2 of the Bad Accent Tournament brings us some icons of American cinema, and also Dan Aykroyd.

In the first game, Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye faces the pairing of Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight in Deliverance.

You know Brando had dental implants put in to make him look more jowly for The Godfather? Had Reflections in a Golden Eye been made after The Godfather, you might think those implants had come loose and were rolling around in his mouth while he delivered his lines. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that that’s a “Southern” accent he’s supposed to be talking with, so he might not deserve a place in this tournament, after all.

Jon Voight is a New Yorker who don’t know no better. Burt Reynolds, you should know (and if you don’t, you should be ashamed of yourself), grew up in a part of Florida far enough north to be considered South, and speaks with an easy good ol’ boy twang in many of his movies. Don’t get me wrong – Voight and Reynolds are brilliant in Deliverance, and his performance as Lewis Medlock helped make Reynolds the biggest star in Hollywood. Someone somewhere, either back in Hollywood or there on the banks of the Chattooga, must have told Reynolds he needed to sound more ‘Suthehn.’ But if that’s the price we had to pay to get Smokey & the Bandit, it was well worth it.

Vote below:

Game 2 of Day 2 matches up George Kennedy’s Oscar-winning performance in Cool Hand Luke with Dan Aykroyd’s not-Oscar-winning performance in Driving Miss Daisy.

Like Burt & Jon, George Kennedy delivers a great performance in a fantastic movie despite a distractingly bad accent. Is his Dragline supposed to be a Cajun? If so, he must have lost a lot of his accent in that Florida jail. Is Dragline just a Florida cracker good ol’ boy?  If so, was he hit in the head?

Dan Aykroyd shows up in Driving Miss Daisy for a just a few, fairly short scenes. Maybe that’s why his character talks like he’s in one of those SNL sketches that they tack on after the musical guest’s second song.

Place your votes here:

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Let’s start by agreeing that there is no single “Southern” accent. The modern South is too big, too diverse, too mobile to share any but a very few vocal traits across the region. Native Southerners from the same town, even the same neighborhood, can sound nothing alike; NASCAR fans who’ve heard the Burton brothers speak know that even natives Southerners from the same house can sound very different (Ward jokes that his bedroom was on the southern side of the house).

Next, let’s acknowledge that Hollywood butchers accents from all over the world. The English are still outraged over Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. American actors playing Irish routinely sound like someone’s after their Lucky Charms, and I’m pretty sure that whoever does the voiceovers for Outback Steakhouse commercials isn’t really Australian.

Finally, let’s admit that some Southerners, sometimes, really do sound like that. It’s painful, but it’s true.

Nevertheless, to someone from the South, nothing is as grating as a bad Southern accent in an otherwise enjoyable movie or TV show. Some of the best actors ever have stumbled trying to affect a drawl or a twang; few, apparently, ever even bother learning exactly how they talk in the corner of the South that their characters are from.

The purpose of the Dixie Babble Bad Accent Tournament, then, is self-explanatory, but I’ll explain it anyway: to determine the worst “Southern” accent ever captured on film or tape. Our selection committee has picked 16 of the worst offenders. We have actors who sound like they’re talking with a mouthful of molasses, who sound like Scarlett O’Hara on quaaludes, who’ve opted (or tried) for a generic drawl when the character’s supposed to be from some place with a distinct local sound, like New Orleans or the Appalachians. We’ve grouped them into 4 brackets and seeded them with, we hope, a little better judgment than the NCAA shows. By the end of the month, we will know who reigns supreme.

Or, who-ah ray-eens su-preyeem.

When choosing the field, the selection committee disqualified any accent that was supposed to be cartoonishly broad – so no Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit, no Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds, no anybody in O Brother Where Art Thou, and no Foghorn Leghorn (also, because we all kinda wish we talked like Foghorn Leghorn).

Also disqualified was any actor with the good sense to not even bother; those actors, in fact, are automatically named to the Clark Gable Memorial All-Star Team.

With no further ado, please welcome the actors facing each other in our opening matches:

Our first game pits overall #1 seed “Half the Cast of Fried Green Tomatoes against the #4 seed from their bracket, Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain (nominated by Dixie Babble reader Laurel Retherford Barnes).

Both sides in this match are working the Scalawag angle, by featuring Southern actors, or actors who’ve spent significant time in the South, and should therefore know better. (To be fair, they probably had a director, producer, or studio suit badgering them that they didn’t sound “authentic” enough.) Zellweger, a Texan, won an Oscar for this performance, in which her accent isn’t bad, as much as it is . . . much. She sometimes sounds like Loretta Lynn right after a root canal.

The “Half the Cast of Fried Green Tomatoes” in question is the half that appears in the flashback “Whistle Stop” scenes; Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy do admirable accent-work in the contemporary scenes. But Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker labor their lines with molasses-drawls so thick it’s a wonder the movie didn’t last longer than Doctor Zhivago. Parker graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts, so one assumes she heard actual Southerners speak at some point. Nick Searcy is one of my favorite actors, a North Carolinian who speaks with his natural, wonderfully understated twang on Justified, a twang that apparently just wouldn’t do for this earlier work.

Take a listen using the links above, then cast your vote:

The second match of the first round pits two movie stars who try on accents that wander across just about every Southern stereotype, but never get closer than hollering distance to the place where the character’s supposed to be from. #2 seed Kevin Costner, in JFK, modulates his inflection and draws out his vowels, but at best he speaks with the generic accent that’s supposed to signify “South.” New Orleans is almost impossible to nail down, since so many peoples and traditions have come together there, and family has such a profound effect on how one talks; think Peyton Manning and Harry Connick, Jr. No one in New Orleans sounds like this, though. (At least he doesn’t say ‘New Or-LEENS.’ Does he?)

Robert De Niro is one of the great actors of American film, and his performance in Cape Fear is terrifying. His accent, though, is a grab bag of vocal stereotypes, veering from ‘Hillbilly’ to ‘Low Country’ in the same sentence. His speaking-in-tongues ain’t bad, though.

Round 1 continues tomorrow.

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Once there was a land that lay, green and rolling, between a long chain of mountains and a turbulent sea. This land held only a couple of real cities, but a lot of jumped-up towns. The people who lived in this land didn’t much care for one another, by and large – not for the ones who lived in the land’s far corners, nor for those right across the state lines, nor even for their next-door neighbors, sometimes. To a visitor the people of the land seemed more or less alike, but a native could go on for hours about the foreign, foolish, and downright immoral ways of those who preferred to wear different colors.

But for all they saw as foreignness – because of all they saw as foreignness – nearly everybody in this land came together every year, just before spring sprung, to cease all daily business and watch the champions of their preferred colors compete in a tournament so all-consuming that they just called it the Tournament, in a shared disdain for all other multi-competitor competitions settled in single-elimination or round-robin fashion.

The Tournament was three high holy days, three feast days, all in a row. Friends and families gathered to wear their preferred colors in close proximity and eat traditional foods. The outcomes made stone-hearted men weep with joy or despair.

Things changed. The land improved its commerce with the greater nation. Natives moved away. Newcomers, who knew little of the old ways and cared even less, came, with cables and satellite dishes that let them keep track of distant loyalties. The land itself pushed against its old horizons, and this was not a bad thing. But the land became less of a land, less cohesive and neighborly. Fewer and fewer in the land cared about the Tournament, and nobody cared as much.
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I honestly don’t remember what grade I was in, the first time the teacher brought in a TV, one Friday in early March, turned it on at noon, and spent the rest of the day letting us watch the first two games of the ACC Tournament1. It may have been kindergarten, and every year after. I don’t remember because I did not think to notice, it seemed so commonplace, so not unexpected. In the North Carolina Piedmont, in the 1970s, even small children knew about the Tournament.

We knew about the Tournament; we had heard our parents speak of it. We may have not yet heard them talk about David Thompson and Len Elmore, and we had not yet heard of Ralph Sampson or Johnny Dawkins, but we’d heard them talk about the Tournament. We’d heard the name, just like we’d heard the names Lefty Driesell, Phil Ford, the Pilot. At the time, I wasn’t sure if “Dean” was the name or the title of UNC’s Smith; I just knew that when Smith coached the U.S. Olympic team, my father rooted for the Russians.

As best as I can recall, I was in college – at an ACC school, of course – before I found out that halting class to watch basketball games was not ordinary. I remember some years growing up when the teacher didn’t get to the A/V Room sign-up sheet in time, and she’d ask the class if anyone could bring in a TV that Friday. We’d plug it in and play with the rabbit ears until we picked up WFMY, at least in elementary school. In middle school, we’d find WRAL; by high school, we found WSPA. My family moved around the Carolinas, but the Tournament was a constant.
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Others can tell you about the games themselves, the players, the moments: Lennie Rosenbluth in ’57; State and Maryland in overtime in ’74; Randolph Childress’s game- and Tournament-winner in ’95. Books and YouTube record the games and the plays; they are fixed points in so many memories, easy to recall and relate. I’m after something more fragile and subjective, something easier to lose. I’m concerned with the effect of those moments. I’m concerned with the land that gave those moments their effect.

For its first 21 years, only the winner of the Tournament got to represent the ACC in the NCAA’s tournament, and play for a national championship. All those great teams would gather for the Tournament, and by Sunday afternoon, all but one would be done for the year. Then in 1975 the NCAA expanded its tournament to 32 teams, which was great, because great ACC teams that didn’t win the conference could still win the national title, like Duke did in 1991, or Carolina did the last three times it won the NCAAs. We recognized that it would be a diminishment, but we didn’t notice any, at least not at first.

Then in 1979, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird practically invented the concept of March Madness, and the realization of how much fun betting on a month-long tournament can be spread across the country like a virus, and someone called the NCAA Tournament “the Big Dance,” and the name stuck. The name stuck on Tobacco Road, too, and ACC teams added much to the madness – UNC and NC State won it all, back to back, in 1982 and ’83; Georgia Tech made the Final Four in 1990; Duke reached the Final Four five straight years, and won in ’91 and ‘92; Carolina (or Chris Webber?) won Dean Smith another title in ‘93, and won two for Roy Williams in 2005 and 2009; Maryland won the NCAA title in 2002. We wanted our teams to win the Tournament, but of course we wanted them to win the national title more, and we knew that lessened the Tournament, but in March we didn’t much care. Ol’ Roy even came out and said that he considered the Tournament a distraction, a detriment, an extraneous demand on teams with sights set on bigger goals.

Outside the arenas, Tobacco Road transformed, starting with the tobacco that, by the turn of the century, hardly grew around here at all. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Even if we still wanted to farm tobacco, we’d be hard pressed to find a patch of unoccupied, unpaved soil between Raleigh and Winston-Salem to grow it in. North Carolina’s jumped-up towns grew into cities, and its villages grew into jumped-up towns, and the whole state filled to bursting. Now, a North Carolinian’s neighbors are as likely to while away the winter following – Lordy mercy – hockey as college basketball, and most natives don’t have the slightest idea how to trash talk over hockey.

The same thing was happening in Atlanta and in that marble town outside College Park, Maryland. Clemson and Florida State had always been football-first schools, tokens of deep-South SEC culture in the upper-South ACC. Virginia had a long dry spell after firing Terry Holland, and their focus seemed to shift north. They seemed to want to be the “public Ivy” more than they wanted to be in the Kudzu League2, and I have a hard time imagining 2013’s most famous Wahoo stopping production on 30 Rock to watch the Tournament3.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, necessarily. But for several years now, the TV cameras can’t help but find the empty seats, even though the Tournament hasn’t opened ticket sales to the general public since 1966. Few care to take a Thursday off to watch the opening rounds. The Tournament, as an event, lacks not just the urgency, but the festivity it once had.

Then the macroeconomics of the industry once known as “college sports” pushed the ACC to poach its Yankee rival, the Big East, taking first Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech, and then Pittsburgh and Syracuse, in order to “expand its media footprint,” and now please excuse me while I go wash my fingertips for typing that phrase. That expansion, at least, made geographic sense; with the announced additions of Louisville and Notre Dame, though, the Atlantic Coast Conference broke down its old boundaries – and the logic of its name – with a terrible crash.

Keep in mind, though, that we live in a world in which the Big Ten will soon have 14 member schools, divided into “Legends” and “Leaders.”  One of those schools is ACC charter member Maryland. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, at all.

I’m not saying that any bit of this is a bad thing; it’s only basketball, after all, and I’m just being sentimental. The ACC and its Tournament – the way they used to be, with the full passion they could inspire, and the sense of shared identity (or even  – dare I say it? – of purpose, for a time) they could foster – will be another cherished childhood memory that’s only a memory, another much-loved pastime that’s a thing of the past. The schools of the ACC will continue to play basketball (or try to, in some cases), and I’ll still watch. I’ll be one of those crotchety old-timers complaining that it ain’t like it used to be, just like the ones who used to tell me that the Tournament ain’t like it was back in the days of the single bid, or back when they held it in Reynolds Coliseum. I’ll tell some young fans about my teachers bringing in TVs to watch the Tournament in school, and they’ll look at me the way I looked at my father when he told me they let school out for two weeks in the fall so kids could help bring in the tobacco crop.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m not even completely sure that it’s a damn shame.

 

1 The Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament, just in case I need to specify.

2 The unofficial roster of high-prestige universities in the South, and a topic deserving of its own post one of these days.

3 Let me know if I’m wrong, Tina.

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Y’all need to quit picking on Shelby County.

It’ll be hard, I know. Any part of the South that challenges any part of the Voting Rights Act would seem to be asking for it.

That’s just it, though: it’s low-hanging fruit. It’s a comedy goldmine. It’s too easy, since it fits so neatly into so many preconceptions. The jokes practically write themselves:

Weekend Update’s “Really?” on the Voting Rights Act

The Daily Show’s “Ballots of the Southern Wild”

I’m not saying the South’s not the “Michael Jordan of racism,” and I’m the last person who’d say we should look away, Dixieland, from what white Southerners did not all that long ago.

If we’re going to talk about – or even just joke about – the Shelby County case, though, can we acknowledge that they’re not challenging the Voting Rights Act, but only Sections 4(b) and 5, which require all or parts of 16 states to get federal permission to make any changes to how they conduct their elections? Can we give more than passing mention to the fact that New York, California, and New Hampshire are bound by the same Section 5 provisions as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana? Can we admit, after the voter suppression efforts in those Dixie-fried backwaters Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, that maybe Shelby County’s case shouldn’t be that they don’t need those Voting Rights Act safeguards anymore, but that the rest of the nation does, too?

(While we’re at it, could someone at NPR learn the correct way to pronounce Calera?)

Could Jon Stewart and Seth Myers look a few dozen blocks uptown, to the Manhattan deli where Forest freakin’ Whitaker was stopped and frisked and suspected of shoplifting, and then do more than shrug it off with the suggestion – if not the assertion – that while, sure, our part of the country has its racism, the South’s racism used to be a whole lot worse, and that make ours’ OK?  Can we recognize that the South has always been shot through with dissenters, or even that nowadays many in the South are only recently Southern, and are that only in terms of geography?

Or are we going to keep on making lazy assumptions about an entire group of people, counting on the unreflective acceptance of condescending stereotypes, many of which were derived from the effects of disparity in economics and opportunity, and doing so in large part because the handy demonization of the ‘other’ helps distract from inequalities and injustices within the larger cultural group?

‘Cause, you know, if there’s anything the South has proved it can do, it’s that.

Whatever the outcome of the Shelby County case, whatever the legalities affirmed or denied by the decision, it brings up a question of conscience and myth, the question this blog, in one way or another, is always asking: What claims does the past have on the present?

Almost all of legal segregation’s last defenders are dead and buried, but their children and heirs – literal and metaphorical – are still very much among us. Is it fair, then, to worry that the Shelby County challenge is Jim Crow’s first step out of the grave? Would we find it as worrisome (or as funny) if the challenge came from somewhere other than the heart of the Heart of Dixie, the suburbs of what once was “Bombingham”?  (Someplace like, say, Charlotte, the New South’s gleaming “Banktown” and host to the party of Barack Obama – even though it, too, did not make it through the Civil Rights Era unbombed?)

If you’re going to lay claim to any pride in the place you’re from, or in the happenstance of being from that place, you have to accept some shame for its faults and crimes, as well.

I feel shame for the South’s racial past, but not guilt. What practical obligations do I then have? What should I do, other than know the history, face the history, and tell the history, square and true, and do whatever little bit I can to keep the worst of it from happening again?

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