Well-known figures’ voices are often as distinctive as their thousand-watt smiles and influential hairdos.
While there is some evidence as to the accents and idiosyncratic speech patterns of such historical heavy hitters as Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale, and Harry Houdini, technological improvements have really upped the ante for those charged with impersonating real life people from the mid 20th-century onward.
Natalie Portman had to sustain her Jackie Kennedy impersonation for an entire feature-length biopic, a performance dialect coach Erik Singer gives high marks, above. Portman, he explains, has truly internalized Jackie’s idiolect, the individual quirks that add yet another layer to such signifiers as class and region.
As evidence, he submits a side-by-side comparison of the First Lady’s famous 1962 televised tour of the White House renovations she had spearheaded, and Portman’s recreation thereof.
Portman has done her homework with regard to breath pattern, pitch, and the refinement that strikes most 21st century ears as a bit stilted and strange. Most impressive to Singer is the way Portman transfers Kennedy’s oddly musical elongation of certain syllables to other words in the script. Tis no mere parrot job.
Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles succeeds on copious research and his ability to inhabit Charles’ habitual smile. Obviously, the posture in which an individual holds their mouth has a lot to do with the sound of their voice, and Foxx was blessed with plenty of source material.
The 1982 epic Gandhi provided the versatile Ben Kingsley with the opportunity to showcase not one, but two, idiolects. The adult Gandhi underwent a dramatic and well documented evolution from the British accent he adopted as a young law student in London to a proudly Indian voice better suited to inspiring a nation to unify against its British colonizers.
It’s likely that many of us have never considered the speech-related building blocks Singer scrutinizes while analyzing 29 other performances for the WIRED video, above—epenthesis, tongue positions, relative degrees of emphatic muscularity, and retroflex consonants—but it’s easy to see how they play a part.
Singer invites you to expand his research and teaching library by recording yourself speaking extemporaneously and reading from two sample texts here. Pray that whoever plays you in the biopic gets it right.
Peter Sellers Gives a Quick Demonstration of British Accents
Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent
Watch Meryl Streep Have Fun with Accents: Bronx, Polish, Irish, Australian, Yiddish & More
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
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