Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Australians never play Australians

It turns out, Australian actors can do really good Australian accents.

You wouldn't know it, because they are almost never called upon to use their regular speaking voice in Hollywood films. But it's true.

And it's darn fun to see sometimes.

That's one of the reasons I enjoyed the otherwise meandering final hour of Funny People, which we watched on Saturday night. Right around the time most comedies would be wrapping up, Aussie Eric Bana enters the story for the stretch run of the film's gargantuan 2-hour-and-26-minute running time. He plays the philandering Australian husband of Leslie Mann's character, who is trying not to fall back in love with her ex-boyfriend, the successful comic actor played by Adam Sandler as a version of himself.

I don't recall Bana being cast often, if ever, in comedies, but he was funny as hell -- in part because he was probably also playing a version of himself. Not to suggest that Eric Bana is a cheat, or particularly aggro -- though the fact that both of those characteristics describe what I understand to be the stereotypical Australian male certain doesn't hurt the chances. I loved the performance on face value, but was also judging it based on how much my wife was giggling next to me on the couch. Being an Australian and all, my wife was in a pretty good position to judge the truth of his performance -- and she founded it to be quite true indeed. The quintessentially Australian phrases -- "Are you taking the piss [out of me]?", for example -- and the quintessentially Australian male interests -- Australian rules football, or "footy," for example -- were all there. The charming braggadocio, the quickness to be convivial, the eagerness to tell stories, yet the readiness to fly into jealous rages at any moment -- Australian through and through. And Eric Bana through and through as well, probably.

Yet we never see it. In fact, hearing "Australian" coming out of his mouth was a strange sensation indeed.

Let's consider. If you were a consumer of world cinema, you might have known Eric Bana from the 2000 film Chopper, which I've always considered to be his Romper Stomper. Romper Stomper is one of the films that brought fellow countryman Russell Crowe to the attention of Hollywood, and besides, they've got similar titles and similar heavily violent subject matter. That's really all I can compare them on, actually, because I haven't seen Chopper yet. I know, some Australian-by-marriage I am.

But if you just started charting Bana when he broke into Hollywood movies, the only way you would have known (prior to Funny People) that he's Australian was reading a story about him. Black Hawk Down? Played an American soldier. The Hulk? Played an American scientist turned into an American superhero/mutated freak. Troy? Played a Trojan prince. Munich? Played an Istraeli intelligence agent. Lucky You? Played an American poker professional. The Other Boleyn Girl? Played the king of England. Star Trek? Played a Romulan supervillain -- which is funny, because he also appeared as a character named Romulus in an Australian film called Romulus, My Father. The Time Traveler's Wife? Played a librarian from Chicago.

So as you can see, only some of Bana's Hollywood roles have been Americans -- or even earthlings. None, until Funny People, had been Australians.

And this gets at a funny disconnect about Australians and Hollywood. Australia might be a huge mass of land, but its population is quite small relative to that, organized mostly around the big cities. Yet Australia has given us a number of iconic actors that's vastly disproportionate to its population. Of course, we have a huge number of Brits in Hollywood as well, but the difference there is that Brits sometimes play actual British people. (And England has a much larger population, 51 million to 22 million). There are a lot more British characters in Hollywood scripts than there are Australian characters, and because of that, we get to hear their regular speaking voices now and again. Not really so with Australians.

So let's take a look at some of the big Hollywood names we have Australia to thank for -- and how often we hear them "speaking Australian." Keep in mind that I have not seen all the films by these actors, so there could be examples of them appearing as Australians that I'm missing.

Mel Gibson. And I guess I'm starting off with the exception here. Gibson's an exception for a couple reasons: 1) The Mad Max movies, which made him famous, were popular Australian exports; 2) Gibson was born in New York and moved to Australia when he was 12, so while he does have something of an Australian accent, it's not the kind a native would have. Bad way to structure your argument, Vance -- let's move on to some better examples.

Russell Crowe. After he crossed over to the U.S., we've really only seen Crowe as an Australian in Proof of Life, in which his Australian-ness is not an essential plot detail, but a choice, perhaps made simply to let Crowe use his own voice for once. Of course, Crowe being who he is, we've heard his real voice in acceptance speeches and other moments of aggro self-embarrassment.

Nicole Kidman. Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm was popular enough over here that some people heard Kidman's real voice as long ago as 1989, but she wasn't NICOLE KIDMAN yet then. And despite a massive body of work, she hasn't played an Australian since. Ironically, when she appeared in last year's Australia, which would have seemed the perfect time, she played a Brit living in Australia. Which brings us naturally to ...

Hugh Jackman. Jackman did get to play an Australian in Australia, but that's his only such prominent work as an Australian since coming on our radar in X-Men. Wait, was Van Helsing Australian?

Naomi Watts. Like Kidman, she also appeared as a Brit in a movie set in Australia: Ned Kelly. Otherwise, most of us haven't seen her Australian speaking voice at all. She did play an Australian in a little movie called Ellie Parker, which is semi-autobiographical -- Watts plays a young Australian actress trying to make it in Hollywood. But as this was seen only by me, my wife and about 78 other people, it doesn't count. Which brings us to ...

Heath Ledger. Ledger was also in Ned Kelly, as the title character. Pretty much nothing Australian on his CV (to use an Australian term) after that.

Cate Blanchett. After breaking in as Queen Elizabeth, the luminous Blanchett has only been an Australian once -- and she had to play herself to do it. In fact, Blanchett plays both herself and her envious black-sheep cousin in a memorable scene in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes.

In the interest of trying to be a bit more concise, I'm going to halt the list there. But you see where it's going. Those are seven powerhouse names, and five of them can do whatever they want in Hollywood -- Ledger is, as you know, deceased, and Gibson's still picking up the pieces after his infamous anti-Semitic rant. Before then, he was obviously one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

It's as unclear what it is about being an Australian that makes a person a good actor, as it is unclear why more random Australian characters aren't written into more movies. Maybe Australians just have better teeth and bone structures than Brits, which is why these Australians have made it bigger than their similarly talented British counterparts. As to why there aren't more Australian characters written ... well, that's a mystery. Americans seem endlessly fascinated with Australia as a place, and the accents are fun to imitate.

Maybe Paul Hogan just ruined it for all of them.


Anonymous said...

Actually Cate Blanchett has played 6 Australian characters on celluloid. She was her natural Aussie in a TV show she headlined called Heartland, she was an erudite Aussie in Thank God He Met Lizzie, an Aussie ranchowner in Oscar & Lucinda, an Aussie nurse in Paradise Road, like you said versions of herself in C&C, & finally, last but not least a recovering suburban Aussie addict in the flik Little Fish. Sorry, had to correct you. ;-)

Vancetastic said...

Good correction, however, I'm referring primarily to movies either made in the U.S./by Americans/starring other big-name actors. I know I probably wasn't clear. Actually, many of these actors have gone back to do roles in small films in their native country -- they just haven't been movies that American viewers are likely to see. The contrast is primarily evident in the fact that Brits do play characters of British heritage, Germans play characters of German heritage, Spaniards play characters of Spanish heritage ... but for some reason, Australian characters are not really written in American films.

Lord Vader said...

Interesting post - I wonder if no-one has pointed out to you that Eric Bana first became famous in Australia as a comedic actor, mainly in television sketch comedy? So much so that his taking on the role of Chopper was regarded with skepticism, at least until the film was released.