G'day, Caesar!

A funny thing happened to Russell Crowe's accent on the way to the Colosseum.

Published May 16, 2000 3:30PM (EDT)

In the movies, accents of the ancient past are never easy. For "Gladiator," the Ridley Scott epic in its second week as box-office champ, Hollywood decreed that the lovely diphthongs (and sometimes triphthongs) of Australian English do not appropriately signal the stature and nobility of a Roman general turned slave.

So for his role as Maximus, Russell Crowe overlaid his native accent with a somewhat arbitrary mix of general American and formal British, known as British Received Pronunciation. But are his "I may be in the Colosseum but my heart is in Londinium" vowels any closer to the vernacular of Rome than his native Aussie? Well, notus exactlyus.

British, American and Australian varieties of English are, of course, equally distant from gladiator-speak, i.e., second century Latin. So how are decisions about accents made for a film like "Gladiator," in which the language of the characters is not just foreign but spoken only by small bands of classics professors and a dwindling number of oppressed boarding school students?

Judy Dickerson, Crowe's voice coach for "Gladiator," "The Insider" and "Mystery, Alaska," said that her main goal was to "corral Crowe's Australian." Because they had done so much work together on his accent for "The Insider" (for which he played a Southern tobacco exec), they didn't need to prepare as much for his trip to the Forum.

So the goal was not consistency, and the result was accordingly weird. Maximus emphasizes the occasional "r" after a vowel (as in "mouRned"), the way an American would; but he pronounces "before" as "befaw," with the pursed lips of an Englishman. And then there are the moments when Crowe's Australian vowels slip out. The giveaway sound for him (as for most Australians) is the "ay," as in "Spain" (which he pronounces halfway to "spine") or in "mate" (on its way to "mite"). Maximus' "ay" is somewhat constrained, but compared with the clipped and regal enunciation of Derek Jacobi as Gracchus, it is as long and broad as the Great Sandy Desert.

According to Dickerson, Crowe brought his own ideas about his character's voice to the film. Because Maximus was a soldier, a protector and, most important, an outsider, Crowe felt that his dialect needed to be different from the other characters'. (Maximus is nominally from Spain, but Spanish, of course, didn't exist yet.) This distinction was especially significant for underlining the contrast between Maximus as "man of the people" and the regal characters, including Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), the doomed Caesar; his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix); and Jacobi as Gracchus, a patrician member of the Senate. Scott, the director, agreed with Crowe and, according to Dickerson, didn't want Maximus to sound too "posh."

Because many of the actors playing royalty in the film were British and the British accent does sound "posh" to 21st century audiences, it is used in "Gladiator" for Roman royalty. The same was true for "Spartacus" 40 years ago; its stars included Britons Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov.

This, in turn, was a challenge for Phoenix, who was forced to try to match the "aristocratic" vowels of Harrison and Jacobi. Like Pontius Pilate and his lisp in Monty Python's "The Life of Brian," Phoenix affected an occasional substitution of "w" for "r," pronouncing "proud" as "pwoud," saying "wrote" as "wote" and, in an unfortunate Elmer Fudd kind of way, calling the "barbarians" the "barbawians." Lisp plus toga is of course cinematic shorthand for pure evil; accordingly, his character spends his film time displaying all manner of nogoodnickness in between trying to bed his sister.

Dialect coaching, long a tradition in the theater, has only recently become important in films. Dickerson credits Meryl Streep's renowned dedication to mastering accents and English dialects as one of the major turning points in this trend. So a mixed Aussie/Brit/American accent may not be an adequate substitute for Latin, but it's a distinct improvement on "Spartacus," where the issue doesn't seem to have been considered at all.

Of course, the other alternative is the anachronistic splendor of TV shows like the current "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," which revels in a pottage of ancient myth and modern-day underwear, primitive archetypes and 20th century psychoanalysis. (Hercules to Daedalus: "You can't change the past. All you can be is the man that Icarus knew and loved.") The bizarre visuals in this TV show are on a par with its Actors Equity mix of New Zealand and American accents and phraseology. So, like, as Hercules said to Iolaus, it's a step in the right direction, y'know?

By Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is an Australian writer who lives in New York City.

MORE FROM Christine Kenneally

Related Topics ------------------------------------------