Recently, in the Halloween spirit, some friends and I revisited The Skeleton Key, the 2005 jarringly anti-climactic, New Orleans-set voodoo-centric thriller. It stars Kate Hudson as an at-home hospice aide and amateur Nancy Drew, John Hurt as a nearly mute, haint-haunted old man, and Peter Sarsgaard as a reincarnated, devil-worshipping slave masquerading as a dashing small-town lawyer. If that last part sounds #problematic, that’s because it 1000% is.
But the weird racial element didn’t really clarify itself until the final moments of the film. The more pernicious issue throughout its duration was Peter Sarsgaard’s Southern drawl, which was almost nausea-inducing. It was just something about the combination of that and the Sarsgaard straight-outta-Garden-State-era rat face.
Fake Southern accents in films, TV, and theater are like a squid spraying ink all over your critical-thinking facilities. Sarsgaard’s made it almost impossible to follow the movie. Drawls of this sort are more difficult, lethal things than fake British accents, which at least can come in many different forms, and can be slipped in and out of lightly — especially upper-crust ones — without being too distracting. They are worse than bad Eastern European accents, which can turn French-ish pretty fast if you have the wrong diction coach. Southern accents are even a bit more terrible than fudged South African ones, which are pretty fucking suffocating — Blood Diamond, anyone? Those are so extreme, though, that you almost have to hand it to the person for agreeing to try it in the first place.
Eventually you lose track of whether any given Southern accent in film, TV, and theater started out “good” — as in, accurate — and then started to go south, or if it just went from bad to worse to evil before you could catch your bearing. Whatever else is true, literally every strongly delivered fake Southern accent in a film turns sour at some point — it’s just par for the drawl.
I don’t even know if Christina Ricci is doing a technically skilled Southern accent in the pilot for the prospective Amazon bio-series Z: The Beginning of Everything. It might be “good” (I don’t know) but that definitely doesn’t matter. The show follows the life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, who, before she married F. Scott and became one of the great socialites of the twentieth century, was a restless and charismatic judge’s daughter in Montgomery, Alabama. People generally seem to like it, though I kind of just wonder if those people wouldn’t be happier with a well-researched Zelda Fitzgerald biography — or the novel that inspired the show.
You can’t even catch your breath to separate the wheat from the chaff in Z, because 90% of the cast is rocking a fake Southern accent, and hard. The other ones — “Yankee” soldiers on leave visiting Montgomery — just say “old man” and “aces” a lot. How do I know the drawls are fake? I did check out the supporting cast’s backgrounds — you know, the ones I hadn’t previously seen in Prozac Nation — just in case, but trust me, you just know. I don’t hate Southerners or even their accents in homegrown form — just this fresh bio-shtick hell version of them. Just the sound of “Z”’s dialogue is enough to make one wish God had struck Tennessee Williams’ mother and father down before they even crossed paths.
It’s a shame, you can tell Ricci’s trying here, and generally, she acts very well here, capturing the young Zelda’s surprisingly youthful joie de vivre, if not exactly — as is intended — her overpowering charm. Part of the problem is that she’s given little to work with. This Zelda is a reductive caricature of Restless, Spunky Young Woman from Small, Conservative Town. Her hometown relationships are sketched exactly as might be expected, right down to scores of “handsy” admirers — all except the quiet, commanding, Sister Carrie-touting F. Scott — to her trembling-lipped stentorian father (great character actor Chris Strathairn) who calls her a “hussy” after coming home with “gin on her breath.” And all this, doubly ruined by in-your-face Southern accents.
The only moment of respite I felt in this pilot were the moments when people were dancing and not talking. I even felt thankful for the pointlessly long, half-stunt-doubled scene of Zelda doing pointe ballet. If Z gets greenlit — meaning, if a group of The Legend of Bagger Vance fans somehow take over the world and hack into a few thousand Amazon Prime accounts — then I feel sorry for all the progressively-minded 9th-grade English classes who will be made to watch the episode on an off-day during their Gatsby unit.