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Friday, October 20, 2000

Does evil have an accent?

By Rosemary Ford
Eagle-Tribune Writer

It started with "The Patriot," then came "Mission Impossible 2," "Gone in 60 Seconds," "X-Men," "Bless the Child" and now "Bedazzled." Even John Travolta spoke with one for his turn as a malevolent alien in "Battlefield Earth."

Evil Brits -- they're everywhere.

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Not since Darth Vader's underlings called him Lord Vader in that accent has evil sounded so classy. In recent films, Elizabeth Hurley is the devil herself with Brendan Fraser in ''Bedazzled released today.
Do Americans equate a clipped English accent with evil?

The bad guys and gals have been British before, but lately they seem to crop up with more frequency. From psychotic killers to satanic mischief-makers, all the queen's subjects appear to be up to no good.

Even when they don't sound British, the British are still evil, like Christian Bale of "American Psycho" and "Shaft" renown, and Ben Chaplin, also known as the satanic vessel in "Lost Souls." Both sounded thoroughly Yankee born and bred, though their origins come from a little east of Yankee central.

"I thought it's fairly traditional that the bad guy gets portrayed in various ways. If the shift is toward British accents, maybe it's our turn," said Vincent Avery, a Brit living in Andover who serves as dean of studies at Phillips Academy.

He doesn't feel that his accent gets a bad reaction here in the States. Just the opposite, Americans seem to have a cultural affinity for it.

But 14-year-old Emily Watson, an American raised in Great Britain, thinks Americans can find British accents a little disturbing.

"A British accent is more sinister-sounding than an American one," she said. "An American one is happy sounding."

Mythologist, psychologist and filmmaker Dr. Mark Greene, who reviews films for the Web site Headlinemuse.com, thinks even though Americans and Brits speak English, the accent makes it sound strange to the yanks.

"It is our language, but it is different, it represents the unknown within us, the shadow aspects of ourselves that we cannot possibly know and so project onto others who speak that language so strangely," he said.

Differences seem to make the difference between the villains and the vilified. For a while, it was minorities -- blacks, Hispanics and Indians -- that held monopolies on bad guys. Other favorites have been Germans, Russians and Arabs.

"It's one of the few (nationalities) yet to be labeled politically incorrect," speculated Boston University film professor Bob Demers, who hadn't noticed the trend but wasn't shocked by it.

Then again, it could be that old rivalry between America and its former mother country that's existed since the Colonial days.

"Maybe it's some sort of thing (where) Americans are trying to beat the British, even though we have done it millions of times over," Emily said.

Dr. Greene thinks the increase in villains with British accents could be a sign that Americans need an arch-nemesis to flex their muscles against.

"Let's face it, ever since the end of our overt hostilities with the U.S.S.R., we have had no 'big' bullies to deal with in the playground of the world," he said. "If you equate our war of independence from England as a break between father and son, you'll notice that the decline of the British Empire that eventually ensued, and our rising to power, fits neatly with this model. This same motif of son overthrowing father appears in many mythologies, but perhaps most germane to our perspective, the story of Zeus and the castrating of his father, Cronus."

In order to become king of the gods, Zeus went to war against his father, the leader of the Titans, a race of giants. Dr. Greene sees the same relationship between America and Great Britain.

"I'd say that the demise of England as a world power to be reckoned with led the way for us to continue our war with titanic Russia. Now that it is over, I believe we are re-living, at least on a psychological level, the original break from our English heritage in the realm of the imagined, in this case, cinema," he said. "This recent appearance of English 'bad guys' in the movies is certainly not a first, but I believe has been intensified now that the U.S. world order has pretty much been established. By portraying the Brits as evil, we are telling the story of how we became who we are, how we broke from the father."

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