Saturday, July 6, 2013

What You Talkin' 'Bout, Helen Mirren?

I've heard it over and over, so many times during my seven years living outside of the United States (usually from Brits) that at times it's practically shamed me into silence: The Queen's English is the only proper English.

People from the United States not only don't know what they're talking about, but most of the time, they don't know how to say it either. (Their thoughts, not mine.) We might get a better linguistic rap than Australians -- except in the United States, where Aussie accents are considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac, second only to British ones -- but not by much.

During my first year living in Buenos Aires, I dated an Argentine guy who was studying English at university in hopes of one day becoming an English professor. His own professor, an Argentine who had studied English in the UK, had mastered the language and used it flawlessly, or so she thought because she spoke the Queen's English. In her mind, U.S. English was only a few steps up from "Plate English" (a presumably self-coined phrase for broken Argentine English and a reference to the Río de la Plata that flows past Buenos Aires).

"Lift, not elevator. Toe-MAH-toe, not toe-MAY-toe. Careful with your 'a' sounds. Long vowels only. Period. Class dismissed."

I seethed when my ex told me about his teacher, who sounded like a haughty language snob who got an ego boost from dismissing the verbal expression of speakers from entire countries because they didn't say things her way. (Incidentally, on our first date, my ex and I had watched the 2007 Oscars, during which Helen Mirren won for her portrayal/uncanny impersonation of Elizabeth II and her graceful negotiation of that Queen's English in The Queen.) How dare she turn up her nose at the way my fellow countrymen speak? That's my job!

As someone who had been ridiculed growing up for having a strange Caribbean accent, and someone who had more recently moved to a new country where I didn't speak the language and was in the process of learning it, I knew how it felt to have to climb your way up from the bottom of the linguistic ladder. Sure as a journalist and as a full-time practitioner of proper English (though not the Queen's), I found good grammar and a command of any language to be incredibly sexy (and still do), but I had a lot of patience with people from non-English-speaking countries who, like my ex, occasionally, or even frequently, mangled English. Unlike people who were born in the U.S., grew up speaking English and still sound as if it's their second language, foreigners have an excuse.

But I'm not above falling for the Queen's English. Attached to the right face, it can make my knees buckle. On my list of ways to woo me right, speaking with a proper English accent would rank right up there near the top. There's just something about the formality, both in speaking and in writing, the colour and the organisation of words. It can turn the most pedestrian thought into utter brilliance, make a young hooligan with no academic prowess sound not only older but wiser, too.

I'm convinced it's why the Academy has such an obsession with handing out Oscars to British actors, even ones who, like Ireland's three-time Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis, play characters (Lincoln's Abraham Lincoln, for instance) who talk like Americans. It's the part of the reason why Helen Mirren, even if she weren't such a brilliant actress, probably could still round up Oscar buzz (and, in two cases, nominations) for playing second-tier wife roles such as Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George, Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station, and Alma Reville in Hitchcock.

She can deliver a line like "And you are a stone-hearted bitch. I lost five children. Why couldn't one of them have been you?" (which she did in The Last Station) and make it sound like Shakespeare. At the 2008 Oscars, when she presented Day-Lewis with his second Best Actor Oscar (for There Will Be Blood) by faux-knighting him, I thought, "There go two of the best speakers in the English-language world."

But maybe Mirren should stick to the scripts. When I read an online teaser indicating that she had weighed in with a warning for wayward twentysomething actresses Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes, I was expecting the utmost in eloquence and excellent advice, and for the first time ever, Mirren thoroughly disappointed.

"I don't know if you're allowed to say this on television: Don't be up your own bum. People get up their own [bum], and you really don't need to. It's the thing of the young, and just don't do that."

What does that even mean? It's not just that the imagery is disgusting, but I'm not even sure what her message is. That they're too full of themselves? That they're too immature? Isn't there a way to say this that doesn't make Mirren sound like she's auditioning to play Eliza Doolittle 40 years on? Where's the insight, that famous Queen-ly elegance and eloquence? Did those action-movie fumes she inhaled while filming RED 2 (out July 19) invade the part of her brain that's responsible for verbal expression? Bynes offers more compelling stuff on Twitter.

I expect better from the Queen's English. I was hoping for more from a supremely talented and supremely sophisticated 68-year-old actress who, for 97 minutes in 2006, convinced me that she might have been The Queen. If Bynes and Lohan can decipher her advice and end up taking it, let's hope they do as she says, not how she says it.
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