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Why Does Every Southern Accent in a Movie Sound So Bad?

Credit…Photo illustration by Tyler Comrie

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) tells us exactly where she’s from in “Drive-Away Dolls,” Ethan Coen’s lesbian road-trip sex comedy. “I’m from Texas,” she shouts at her friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), who is in the passenger seat of a car given to them in a bumbling mistake. Their drive down the East Coast is cruising toward the Deep South, and communication styles are chafing. “Texas!”

There are other signals about Jamie’s home state. Her uniform throughout much of the film is sleeveless shirts tucked into bluejeans, cinched in with a too-big silver belt buckle. She has a replenishing supply of pet names for Marian; she is “sugar sweet,” “honey babe,” “honey darling.” They drive past a hokey campaign billboard for a family-values senator (Matt Damon), and Jamie’s eyes go wide, as if she’s remembering something: “Lesbian, don’t let the sun go down on you here.”

In a film propelled by high jinks, the gag that stays with us the longest is Jamie’s accent. It’s a linguistic triumph from Qualley in the sense that no one word can predict what the next one will sound like, the likenesses swinging from toddler to auctioneer. But the cadence is meant to be “Texas English,” a scripted proxy for helping us understand that she is brash, unrefined and simple. We’re in on the bad joke, until we’re not, because it wasn’t one. Qualley, who lived in Asheville, N.C., until age 14, lists two homegrown Texans, Tommy Lee Jones of Midland and former Gov. Ann Richards of Waco, as her reference points.

The Southern cinematic universe is rife with strange, cobbled-together accents. In “Where the Crawdads Sing,” in the fictional town Barkley Cove on the North Carolina coast, the British actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Harris Dickinson pass semi-Creolized phrases back and forth. The brothers in “The Iron Claw” manage to sound as if they were dropped off at fire stations in four different parts of Texas at birth. Panem, the dystopian hellscape where children fight to the death in the “Hunger Games” series, produced a dialect among nomads that resembles jukebox country; the heroine Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) singsongs her sentences as if she were an obliging staffer at Dollywood. Daniel Craig, never one to flout regimen, is owed restitution in the amount he spent on speech lessons for his role as Benoit Blanc in “Glass Onion.”

To be fair, these characters represent a measure of progress beyond the “Hollywood Southern” of the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine the production teams behind “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “The Dukes of Hazzard” setting aside funds for dialect coaches, or soliciting earnest statements from the cast about the months of research necessary to achieve pitch-perfect regional intonation. But the sincerity and the hard work can’t seem to shepherd these Southern characters into the modest domain of the plausible.

In the real world, we have no tolerance for failures in imitation. In 2021, there was Brian Kelly, then a 60-year-old son of Chelsea, Mass., and head coach of the Louisiana State football team, who tried on a Southern accent in a speech during a men’s basketball game and was instantly clowned for it. Kelly’s adoptive brothers in accent were hard to place — there were comparisons to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (who grew up in Alabama), Kenny Chesney (Tennessee) and Foghorn Leghorn (cartoon rooster based in part on a fictional politician based on a Texas rancher).

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