Some actors spend hours, days, even months painstakingly perfecting accents for their roles. A great accent can enhance a performance, but an awful one can derail the whole thing.
Perhaps the most lauded vocal chameleon this decade is Meryl Streep, who took on a Bronx accent for Doubt, and Julia Child's round, bouncy tones in Julie and Julia.
"That's more an impersonation than an accent, but she nailed it," film critic Bob Mondello says. He tells NPR's Guy Raz that Streep represents a kind of internationalization of American acting.
"She's one of many actors that go out and they do accents from all over the place," he says. "You get used to the idea that an American actor can play anything, because essentially, in our movies, American actors do."
For example, Morgan Freeman is playing Nelson Mandela in a movie that opened just last weekend, Invictus. Why choose Freeman and not a South African actor? "Freeman is well-known, and Clint Eastwood likes to work with him," Mondello says. Without Freeman, he says, the movie probably wouldn't get made.
Foreign stars have internationalized, too, Mondello adds. Sophia Loren always played an Italian, and in past decades, other foreign stars stayed within their culture. Not so Antonio Banderas or Penelope Cruz, who play all-purpose Mediterranean or Latina characters, respectively.
And it seems that foreign stars these days can nail the American accent, too, like Nicole Kidman, Christian Bale or Kate Winslet. They do such a good job, it's a shock to hear their actual accents.
But some actors get so big they feel they can't pull off an accent, and that can affect a movie — for better or worse. "You never hear Tom Cruise attempt an accent," Mondello says. Cruise avoided taking on a German accent when he played a Nazi in Valkyrie. "And on some level, that's why [Valkyrie] didn't work," Mondello says.
When George Clooney was shooting The Perfect Storm back at the beginning of the decade, he refused to do a Boston accent. "I'm a fairly famous guy," he told the New York Times. "When you suddenly hear me with a weird accent, it'll take away from everything else. I don't want the audience spending the first 15 minutes of this movie like the RCA Victor dog, trying to figure out what I'm doing."
In this case, however, Mondello agrees. "I think that makes excellent sense, don't you?"