Friday, February 24, 2006

You pussel-gutted bastard!

Outside of watching two Paul Thomas Anderson films, no cinematic experience has induced more winces than "JFK." Kevin Costner may be the worst at it, but celluloid history is littered with bad Southern accents.

And worse caricatures. When they're not patronizing --- could be we any more precious? --- they're insulting. If only Robert Duvall could teach classes on the art of playing a Southerner.

Malcontenter Markie Post has taken up my crusade for accurate Southern portrayals in this essay soon to appear in Atlanta magazine (check out her piece on "Bubba Bashing" while you're there):

Brenda Johnson, the crackerjack interrogator played with syrupy spunk by Kyra Sedgwick in "The Closer," seems so familiar she might be kinfolk. An Atlanta native plopped into a boss-lady job in the mean ol’ Los Angeles Police Department, she misses her mama; gets lost on those big-city streets, bless her heart; and drawls down-home expressions like “widder-man” and “play-purty.” (I’m still waiting for "I’ll swanee!")

The breathlessly hyped Turner Network Television drama, ranked No. 1 in cable ratings, pivots on America’s love/hate relationship with the Southern accent, ever the mark of the charmer or the rube. Brenda toys with both roles like, well, play-purties, to force the most brutal suspects to confess.

She must have grown up in old Cabbagetown because most Buckhead Betties do not use words like "wharbouts." Sedgwick, a New Yorker, twangs like a banjo, but I can’t help thinking of karaoke night, when someone with pleasant enough pipes warbles a country song, overreaches, and hits some honking, sour notes. The crowd winces, even as it applauds the singer’s courage.

"Given the usual treatment of the Southern dialect on TV, it’s not all that bad, I suppose,” says Lee Pederson, an Emory scholar who has published seven volumes on the region’s speech.

In a refreshing departure from the preening, big-haired pulchritude of Dixie foremothers like "Designing Women," Brenda is deliberately dowdy, too busy with her blood-and-guts work to ditch those ugly glasses and flutter eyelashes at gentleman callers. With her keen wits belied by a bumbling manner and messy handbag, she is another Columbo who sounds like Elly May Clampett.

However, for all her brains, authority, and frumpiness, Brenda’s success as an interrogator depends on the old-school wiles of every belle since Scarlett (Eve of the South’s cosmology): act dumb, sweet-talk the men into a diabetic stupor, and then brandish the steel in your magnolia. Why, it’s enough to give a satanic serial killer the vapors!

Much about this cat-and-mouse game resonates with bright Southern women who have learned to manipulate their way through macho workplaces; despite the evolution toward sexual equality -- which proceeds, like everything else, slowly here -- these tricks are just a matter of realpolitik; a way to get the job done. I long ago stopped feeling guilty for glazing my agendas with sugar.

What nettles me is Brenda’s over-the-top, flibbertigibbet moments. It is one thing to present herself as a Georgia Peach genius who suffers unfair ridicule because of her accent; it is another to play to stereotype and invite that condescension smack dab through the barn door, as she might say. Once open, that door is always difficult to close.

Not having watched "The Closer," I can only assume Brenda has yet to toss out my favorite bit of rudebaga rhetoric, compliments of my grandfather: "pussel gutted," Dix-ese for fat.

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