Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Holy Vigilante, Batman! (Part Four)

Who is the Real Voice of Alfred?

Jeremy Irons
Jeremy Irons’ voice just exudes charm. Most people who’ve seen him perform would agree with that statement. Over a forty-five year career, his most prominent roles have traded on him playing somebody suave, unflappable, and dapper. Certainly, that trend cuts both ways: some of Irons’ most memorable roles involve disingenuous charm, from Scar in Disney’s The Lion King to Adrian Lynn’s completely unnecessary 1997 Lolita remake.

This makes Irons a noteworthy choice to play Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler and right-hand man, in the upcoming Batman Vs. Superman spectacular. Unlike fellow British actor Henry Cavill as Superman, or Welsh actor Christian Bale as the prior Batman, Irons plays Alfred in his own voice. As have Sean Pertwee in Fox’s Gotham, Michael Caine in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Michael Gough in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman campfest.

This rotation among actors has significant effects. Advance trailers show Irons speaking with what linguists call Received Pronunciation (RP), the first live-action actor to do so since Gough. Caine, as an aging Alfred, speaks with Caine’s own postwar middle-class London accent, a dialect actually disappearing in Britain. And Pertwee, a sometimes contender to play lead in Doctor Who, speaks a gruff working-class accent, almost but not quite Cockney.

Comic books, being an innately silent medium, don’t enunciate Alfred’s accent. Though early appearances portrayed Alfred comedically, and tried phonetically spelling his accent (“Mawster Bruce,”) Alfred’s Britishness has been largely tacit and accepted throughout the comics run. Thus comics largely traded on stereotypes of stiff upper lip British constancy, without digging any deeper. We accept Alfred as “English,” a broad category that says everything while meaning nothing.

Michael Caine
Alfred’s backstory remains studiously vague. During the 1990s Alfred briefly quit Wayne Manor in outrage; when Batman found him later, he was doing Shakespeare in repertory. Since American theatres generally perform Shakespeare with either general American or RP accents, we can assume Alfred speaks RP. Except that British actors are aggressively trained in accents, in ways American actors aren’t; any stage accent Alfred delivers can’t be considered definitive.

This matters when considering how adaptations handle Alfred’s accent. Most British actors adapt their voices to suit changing roles. Gough, Caine, and Pertwee all paid dues playing gangsters and horror monsters before gaining enough fame that their voices became part of their brands; and as noted, Irons’ characters often use charm to conceal moral corruption. Every Alfred actor originally found fame playing characters basically Alfred’s diametrical opposite.

In 2007, Cardiff linguists Coupland and Bishop, with BBC assistance, surveyed British volunteers for their attitudes regarding accents. Their results are perhaps not surprising: in subjective opinions, British residents rated urban accents better than rural, rich better than poor, white better than black. They also rated the RP, the accent preferred by journalists and public officials, as “normal” British English. Accents become a shorthand for how we value individuals.

Americans similarly consider RP, sometimes called “BBC English,” more normal than regional accents. Like the Midwestern hum Bale and Cavill adopt as “General American,” foreign and domestic listeners agree “normal” accents exists. (Directing a play, beaucoups years ago, I asked one auditioner whether she could do accents. She boasted of her “British accent.” I asked which British accents she could do; she said “I don’t understand.” She didn’t get the part.)

So, Gough and Irons portray Alfred having a “normal” British accent. By implication, Caine’s and Pertwee’s accents are “abnormal.” Yet, given Caine’s history in movies like Zulu and The Italian Job, critics regard him as iconically British; short of Prince Harry, one struggles to imagine casting an actor who more embodies Britain. So Caine somehow is British without sounding British, in the “normal” sense. He simultaneously embodies and defies stereotype.

Michael Gough
Pertwee, meanwhile, gained fame playing gangsters, roughnecks, and soldiers. Americans raised on Masterpiece Theatre may consider his gravelly, proletarian voice nonstandard, but his career history implies, whenever he opens his mouth as Alfred, that he’d take a bullet for young Bruce. Without needing to say anything specifically, Pertwee’s “abnormal” accent informs audiences that Bruce Wayne has a fierce warrior protecting his future.

Thus every actor portraying Alfred reinforces his innate Britishness, but conveys entirely different characters. Just as Keaton, Bale, and Affleck clearly play different Batmen, these divergent actors create unique Alfreds, each with distinct relationships to Bruce. Though directors consistently stuff Alfred into largely interchangeable suits, these actors need only speak to stake their particular interpretations. Simply with their voices, actors define their particular Alfred—and, by implication, their particular Batman.

Part One: Sanctifying Civilian Justice
Part Two: Defining Justice in a Nihilistic Universe
Part Three: Bane's Dichotomy Between Servitude and Chaos

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