Foreign Languages in US-Made Films
What Did He Say?
In most "Hollywood-made" films, a character from a foreign country is played by an American who may have a modest understanding of the language he/she is required to speak, or has no knowledge whatsoever and is coached with their dialogue.
There are plenty of good Russian, German and other nationals living in the US who are good actors. And even if they happened to be in short supply, why not recruit a few fluent actors from their homeland?
For an individual whose native tongue is Russian, German, French, Dutch, or whatever, the substituting of American actors with poor skills in the language they are required to speak can send one's teeth on edge because they are so bad at the adaptation.
Not too many Americans are conversant in a foreign language, and even if they are, they cannot hear the subtle (and sometimes not subtle) flaws in which the American actors deliver their dialogue. If you happen to be a native speaker of the language being used in these films, you want to throw a brick at your TV screen.
If Mel Gibson can make a movie where everyone either speaks Aramaic or Latin, surely the audience is sophisticated enough to read captioning. He did this with "Apocalypto," as well.
I think the only authentic film I've seen previous to these was "The Longest Day," where ALL of the German dialogue was spoken by real Germans or Germans who were fluent with the language, and all of their commentary was subtitled. This gave the movie a great deal of realism.
Go For Broke
Why was this avenue abandoned? I cannot say. Why is Scarlett Johansson playing a turn-coat Russian? I like SJ, and she's obviously a box-office draw, but why not recruit that low-level, red-headed spy from Russia, Anna Chapman (А́нна Васи́льевна Кущенко)? She appeared on several magazine covers, and her inclusion in "The Avengers" would have been a real kick. I imagine she knows English well enough, but even if she has an accent, that would have just lent added credibility to the story. I think she would have found it easier to get into that black, latex suit than SJ. Her inclusion would have created all kinds of free publicity. Does she possess acting ability? Well, I tend to think so because she managed to reside in the US and mingle with the elite while hiding her true identity. That isn't acting for a huge paycheck, that's acting so you don't get sent to prison or deported. And did acting as the Black Widow really require a talent with the depth of SJ?
So, how did ScarJo get the role of Black Widow in "The Avengers" instead of Anna Chapman? Was it because Chapman was actually a spy? I kind of doubt it. For a period of time, until she was sent home, she was a kind of rock star in the US. Chapman gained a lot of recognition, plus she she seemed to thrive on all the attention. To the US government, Chapman was a very low-level operative -- probably seducing some high officials with the hope of learning a tid-bit of information here and there. I imagine the US sends its female agents to Moscow for the same purpose. A girl has to make a living.
No, ScarJo got the job because of the push-and-pull politics inside Hollywood. I think she wanted the role, and by the time it came to casting, she was impossible to refuse. She was a natural box office draw, had proven herself to be a kind of virtuoso performer, and she was willing to slim down to appear as a svelte agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. I'm sure she worked hard athletically, and as things turned out she's done a very tasty job in the role -- mixing sexual appeal with cut-throat abilities. But, a role in "The Avengers" was never going to win her an Oscar nomination, and she certainly understood this from the onset. She enrolled in the ensemble out of a sense of fun, and hopefully she obtained that. Scarlett is imminently watchable even if she doesn't have super-powers. So, by no stretch of the imagination can I say that she was the wrong pick. All things considered, she was the right pick, but I can't help but wonder how a real Russian like Anna Chapman might have handled the role -- even having no "real" acting experience. Certainly, she would have been more adept at handling the few Russian lines given to her. But what else?
Hollywood seems all so happy to recruit talent from the UK and Australia (and I find nothing wrong with this), but when a storyline revolves around the Russian mafia or WWII Germans, the producers opt for the actors putting on a phony accent and making them slur a few lines in (a cringe-worthy) dialogue.
I cannot accept that it's a budgetary issue. Without knowing the particulars, expatriate actors from Russia, Germany and elsewhere are probably willing to work in a film for the same price as any American actor. Okay, if you can't cast them in a lead role, can't the casting director at least place them in the various gangster roles or as your standard "Kraut" or terrorist ("Die Hard")?
The norm seems to be what we saw in "Red October," where Sean Connery begins by speaking his stumbling style of Russian then it transfers over to pure English. Why? Well naturally, you can't have Connery speaking all of his lines in Russian -- it would be an excruciating mess.
But more than this, the audience is amazingly lazy. They don't want to read captioning -- unless it's an art film such as those mentioned earlier produced/directed by Gibson. Since the moguls of Hollywood are really only concerned about the bottom line, they take these kinds of awful shortcuts. The result is either laughable or cringe-worthy. Why they take these cuts is beyond my reasoning. Maybe the natural foreign-speaking nationals are not enrolled in the Actor's Guild, I don't know.
Since American audiences don't speak foreign languages, they cannot tell if a Russian mobster is speaking a Ukrainian accent. To our ears it all just sounds like so-much mumbo-jumbo. I guess we don't even care, but we should. And we should also care about the transliterated captioning. Even if we go so far as to assume that the scriptwriter consulted an interpreter (or the studio), what you hear on screen (even if you cannot understand it) may vary widely from what is provided in the captioning (if any is given). That just leads insult to injury. It just means that people skilled with a foreign language have to endure not only a bastardized version of their spoken language but also a bastardized version of the subtitles. Think about how you'd feel if you were in the far East or Asia and either had to endure horrible English or duping plus idiotic captioning?
I've watched several very good Chinese films, relying on captioning, and even not knowing the language, I can tell that the editor was something of an imbecile.
While Hollywood spends millions on upgrading its computer effects, it neglects some of the very basics, and it needn't be this way.