"There are things you can get away with in this world, and things you can't."
The voice is Matthew McConaughey's, and days after seeing him in
McConaughey's voice is like that, so specifically seasoned by Texas you know it sight unseen. That's the power of a drawl, the way it can wrap entire stories and an ocean of feelings in honeyed tones; the way it can fit a person, a character, like broken-in jeans.
McConaughey, from the Hill Country that hugs Austin, comes by his drawl naturally, but its texture changes with each film he does. It almost disappeared in
Me, I pay attention to the distinctions when movies try to tap into that homespun magic. I'm fitful when Southern accents are forced, angered when they're false and hold them close when, like McConaughey's, they are true.
I'm sure my sensitivity is tied to the melting pot of differing drawls I was raised around in places as well known as Atlanta and Austin, as obscure as Ellenboro and Paw Creek.
My parents were Tarheels, a prideful name for folks with North Carolina roots, and mine are six generations deep. To keep me occupied on summer vacations, my great aunts would send me to pick cotton in the field that stretched out behind the family homestead; fresh-squeezed lemonade and pocket change were my payment for a few hours of wrestling those unforgiving bolls. And when
The years have only deepened my affection for the flavor of Southern accents, and their presence in movies can transport me back to other places, other times: Like country ham, redeye gravy and grits at my grandmother's table next to Uncle SJ when I hear
While a bad accent makes me cringe, the right inflection deepens and shades the story, and not just for me. It changes the texture of the experience for everyone.
The way a weeping guitar can heighten anguish by clinging to a note, a drawl conveys so much more than mere words ever could. There is an easy wit that sneaks up on you, the humor often carrying an unexpected bite buried inside all that down-home irony, insight and cheek.
Accents, and specifically Southern ones, are an art form, yet sorely overlooked. Alabama is different from Georgia; North Florida distinct from South. Some of the best are from natives, but in "Junebug," Amy Adams proved that being born in Italy and raised in Colorado didn't mean she couldn't bring home North Carolina. Sissy Spacek left every trace of Texas behind for her meticulous Oscar-winning turn as Kentucky's own Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter."
And so, in an attempt to pay my respects, here are some of my favorite Southern movie drawls. Not a ranking but a range. On any given day, the one I love best depends on what place in my heart needs filling.
Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart" (2009). Though I did love the stomped flatness of Rooster Cogburn's pronouncements in
Holly Hunter in "Raising Arizona" (1987). A Georgia girl who never left Georgia behind, Hunter seems to pack words in her cheeks like a wad of bubble gum and chew on things for a while before she spits them out. Her liquor-laced Okie detective in
Tommy Lee Jones in
Amy Adams in "Junebug" (2005). Set in North Carolina, I was prepared to be unforgiving. But the irrepressible country-strong warmth Adams brought Ashley was as irresistible as it was true. And as nonstop. She's like a wind-up toy that won't wind down. The hopeful way Ashley says to no one in particular — "I love her" — about her sophisticated new sister-in-law primes you for the way Ashley's lemon-meringue optimism will ease family tensions. Light, sweet and loving, Adams' voice lifts spirits like a joyful Southern hymn.
Robert Duvall in "Tender Mercies" (1983). Duvall brings a still-waters-run-deep quality to the spare dialogue of writer Horton Foote's minimal masterpiece. Traces of hard-baked West Texas give the actor's reclaimed country singer an emotional depth whether newly sober, newly saved or somewhere in between. The way that drawl travels from spoken word to song is flawless. And when a stranger asks, "Hey, mister, were you really Mac Sledge?" there is a lifetime of irony packed into his, "Yes, ma'am, I guess I was."
Morgan Freeman in "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989). Most of the time you can't hear the Tennessee in Freeman's voice. But as the bemused driver behind the wheel in a racist South, he dug into those roots. It was a fine line he walked, the actor using those warm, buttery tones to voice a weary tolerance for white folk who were not, yet never slipping into subservience. Dignity tempered by affection infused every word and spoke eloquently of the complicated dynamics of Southern race relations in the 1950s.
Woody Harrelson in "Natural Born Killers" (1994). It always sounds like words are having to skinny themselves up to slip through that sideways grin in, say,
Julia Roberts in "Steel Magnolias" (1989). Most of the time the Georgia in Julia is barely there, which makes "Steel Magnolias" such a syrupy delight. As the Southern belle fighting for "a little bit of wonderful," Roberts turns the saccharine soulful. As Shelby, that drawl rides currents that are sometimes slow, sometimes swift, always deep. Between the fighting and placating, what you ultimately hear in all those vowels the actress stretches like salt-water taffy is love.
Sally Field and Danny Glover in "Places in the Heart" (1984). It's Depression-era Texas, and Field's young widow is trying to hold on to her land. Glover is a drifter with big dreams. There is both silk and steel in their conversations as they stand on opposite sides of the racial divide. Respect comes first, friendship later. By the end, their bond is unbreakable, all those feelings resonating through accents shaded in distinct ways by a complex blend of shared emotions: deference born of need and defiance in its face.
Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain in
Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" (2005). As June Carter, the Southern spark who would win
And McConaughey of course, who started all these random musings, will always linger at the top of my list. Though truth be told none measure up to the sound of my daddy's voice — like warm molasses on homemade vanilla ice cream — sweeter and richer than all the rest.