There's something about the Boston accent in cinema that forces actors to feel like they really have to nail it. Of course, there are movies set in other cities (Chicago or New York, for example) featuring normally straight-voiced actors straining to sound like they're from the area. But it's not as seemingly mandatory as it is with a Boston-set movie.
If a movie takes place in Boston — and an increasing amount of them do — it's apparently federal law for an actor to wind up and take a wild swing at their best McLaugh from Southie. Some knock it straight over the Monster, while others Buckner the chance and watch helplessly as Ray Knight frantically scores the winning run. (We'll have to wait and see about Friday's "The Heat.")
Let's take a look at the best of the best, and the wuhhhssst of the wuhhhhsst.* (*To be read with a terrible Boston accent.)
NOTE: We've omitted consideration of actors originally from the Boston area, like Damon or Wahlberg or whatever corner of hell from which Ben Affleck's Boston voice emerged.
The Five Best:
5. Robin Williams, 'Good Will Hunting' (1997)
Speaking strictly with regard to the volatility and randomness of Boston accents in movies, Robin Williams had the good fortune of playing a character that was already pretty beaten down by life; in turn, his Boston accent was most defined by its subtlety and thoughtfulness in "Good Will Hunting." Sometimes his "r"'s were a bit off, but he delivered such an outstanding performance otherwise that you didn't even notice — and that's the primary characteristic of a bad Boston accent: the viewer (or at least, the viewers from eastern Massachusetts) noticing nothing else about the character or the role other than the fahkin bastahdization of the eeeaccent. In particular, Williams killed the nuances of the accent in words without r's.
4. Tim Robbins, 'Mystic River' (2003)
Tim Robbins had a similar leg-up in his role in "Mystic River" (again, speaking strictly with regard to nailing the Boston accent) — his character, Dave, having been sexually abused as a child, he delivers the accent with a reservedness that was never going to get him in any sort of trouble. And even in the scene embedded above, a rare few minutes where his character has to be particularly demonstrative with his emotions, he feels entirely authentic. That's a credit to the actor's talents, obviously, but it's also a testament to his unwillingness to go off the rails with the accent — unlike his fellow Oscar-winner in the movie, which we'll sadly get to later.
3. Jeremy Renner, 'The Town' (2010)
Jeremy Renner made an intelligent — and, frankly, rare — strategic choice when he so wonderfully played Jem in "The Town": Clearly, he developed a sense of Jem's attitude before anything, and then let the accent come out from that attitude. This was the type of role that was the most likely to be helped along by actually going to Charlestown and hanging out with people that would really kill you for fun, because he fully envelops the character and makes the accent secondary, but complementary. A fatal flaw of a terrible Boston accent is the idea that an actor can read a script, say, "Oooo, Boston, I get to try an accent!," and then read the rest of the script in that accent before understanding anything about the character. Renner does the opposite, no more exemplified than in the best scene of the movie, 45 seconds of which is embedded above.
2. Amy Ryan, 'Gone Baby Gone' (2007)
Of all the roles on this list, Amy Ryan's character in "Gone Baby Gone" by far was the easiest to screw up, Boston accent-wise. In her Oscar-nominated part, Ryan played pretty much your standard horrific drug-addicted trash, a character begging to be over-acted with a ridiculous accent. And while the script called for lots of frantic shouting featuring various inappropriate obscenities, often in front of her child, Ryan never goes over the edge into caricature, which would have been incredibly simple to do and borderline understandable. But she nails it. It's always hard to watch a clip like the one embedded above and then believe that she played Holly on "The Office" only a year later.
1. Christian Bale, 'The Fighter' (2010)
I remember walking into the theater to see "The Fighter" absolutely positive that Jeremy Renner was bringing home the Supporting Actor Oscar for "The Town" and walking out being absolutely positive that Christian Bale was bringing home the Supporting Actor Oscar for "The Fighter." Everyone who has spent more than a few years in the Boston area has met their version of Dicky Eklund — specifically Bale's version of Dicky Eklund, which was flawless. And, sure, you could argue that Bale has an unfair advantage regarding this list because he played an actual person, but if you did, you'd be the worst and I'd hate you, so don't do that.
The Five Worst:
5. Sean Penn, 'Mystic River' (2003)
I'm not upset that Sean Penn decided to fall into the "Okay, so all I really need to do is speak as unintelligibly as possible?" trap of performing a Boston accent. I'm just disappointed. I expected better from him. But then, I can't even blame him. There's a well-developed stereotype among people not from Boston that nobody with an authentic Boston accent is understandable. I get it. That's why it was so predictable when he won an Oscar: Film critics from Iowa who've never been within 500 miles of Massachusetts stand up and say, "What a tour-de-force from Penn. Simply brilliant," while people from Quincy ask why Penn's still doing his character from "I Am Sam." "Is theeaaat myyyy daughtah in theeeeaahhhhhh?!" Ugh. And, sure, my daughter's never been murdered, but that's no excuse to have a bad Boston accent.
4. Kevin Costner, 'Thirteen Days' (2000)
I respect Costner for his Boston accent in "Thirteen Days" because he clearly had good intentions. There's no evidence that he didn't heavily research the part of Ken O'Donnell, senior advisor to Bruce Greenwood's (semi-stellar) JFK, and whatever decision he decided to make with regard to the role, he obviously did with confidence. There's certainly no hesitation on his part. Having said that, the accent is just poor. It's just a bad, bad miss. It's almost like he's imitating Elmer Fudd, if Elmer were making a threatening phone call, didn't have a voice-morphing machine and was subsequently forced to make his voice as artificially deep as possible. "Mistah President ... be verrrrry quiiieeet ... I'm hunting Soviets."
3. Diane Lane, 'The Perfect Storm' (2000)
Just eaaaaase it back, Diane. I understand you want to get it right. I'm sorry that the lady from Gloucester that you tailed for the role was a crazy person who was "supah fahkin pumped gahd I'm so Hollywood" to have Diane Lane follow her around for a couple of weeks in preparation for "The Perfect Storm." But just tone it down. You actually almost had it there. But it's just too much. You're going to give yourself a hernia. "Heeey Buuu-obbbb-beee wheh ya been?" No. No. Heartfelt, and I would have felt bad if I were director Wolfgang Peterson to have said, "Cut," but I would have, and I would have done it mercilessly. Just, no. I'll say this, though: Lane's my dark horse candidate for nailing it if she ever got a second chance. I think she knows. Call it a hunch. I have faith, Di.
2. Tom Hanks, 'Catch Me If You Can' (2002)
Truly, I don't know what kind of s**t Tom Hanks was trying to pull when he whipped out his astoundingly offensive Boston accent playing Carl Hanratty in "Catch Me If You Can." It's like half-bad JFK, half-1920s fast talker, all aural holocaust. To be fair to Hanks, it's obvious that he was in more "I'm having fun with this role" mode than he was in "I'm going to get to the bottom of this character and live and breathe his every decision" mode, which, fine. And as a two-time Oscar winner, he's clearly earned the creative license to do whatever he wants in certain movies. Great. But if you're going to slum it, Hanks, maybe try not to sweepingly insult the greater New England area in the process.
1. Holly Hunter, 'Once Around' (1991)
To be honest, if Holly Hunter's part in the (thankfully) little-seen "Once Around" was exactly five seconds long — meaning, her character is briefly shown saying to another unnamed female character, "I just want a house! ... and a beeeeiiiggg imp-oaaaahhhtant juuuuooooobbbbbbbbb," and then we inexplicably never saw that character again — it would still strongly contend for the worst movie Boston accent of all time. The embedded five-second clip above is that gruesome. You could argue that the Massachusetts Tourism Board had every right to sue Holly Hunter in 1991 because of this movie. I wouldn't want to go there either if I thought everyone sounded like this. So yeah, you could argue that this Boston accent literally cost the state money, and families jobs. Way to go, Holly.