I am, at this point, barely tethered to the mortal plane. I drift between the realm of the living and that of the departed, groping my way through swirling mists in search of the path forward. I am this close to fully crapping out, succumbing to the sort of cardiac catastrophe one might incur by running an ultramarathon in Death Valley, or getting struck by lightning, or intentionally huffing hot air balloon fumes. And it’s all because of Nathan Lane, the 67-year-old Tony Award-winner whose bonkers Southern accent on The Gilded Age has shaved years off my life.
Lane plays Ward McAllister, a gossipy New York social climber by way of Savannah, Georgia. The character is based on the real Ward McAllister—a historical figure credited with designating “The Four Hundred,” an elite list of the wealthiest, most powerful New Yorkers skulking through 19th century ballrooms. Think Regina George, but with the affectations of a plantation owner.
Lane’s McAllister oozes onto the scene midway through the show’s perfectly milquetoast first season. That’s partly why the accent caught me so off guard; five episodes deep in a sea of Transatlantic accents, there was no indication that things were about to take a deranged turn. Then, suddenly, he appears. McAllister rolls into Mrs. Aurora Fane’s well-appointed parlor in full formal luncheon attire, rocking a steel-wool goatee that looks genuinely painful to the touch. He pauses for a moment, raising one rakish eyebrow as if to say, “Yes, viewer, it’s me: Nathan Lane, of Mouse Hunt fame.”
Then—my god—he speaks.
“MAH DEE-YUH MISSUS FAYNE [My dear Mrs. Fane],” he drawls in the sort of syrupy coastal southern accent that makes it clear which flag his character flew during the Civil War. He goes on to explain that he’s late because he was arguing with his butler, Perryman—or, rather, ”MAH BUTLAH, PERRUHMAN”—choking out the laugh of a withered gold prospector who’ll tell you your fortune for a nickel.
I want to make one thing clear: I’m from the Ozarks, and what remains of my scant extended family is scattered throughout the South. I know the accents of rural America, and this is something…else. Something dark—something that is, in the immortal words of Seal, my power, my pleasure, and my pain. Lane is serving Foghorn Leghorn with a side of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island. He’s delivering Ya-Ya Sisterhood realness while kvetching over whether Mrs. Astor is an outfit repeater. He’s creating multisyllabic words out of thin air, turning “there” into “they-yuh” in a way that degrades the modern-day residents of Savannah.
God help me: I want him to narrate my GPS.
Lane told Variety last year that he worked with a dialect coach to perfect the old-time Savannah accent. I can only assume it’s the same coach who directed the entire cast of House of Gucci in perpetuating anti-Italian violence. And sanctioned Jennifer Lawrence’s Ivana Humpalot-inspired Russian accent in Red Sparrow. And encouraged Don Cheadle’s cockney in Ocean’s Eleven, which is ripped directly from Dick Van Dyke’s Mary Poppins playbook. These actors are owed significant financial compensation for their suffering and, damn it, so am I.
Now, the dialect coach seems to have a new victim: Ben Lamb, who debuted as the young, strapping Duke of Buckingham in last night’s Gilded Age. Lamb, known for such works as A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby, was born in the United Kingdom—yet, somehow, his British accent sounds like that of a high school theater ingénue speaking with an unnecessary affectation. He’s been on screen for, like, a minute, but it was long enough for me to scratch my head about where in the fresh hell this man is from.
For whatever reason—be it a violent commitment to historical accuracy or the continued terrorism of a wayward dialect coach—the men of The Gilded Age are determined to speak like scary, scary boys. But Lane’s Savannah accent is the one that haunts me, sending me screaming out of the room and then immediately back into it so I don’t miss a second of his performance. Gilded Age, I’m ready for your next audial assault. Give me Kermit the Frog as a genteel butler, or give me death.
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