Americans love "class," but they don't trust it. American filmmakers see a British accent as elegant, but frosty and leaven it with a down-to-earth quality that makes them elegant but not too-too.
A slim, tanned, handsome jazz buff, sailor and ski bum who approaches life with an amused, arched-eyebrow arrogance, Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, the wastrel heir to a shipping fortune in The Talented Ripley, is the purest example of an upper-class American golden boy to appear in the movies in a long time.
His female counterpart in Anthony Minghella's portrait of rich young Americans abroad in the late 1950s is Cate Blanchett's Meredith Logue, a textile heiress bouncing around from one swell European hotel to another.
Dickie and Meredith could be characters straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. And as viewed through the eyes of Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a chameleon-like poseur who learns how to impersonate Dickie, they seem to embody Fitzgerald's wistful observation that the rich are different from you and me. By rich, Fitzgerald meant not only having money but also the prep-school educated, silver-spoon attitudes he encountered as a Princeton undergraduate.
So isn't it odd that the actors playing characters who exemplify the American upper class are British (Law) and Australian (Blanchett)? And what does it say about Hollywood's view of "society" that Gwyneth Paltrow, the American actor playing Dickie's socialite girlfriend Marge Sherwood, should lack her co-stars' supercilious airs?
Since Paltrow won an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love, pop culture pundits have anointed her heiress to privileged Hollywood princesses such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. But if you compare Paltrow to Blanchett or Kristin Scott Thomas (a British actor of unbreachable hauteur), she seems to be playing with the image rather than embodying it.
Paltrow's mystique illustrates Hollywood's ambivalence about Anglophilia. That ambivalence has everything to do with class consciousness and our immigrant society's residual sense of inferiority to an older, class-bound society. We may be richer than the British, but our money is still new.
Hollywood's fondness for casting British actors as upper-class Americans belongs to a long and duplicitous Hollywood tradition of pretending to erase class differences while actually celebrating them. Might it be that Hollywood actors, unwilling or unable to portray the upper class in our supposedly classless society, are relieved to let the British do it for them and take the heat? For as much as snobs are envied, no one likes them very much. And stars' careers demand likability.
That may be why Daniel Day-Lewis, that most refined of British actors, was cast as Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's screen version of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. Further back, Gone With the Wind, that ultimate American soap opera of aristocracy brought to ruin, had two British actors, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard, representing the flower of Southern womanhood and the lost dream of Confederate "honor," respectively. Their Southern accents, especially Howard's, were softened and Anglicized.
Hollywood's ambivalence about aristocracy may also be a case of craving something in which you don't really believe. On the one hand, our national mythology proclaims this country to be the land of opportunity. It's a place where a wealthy rap star such as Sean (Puffy) Combs can rub shoulders with a socialite such as Brooke Astor and live like a latter-day Gatsby on Long Island.
But it is also a country that elevates the Kennedys to American royalty and mourns the death of Princess Diana as though she were our own.
The trick for Hollywood has been to find a way to feed our daydreams of pseudo-royal status without alienating a mass audience. One way of doing this has been to give us homegrown royals with the common touch.
Katharine Hepburn with her patrician Mid-Atlantic accent radiates an upper-crust hauteur, but
she is also the embodiment of a thorny, no-frills Yankee. Portraying socialites, Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor have all lent their characters a common touch. Take Bacall, whose la-di-da diction never obliterates a vestige of Noo Yawk.
The closest Hollywood ever came to creating fantasy princesses whose roots didn't show was during the 1950s when Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn (the daughter of an English banker and a Dutch baroness) ruled, speaking in cultivated voices whose accents were British-inflected without actually seeming British.
The perils of seeming too British are evident most recently in the unsuccessful promotion of two English actors _ Julia Ormond and especially Scott Thomas _ as upper-class ideals. After The English Patient, in which she and her fellow Briton Ralph Fiennes embodied an Abercrombie & Fitch dream of aristocratic passion and international style, Scott Thomas was romantically paired with Robert Redford (in The Horse Whisperer) and Harrison Ford (in Random Hearts), but her high-toned demeanor comes across as chilly.
Among men, an upper-class British accent raises the dreaded specter of effeminacy. Our pioneer macho society has always looked askance at men who appeared too-too. One reason Cary Grant (ne Archie Leach) became the one British actor accepted as upper class by an American mass audience was the roughness beneath his suavity. Born into poverty in Bristol, England, he retained an English accent that was working class, not Oxford.
To be accepted as real men on the screen, American golden boys have had to be cowboys as well as gentlemen. The ultimate example is Robert Redford, whose blond hair and mild-mannered sincerity suggest good breeding but who also seems at home on the range.
If Law is to become the international star that some have predicted, he'd better hop on a horse and maybe strap on a gun for good measure. And he should keep polishing that American accent.