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A History Of The Katharine Hepburn Accent

Updated May 14, 2019 69.6k views13 items

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant have a few things in common; not only were they popular actors during Hollywood's Golden Age, but they both used a way of speaking known as the Mid-Atlantic or Transatlantic accent. Although Hepburn was American and Grant was from England, you wouldn't know it by the way they spoke. By using the Mid-Atlantic accent, the top actors of Hollywood's Golden Age, like Hepburn and Grant, hid the dialect of their natural voice and adopted a fabricated accent that is hard to place.

In her 1942 book, Speak With Distinction, vocal coach Edith Skinner instructed actors and elites alike to speak with a Mid-Atlantic accent. They were required to drop the "r’s" at the end of words like "clear," use a hard "t" sound so words like "butter" sound like they are spelled, and utilize soft vowels like with the "a" in the word "dance" to make it sound more like "dahnce." How did Hollywood evolve from this completely fabricated accent to the more naturalistic voices actors use in film and television today? Like most mainstream things, the accent followed a trend, and Golden Age actors successfully used it to define their onscreen personas - until audiences demanded more realism.

  •  Katharine Hepburn Started Speaking With The Accent To Control Her Voice

    In 1928, Hepburn was a struggling actor in New York. Although she managed to win roles on stage, she had a habit of getting fired not long after. Hepburn struggled to control her acting, including her voice, and would often speak quickly at a high pitch when under pressure.

    In order to succeed, Hepburn hired vocal coach Frances Robinson-Duff, who taught her how to use the Mid-Atlantic accent. Unlike others who adopted the accent, Hepburn’s voice sounded more American than British, but the origin of her accent remained indistinct. The Mid-Atlantic accent became one of Hepburn's onscreen signatures and made her one of the accent's most notable users.

  • Actors Like Humphrey Bogart Wanted To Use Their Own Unique Way Of Speaking

    While the Mid-Atlantic accent helped actors like Hepburn succeed in Hollywood, others decided to forge a career using their own voice. Jimmy Stewart became well known for his rural Pennsylvania dialect, and Humphrey Bogart's New York accent fit his tough guy persona.

    When given the option, audiences chose to embrace the realism of actors like Bogart and rejected the fake affluence of the Mid-Atlantic accent. As more and more actors decided to use their own voices rather than adopt an unnatural accent, the Mid-Atlantic accent fell out of use.  

  • The Accent Fell Out Of Use After WWII, When It Was No Longer Taught In Schools

    By the time WWII ended, prep schools stopped teaching the Mid-Atlantic accent to their students. This was possibly partly due to the accent's association with the upper class and the rising power of "everyday" people towards the end of the 1940s. The conflict gave new importance to industrial workers, allowing those outside the upper class to finally take a more active role in the American economy, earning higher wages for their work and, in turn, spending more.

    In 1948, a Federal antitrust suit led to the end of Hollywood's studio system, also ending the accent’s appearance on screen. After the Supreme Court ordered studios to stop purchasing theaters with the intent to show only their films, theaters had the right to screen whatever they wanted. This forced studios to create better content and gave directors and actors the right to pursue their own projects and set their own rates. Now allowed to break free from the classic Hollywood mold, many actors dropped the Mid-Atlantic accent in favor of their own voices.

  • After The New Hollywood Movement Of The 1960s, The Accent Was Used Solely As Satire

    The late 1960s saw a new generation of filmmakers in Hollywood. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese rose to fame telling gritty stories with realistic and dark characters. Instead of light-hearted and fantastical films favored by previous generations of actors and directors, New Hollywood filmmakers explored real-world issues and darker themes.

    Once seen as a marker of affluence and high society, the Mid-Atlantic accent didn't fit into these films and no longer had a place in Hollywood; however, the accent hasn't completely disappeared. Actors may still use it for comic effect, especially when satirizing upper-class characters. Kelsey Grammer notably used the Mid-Atlantic accent in this way for his role as Frasier Crane, demonstrating his character's snobby pretentiousness.