Boston Accents by Non-Bostonians: A Ranking
Boston accents are hard. I once described it to a friend – who will remain unnamed but is very bad at doing a Boston accent – as “simultaneously angry and phonetically lazy.” Bostonians are very eager to have their entirely correct opinions heard that they can’t really bother to hit all the right letters and sounds and syllables, but goddamnit what we’re saying is important, and fuck you if you disagree.
Boston accents are one part technical mouth creations and one part attitude. There are different versions – Beacon Hill Brahmin, Southie Trashy, I’m A Cop and Don’t You Forget It – but they all pose the same problems for performers. This is an ode to the actors who have taken on the herculean task of solving the Boston accent on film.
Below, I ranked 34 actors who have tried to perfect the Boston accent, split into categories, from worst to best. There are two rules:
Rule One: the list only includes performers who are not from Massachusetts.
Rule Two: if someone has played multiple roles with a Boston accent, I only ranked their best attempt. You're welcome, Mark.
Golden Globe Nominees Who Have Fallen at the Altar of the Boston Accent
Even our greatest thespians flail when confronted with the peculiarities (try saying that word in a Boston accent – these people sure couldn’t) of the soft –r with a hard edge. These are the performances that give other actors pause before accepting a role with a Boston accent; the ones that are so easy to ridicule it almost isn’t worth it.
34. Benedict Cumberbatch, Black Mass
Benedict Cumberbatch has received an Oscar nomination. He has also done this:
33. Holly Hunter, Once Around
The less said, the better. Look, it’s not good.
32. Martin Sheen, The Departed
Martin Sheen can do accents. He played a president from New Hampshire for seven years! Some of you may think, hey now, that’s not fair, it wasn’t that bad. You’d be wrong. Martin Sheen made up an accent that does not exist, and then used his general gravitas to make you believe it was a Boston accent. It is not.
31. Jonny Depp, Black Mass
Casting directors for Boston movies have difficult jobs, but there is just no excuse for the Black Mass fiasco. Two in the bottom four, and (spoiler), three in the bottom 10?
If Tom Hanks Was Born in Boston, Moved To His Own Island, And Created His Own Accent Based On A Boston Accent, This Is What It Would Sound Like After 20 Years In Isolation
30. Tom Hanks, Catch Me If You Can
It sounds a bit like if Tom Hanks went on Saturday Night Live and the cast told him 30 seconds before a sketch that he had to do a Boston accent, and it was the end of the night, and he’d had a drink or two, so he fully committed, but just didn’t really know what he was fully committing to. It’s hard to be mad at Tom Hanks, though, and he’s clearly trying.
They Didn’t Try, But At Least They Didn’t Fail
There’s not much to say here other than to tip your cap to three great actors who probably practiced a bit, listened to themselves on tape, cringed, and just threw up their hands. There are, in fact, plenty of Bostonians without thick accents, so you can even make a case that these were purposeful decisions. It’s probably not the case, but you could argue.
29. Jack Nicholson, The Departed
28. Michele Monaghan, Gone Baby Gone
27. Vera Farmiga, The Departed
A Boston Accent, but a Different Accent Too
These are the people who spent their childhoods hearing a very specific accent, and who can’t help but revert to that accent. There are the New Yorkers – especially difficult because of the overlap with the Boston accent – like Diane Lane and Alec Baldwin. And the Australian, especially difficult for no real reason, other than maybe that it’s one of the coolest accents, so I understand the desire to want to speak in it at all times. These actors admirably adopted a Boston accent, at times pure, but mostly accompanied by a twang of their hometown sound.
26. Joel Edgerton, Black Mass
He outperformed most of his costars, so that’s something.
25. Diane Lane, The Perfect Storm
There is unlimited footage of Boston commentators and sports fans yelling about Bobby Orr, so it is inexcusable that Diane Lane, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, could not say her own boyfriend’s name.
24. Alec Baldwin, The Departed
This is the Long Island – Boston hybrid the world is not ready for.
The Cops Who Couldn’t Commit
The hard-nosed, tough-but-fair-and-maybe-corrupt cop is a staple of Boston cinema. But cops often have long stretches of dialogue – explaining the case or monologuing against the system or about a victim or to an uncooperative suspect. This can be difficult for an actor who isn’t 100% comfortable with their Boston accent – if you’re doing it even slightly wrong in the middle of a major scene with a lot of exposition, it’s going to be glaringly obvious.
That can be tough. These are the cops that got it pretty damn right when they committed, but who couldn’t overcome that fear of failure to go all in.
23. Ed Harris, Gone Baby Gone
22. Mark Ruffalo, Shutter Island
He committed harder and more often here than in Spotlight, and of his two emotional outrage scenes, “what if they wanted you here?” nails the accent far better than “they knew, and they let it happen!”
21. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
He has virtually the same accent here as he does in Shutter Island, but for whatever reason, he feels more comfortable in the skin of a Bostonian in the former. It may be that the Departed took place 50 years after Shutter Island, and adding a 1950s twist on a traditional Boston accent is a daunting task.
20. Kevin Bacon, Mystic River
Sean Penn Goes Aggressively Over the Top, But Still Gets It Mostly Right
19. Sean “Is That My Daughter In There?” Penn, Mystic River
The Accent Becomes Them
These are the performances rooted so heavily in the accent, that their entire identity is based around it. Which, for Bostonians, is honestly not the worst approach. And look, on the one hand, caricatures are usually unforgivable sins for actors. But on the other hand, 70% of the people I grew up with spoke with genuine accents that were caricatures of themselves, so are they really wrong in this situation? Tough to say.
18. Rob Morrow, Quiz Show
Rob Morrow is one of the few actors to successfully pull off the Old Money Brahmin accent, which is almost just an entirely different accent. Cumberbatch tried and failed, and though Morrow veered a little too hard into the lilt, he mostly succeeded.
17. Tim Robbins, Mystic River
16. Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Over-protective Boston mom, indeed.
15. Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Her entire persona can be summed up by her ride in the backseat, taunting Michele Monaghan, flirting with Casey Affleck in a version of flirting that is very specific to certain Boston neighborhoods.
14. Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Keaton absolutely crushes the old school, blue collar background-turned-white collar professional. "He played hockey here" is the actual, real-life version of the phrase "Park the car in Harvard yard," in that it's actually spoken by every Bostonian at least once a year, and it is a perfect snapshot of the accent. Keaton nails it.
13. Amy Adams, The Fighter
Amy Adams does trashy Boston girl real well, close to perfectly. She falls just short of the top tier, and has possibly the second greatest performance of all-time in that sub-sub-genre of characters (see #4 for the greatest).
Missing that Je Ne Sais Quoi
These are the performances that nailed the accent, but didn’t quite fully inhabit the energy that comes with it. They should still be considered successful – just a hair away from the top tier.
12. Amy Madigan, Gone Baby Gone
The more unsung of the Amys in this movie, Madigan makes every second of her limited screen-time count.
11. Jeremy Renner, The Town
As always, Jeremy Renner is less playing a Boston guy, and more playing Jeremy Renner playing a Boston guy. That sense of removal keeps him from the top tier.
10. Jesse Plemons, Black Mass
Plemons put his higher wattage co-stars to shame as Southie mobster Kevin Weeks.
9. Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting
Williams pulls off the rare feat: a nuanced, understated portrayal of a man from Boston. It’s some of his finest work.
Seriously, What Neighborhood Are You From
The best of the best, these actors are convincing as native Bay Staters.
8. Robert Mitchum, The Friends of Eddie Coyle
7. Laurence Fishburne, Mystic River
6. Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
The trailer for this movie tells you everything you need to know.
“Where we going, the orphanage?”
“Can’t obey your orders until you unlock the door.”
“Strictly basement business.”
“I’ve got two girlfriends, and I’m in a band. You’re a janitor in Quincy.”
The kid pronounced Quincy right! You may be thinking, okay, sure, his scene partner was Casey Affleck, I’m sure he just helped him. But Academy Award winner Diane Lane couldn’t say Bobby, despite the fact that Mark Wahlberg was in The Perfect Storm, and in fact played Bobby.
And most impressively, pulled off an ugly cry through his accent.
5. Stanley Tucci, Spotlight
4. Blake Lively, The Town
Give Blake Lively any role she wants. If you've lived in Boston, you know her character.
3. Christian Bale, The Fighter
2. Titus Welliver, Gone Baby Gone
This is the entry that I would have placed money on him being from Boston. He’s from New Haven, which may give him a small leg-up, but none of it should take away from what is a defining Boston role.
1. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Spoilers for Manchester in the below clip.
If I were to ignore Rule #2 and rank multiple performances, Williams would have two in the top five. Enough said.