Approximately eight months ago, the paparazzi surprised us with a gift that keeps on giving: a first look at House of Gucci, Ridley Scott’s retelling of the assassination of Maurizio Gucci (organized by his ex-wife), through photos they snapped from the sets in Italy. Here’s Lady Gaga in her Patrizia Reggiani wig (?), cramming a hot pizza ripieno into the mouth of her doomed husband, Adam Driver; there’s our big boy again, bundled into a sweater the size of the Alps behind him; is that Jared Leto walking around looking like a funky Dr. Phil? Incredible hype-building material, and yet even these images left me largely unprepared for the clips to come. Watching the first trailer, I knew roughly what to expect visually (Leto in a bald cap), but aurally? That there might be attempts by every actor with a speaking role to replicate the hilly cadence of Italian-inflected English? It was a possibility for which I failed to prepare. Straight out of the gate, Gaga’s voice galloped to the lead, raspy and murdery and also sort of Slavic? Arresting and confounding too. What was this accent doing? What were any of these accents doing? A gorgeous and mystifying hybrid, but Italian, would we say?
According to two linguists who also happen to be Italian, and who agreed to help me with the weighty task of reviewing these accents, we would not. “I sent the trailers to my colleagues in the Italian department, who are all — except for one — Italian. And the general reaction was the same I had, which is, This is not an authentic Italian accent,” Anna De Fina, professor and chair of the Georgetown University Italian department, tells the Cut. Originally from Sicily, De Fina specializes in sociolinguistics. “Italian is a language where every syllable, more or less, has the same duration,” she explains. “So that’s why you have a sense of Italian being kind of melodic, kind of sing-songy.”
Italian also makes fewer distinctions in the sounds vowels make: “ship” may sound like “sheep,” “cat” may sound like “cot,” “ankle” may sound like “uncle.” English, by contrast, is a stress-timed language, as is Russian: stressed syllables come at regular intervals, punctuated by shorter, unstressed syllables. “When Lady Gaga speaks, she doesn’t lose that quality,” De Fina explains, “so that’s one thing that I think makes it sound strange to us.”
And then another complicating factor: A true Italian accent does not exist — not in a singular sense, anyway. “Until the Second World War, Italians didn’t speak Italian. Just the dialects that we still speak,” Mariapaola D’Imperio, distinguished professor in the department of linguistics at Rutgers University, tells the Cut. “Standard Italian is something that was invented formally, let’s say, because journalists and actors have to have professional diction. It’s something people don’t use in everyday life,” nor even (necessarily) in broadcasting or acting or politics. Spoken Italian, D’Imperio explains, “will be different not only from region to region, but also from city to city. Even if it’s just 30 kilometers away.” Meaning that to really go the distance on a true-to-life tableau, Gaga’s character, from Vignola in the province of Modena, would sound distinct from the Florentine Gucci family. And she does, though not for reasons having to do with dialectic accuracy, even if she does seem aware of the differences: “I started with a specific dialect from Vignola, then I started to work in the higher-class way of speaking that would have been more appropriate in places like Milan and Florence,” she told British Vogue. “In the movie, you’ll hear that my accent is a little different depending on who I’m speaking to.”
Which underscores a related point: Gaga committed to this bit 200 percent, gestating her accent over nine unbroken months during which she purportedly spoke exclusively as Reggiani — or her version of Reggiani; Gaga never met with her subject, to Reggiani’s chagrin — both on set and off. She even dyed her hair brown to heighten the accent’s effect. The end result packs immense transportive force. Gaga can take you from Russia to France to Great Britain in the span of a single sentence, a fascinating international soup peppered with convincingly rippling brrrravas. Her accent may not be technically correct — a House of Gucci dialect coach agrees, telling the Daily Beast it “sounds more Russian” than anything else — but it somehow feels appropriate to the movie, campy and dramatic and fun. You can really hear the effort she made, and the same cannot be said for other members of the cast. Jeremy Irons (as Rodolfo Gucci), for example, sounds polished and British and ready, as ever, to narrate an audio tour of Westminster Abbey. Al Pacino (Aldo Gucci) slips regularly into his Mob Guy default. Adam Driver (Maurizio Gucci) serves a vaguely European something that drops in and out — except for the moment he clambers into a row boat with a tottering “Ooh noo” in a stunning imitation of my grandpa.
But “even if you’re a linguist,” De Fina observes, “accents are difficult to define.” Italian may present a particularly tough puzzle because it varies from region to region, but D’Imperio and De Fina (working from House of Gucci trailers) nonetheless offered a few pointers: To attempt an Italian inflection, you should keep all vowels in a sentence as they appear on paper; give them equal length and emphasis rather than flattening unstressed vowels to a generic “uh” sound. (Say that out loud: It’s called a schwa, and it comes up constantly in English; a similar sound occurs in spoken Russian.) Do tack an “uh” sound onto the end of words that end in hard consonants. (Think “Roma” versus Rome.) Do not use contractions. Do trill any R sounds that appear in initial position using the tip of your tongue. When confronted with a word beginning with “H,” drop the letter entirely and lean gently on the vowel that follows: Happy becomes ’ep-py, for example. Got that? Okay, let us consider the video:
Without the trilled R notes and the expansive vowels, Gaga’s pronunciation becomes clipped and guttural. Her rhythm, intonation, and collapsing of unstressed vowels feel more appropriate to Russian pronunciation: “Ethical” rather than the Italian “etical-e”; “puhrson” rather than “pehrrrrson-e.”
Let’s look at it from another angle:
Or in direct comparison with Reggiani, who puts the full range of Italian trademarks on display in the interview below. All the vowels stretch out and breathe, with extras to cushion the blow of punctuation; all the initial R’s trill; no H’s or contractions are attempted. She rolls her words rhythmically — you can hear them moving up and down.
So maybe you’re wondering: Who, if anyone, actually got their accent right? I am so sorry to tell you this, but … il dottore Phil for the win. D’Imperio points to the way Leto’s Paolo splits his single syllables into two — “chic” becomes “chic-e” — and the way he trills, for example when he informs Gaga-husband Driver that he “picked-a rrrreal firecrrrrackerrrr-e.” (“That’s exactly the way an Italian would say it,” De Fina agrees.) Leto keeps up his undulating bravado for all 2.5-plus hours of House of Gucci’s run time, eliciting shrieks of laughter in my screening room with lines like “a memorrrry wrrrrapped-e in-e Lycrrrra.” Maybe because almost everyone else missed the mark by such a wide margin, the one person who gets it right winds up sounding almost gratuitous, like comic relief, throughout much of the movie. But am I prepared to award him the Oscar on the basis of his pronunciation of “svelte” alone? I am thinking about it.
For her part, Gaga has suggested that we are all too fussed about her accent — more the length of time she spent speaking with it than the beguiling sound, but the point stands. The accent may be all over the map, but the character she created makes sense in the soap opera she inhabits: She’s compelling and credible. I believed her the whole way through — not that she was Italian, but that she fell in love with Maurizio first and power second; that she cared both about her husband and the Gucci name, but neither so much as she cared about herself. I have no idea whether the real Patrizia Reggiani would agree, but tasked with bringing a script to life, Gaga nailed it. Maybe we should just calm down and watch her act.