The only reason it’s so difficult for actors to nail a genuine New Orleans accent is that it’s always been difficult for actors to nail a New Orleans accent. There have been so many wildly inaccurate Cajun French & Antebellum South accents attributed to the city in films & television over the years that out-of-towners have a very distorted idea of what New Orleanians sound like. It’s especially strange if you consider that most low-level impressionists already have a perfect New Orleans “Y’at” accent in their arsenal; they just don’t realize that we sound almost exactly like New Yorkers. Of all the wildly off-base, Cajun-fried, Southern belle accents I’ve heard attributed to the city over the years, none have ever matched Dennis Quaid’s in The Big Easy in terms of pure preposterousness. It’s not that Quaid exaggerates the stereotypical inaccuracies of the big screen N.O. accent. It’s that he sounds like no human being who has ever existed on the planet. He turns the bad New Orleans accent into a baffling spectacle, a truly singular “What the fuck were you even going for?” experience for folks down the road. It’s as confusing as it is mesmerizing. It’s also hilarious.
Quaid stars in The Big Easy opposite Ellen Barkin. He’s a spicy Cajun NOPD officer; she’s the federal DA cracking down on the corruption that runs rampant throughout his department. They learn a lot from each other. She teaches him that his “good guys” vs. “bad guys” binary philosophy is a lot less cut & dry than he explains it to be, considering the bribe money local police extort from the public as if they were working for tips. In return, he teaches her the most valuable thing she could learn from a Cajun firecracker: how to fuck good. The Big Easy arrived at the height of the Joe Eszterhas era of the erotic thriller. It shamelessly exploits the cheesy, sleazy backdrop of New Orleans as an excuse for hedonistic sex & violence (the same way it’s exploited in Cat People ’82 & Zandalee). Barkin enters the city as a frigid, nervous woman who does not know how to relax, and Quaid’s space-alien version of a suave Cajun romantic awakens her inner sexual goddess. Meanwhile, the pair continually find horrifically mutilated, bullet-riddled corpses left by cops & mobsters around the city and collaborate on the paperwork that will dismantle that corruption, which are about as strange of aphrodisiacs as I can imagine.
Of course, the main draw of The Big Easy for locals is the 80s era tourism of New Orleans at is sleaziest. The movie wastes no time there, opening with an aerial helicopter shot of the bayou while drunken zydeco music blares on the soundtrack. The first spoken dialogue is of a radio DJ announcing “It’s 2a.m. in New Orleans, The Big Easy, and we’re stirring up that gumbo!” That’s when Quaid & Barkin meet at the scene of a homicide on the steps of the 80s World’s Fair pavilion (blocks away from my office). Other tourist stops include Voodoo stores, Bourbon St. strip joints, Antoine’s, Tipitina’s, the Cabrini bridge, and nighttime drives down Decatur. Chef Paul Prudhomme drops by the hot-and-dangerous couple’s diner table while they down Dixie beers among neon-lit crawfish signs and conspicuous bottles of Tabasco. Local actors John Goodman & Grace Zabriski appear in bit roles. The St. Aug marching band soundtracks a police chase. The pronunciation of terms like “Whre y’at?” & “Tchoupitoulas” are discussed at length in the dialogue. Even the film’s steamiest sex scenes are set to tender zydeco music, because nothing is allowed to touch the screen here unless it’s being served up Cajun style. It’s a dedication to shameless New Orleans tourism that makes The Big Easy especially entertaining as a locally-set novelty.
As laughably unconvincing as Dennis Quad’s accent is in the movie, he becomes endearing as a local-boy novelty through osmosis as you learn to accept the singular, space-alien lisps & rhythms of his made-up dialect. After all, the wildly inaccurate movie-star attempt at a New Orleans accent has in its own way become part of the city’s DNA. We are often delighted by our own shameless cheese, so it’s easy to fall for Quaid’s peculiar “Cajun” charms as he sings at a fais do-do and shows off his various alligator toys: gator plushies, gator dolls, gator lamps, etc. Barkin is also charming in her own right as the outsider to this world, her mannerisms often reminding me of (a much more stable) Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. The pair even drum up some genuine erotic tension in their clashing personalities, especially in a courtroom sequence where she’s pressured to interrogate him on the witness stand. Mostly, though, the entire production plays like a ridiculous joke – shamelessly mixing its Skinemax-tier sex with its grotesque mafia-violence gore to achieve something beautifully sleazy & New Orleans-appropriate in its B-movie majesty. Quaid has said in interviews that he regrets the quality of his performance in The Big Easy, a mistake he blames on Hollywood’s collective coke problem in the 1980s. I personally think he has nothing to apologize for, as his preposterous “Cajun” accent and old-fashioned N’Awlins hedonism make The Big Easy a true gift for anyone who loves the city – a trashy, campy delight.