I was listening to Penn Jillette's weekly podcast, Penn's Sunday School, this week, when Penn brought up the notion of playing Conan Doyle in a movie opposite Kevin Pollak as Harry Houdini. Now, Penn Jillette is about as American as American can be, and would definitely need some serious accent coaching to even attempt such a thing, but that brought up an interesting question . . . an American question.
With all of the grand gender-bending and race-bending play with Holmes and Watson going on today, there is one change that still seems to be off-limits. Holmes can be a woman, Watson can be a woman, no big deal. But can Sherlock Holmes be an American?
Now, I don't know if the Sherlock Holmes of the comic Watson and Holmes is an American, but I don't think it really counts, for two reasons: a.) The focus of the comic is mainly the change in race. and b.) It's a comic book. We can't hear voices.
The concept itself seems simple enough. Sherlock Holmes could have been born in any country in the world. But in a movie or television series for an English-speaking audience, can he exist without that British accent?
It seems to be a key feature of James Bond, but one could argue that he works for MI-6. His British-ness is a part of his character. But when Sherlock Holmes is working for the NYPD and living in New York, as Elementary would tell us, is there any reason for keeping him British? "Old Red" Amlingmeyer of Holmes on the Range is a great Sherlock Holmes, but it's well established that he isn't Holmes . . . he's an American. An "American Sherlock Holmes" seems to remain always an American and never a Sherlock Holmes. Would it be too hard a trick to pull off, especially in a medium where we hear his voice?
One of the little things that put me off Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes from the start was his accent. While I'm no Henry Higgins on specific British accents, Miller's accent didn't sound at all like I'd come to expect Holmes's to sound. And if that little bit of regional variation made a difference, I wonder if an actor could make me believe in his Holmes with an American one?
Of course, that point is moot if no one ever makes a serious attempt at it. Will it happen? Well, American Watsons seem to be a stepping stone, but that step has been made for decades, and still, no American Sherlock Holmes. But people seem to be trying a little of everything these days, so we may get there yet.
Franklin D. Roosevelt thought that Holmes was an American, and so many other visions of his came to pass during his presidency. Perhaps we can get around to this one one of these days.