31 August 2017

'The Big Lift'


I recently posted an eight-part series called “Berlin Memoir” recounting my recollections of my 2½ years as an intelligence officer in West Berlin from July 1971 to February 1974.  (The memoir was posted on 16 and 31 December 2016, 20 January, 9 and 19 February, 11 and 29 March, and 13 April 2017.)  The memoir originated as a series of long e-mails I sent my friend Kirk Woodward back in 2005, and the impetus for those were an old movie I watched on cable TV that precipitated a Proustian experience for me.  That flick was The Big Lift (1950, directed and written for Twentieth Century Fox by George Seaton) starring Montgomery Clift (1920-66) and Paul Douglas (1907-59) as a couple of U.S. airmen assigned to Operation Vittles, also known as the Berlin Airlift (26 June 1948-30 September 1949). 

The airing of The Big Lift that I watched 12 years ago was on AMC on the evening of Thursday, 31 July 2005; the stream of e-mails started within days of that.  On Saturday evening, 19 August 2017, WNET, the PBS outlet on New York City’s channel 13, ran the same film on its Reel 13 and I taped it to watch again later.  When I did, I was prompted to write about the movie, not as any kind of film review—the movie’s been around far too long already for me to do that now—but from the perspective of that Proustian time trip back 30 years I made a dozen years ago.  The Big Lift isn’t a terribly remarkable movie as far as cinema goes—Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times of 27 April 1950 that the film “merits favor without too high acclaim”—but it had some startling, small moments of reflected reality.  Not Realism—reality. 

The movie was made on location in Berlin (using both local German actors for the German roles and actual military personnel for all the army and air force characters except Clift and Douglas) starting in May 1949, just after the end of the Soviet blockade.  (The airlift was, in fact, still going on—to build up a supply surplus and guard against a Soviet resumption of the blockade.)  Berlin was still digging out from the wartime rubble, which is visible all around the filming locations, and Berliners were suffering under infrastructure deficiencies, exacerbated by the Soviet blockade.  They still had the freedom of the city, however, despite the four-party occupation that divided it into four sectors; the Berlin Wall, which separated the Soviet Sector that became East Berlin from the U.S., British, and French Sectors that became West Berlin, wasn’t built until August 1961, over 11 years after the movie was released. 

When I was in Berlin in the early ’70s, West Berlin, two-thirds of the city, had 2.5 million inhabitants; East Berlin, one-third of the former German capital, was home to 1.25 million people; in the film a character speaks of 2.5 million people in the city, though statistics I’ve seen put the population at 3.3 million in 1950.  (Today the population is 3.7 million in the city  proper and 6 million in metro Berlin.)  At the time the airlift launched, the country as a whole was also still separated into occupation zones.  The Federal Republic of Germany, formed from the British, French, and U.S. Zones of Occupation and colloquially known as West Germany, wasn’t proclaimed until 23 May 1949; the German Democratic Republic, the former Soviet Zone of Occupation usually called East Germany, was proclaimed on 7 October.   

At the start of The Big Lift, there’s a voice-over that explains how the Soviets started the Berlin Blockade (which ran from 24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949).  The western presence in a foothold 110 miles inside the Soviet Zone of Occupied Germany so rankled the Soviets that they launched an attempt to force the Allies out of Berlin by starving the city.  Richard Peña, the host of Reel 13 and a film professor at Columbia University, explained that first, the Soviets turned off the electricity and then the VO describes how they sealed all the crossing points between West and East Germany and East Germany and West Berlin, halted the trains at the border of the Soviet Zone and actually removed lengths of track, blocked river and canal routes into the city, and closed the Autobahns connecting Berlin to the western zones to Allied traffic.  With all access to land and water routes into and out of Berlin denied to them, the Western Allies determined to airlift supplies of fuel, food, and medicines to the city, using Rhein-Main Air Base, part of the main international airport in Frankfurt-am-Main in the U.S. Zone of Occupied Germany, as the base of operations in the west and Tempelhof Air Base, the military airfield of Berlin’s central airport, located in the occupied city’s U.S. Sector, as the principal off-loading depot in the east. 

(British, French, and Australian forces participated in the airlift alongside the U.S. Air Force; as we see in the flick, even the U.S. Navy, which had no forces in Berlin, detached sailors to help unload cargo at Tempelhof.  The British effort was called Operation Plainfare and the Aussies’ was codenamed Operation Pelican.  The French, having committed the bulk of their post-war aircraft to their war in Indochina, 1946-54—the precursor to the U.S. conflict in Vietnam—couldn’t supply any planes, but they expanded the airport in their sector of Berlin, Tegel, to accommodate cargo flights from Frankfurt.  Tempelhof Airport, built in 1927, was West Berlin’s main airport until it was closed in 2008; it ceased to be a U.S. Air Force Base in 1994.  Its place was taken by Tegel Airport, which had served mostly French military flights during the Cold War.  During the era of the divided city, the British and Soviet forces had airports in their sectors as well, Gatow and Schönefeld, respectively; Gatow, also a landing site for airlift flights, was mostly used for British military aircraft and Schönefeld, now Berlin’s secondary international airport, was the central airfield for the Soviet Sector/East Berlin.)

The Berlin Airlift, flying over 200,000 flights in 12 months, carrying almost 9,000 pounds of cargo a day, defeated the Soviet action and they never tried it again—but, still miffed at the existence of the democratic outpost decades later, they did keep up the same tactics on a sporadic and short-term basis.  Every few months, they’d stop the supply trains from West Germany and keep them on a siding for hours, maybe a day.  On another occasion, they’d stop all the traffic on the Autobahn—official Allied traffic was restricted to one designated route through the German Democratic Republic between Berlin and Helmstedt on the border—and back cars and trucks up at one or another of their internal checkpoints. (Checkpoint Able, or Alpha as I was called after 1956, was located at Helmstedt-Marienborn on the border between the British Zone of Occupation in the west and the Soviet Zone in the east; Checkpoint Baker, later Bravo, was the crossing point from the Soviet Zone into the American Sector of occupied Berlin at Dreilinden-Drewitz in the city’s southwest region; Checkpoint Charlie was located at Friedrichstrasse, the access point from the three western occupation sectors of Berlin into the Soviet Sector.  After 1961, Checkpoint Charlie was the only military gateway between West and East Berlin.)

With a scene of some GI’s watching a Movietone newsreel report of the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the start of the airlift, The Big Lift begins in July 1948, a little over two weeks after the airlift began.  The newsreel is interrupted by an announcement ordering the off-duty airmen of the 19th Troop Carrier Squadron at Hickam Field in Honolulu to report to their squadron.  At a briefing, the men are told they’re being sent on temporary assignment to Westover Field in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, for “operational training,” but some men in the squadron, among them Master Sergeant Hank Kowalski (Douglas), a ground-controlled approach (GCA) operator, guess that they’re really on their way to Germany to  help run the Soviet blockade they just heard about on the newsreel.  As one  “ground-gripper” sergeant tells them: “I just put 15 hundred pounds of coffee aboard there, and I haven’t heard of any coffee shortage in Massachusetts lately.”  Those feelings turn out to be right and the men of the crews of the C-54 Skymasters of the 19th, including Technical Sergeant Danny MacCullough (Clift), flight engineer of a troop transport nicknamed The White Hibiscus, take off for a flight halfway around the globe to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany.

(A GCA operator is a special air-traffic controller who uses advanced—for the time—technology and instrumentation to help planes in hazardous circumstances, such as bad weather or mechanical problems, land safely.  The United States Air Force had only become a separate service in 1947; during the war, it was known as the U.S. Army Air Force and in 1949, the ranks were still the same as the army’s.  A tech sergeant, Clift’s character’s rank, was the equivalent of today’s sergeant first class: three chevrons on top and two rockers below; a master sergeant, Douglas’s character’s rank, is the same now as it was then: three chevrons with three rockers.  The air force still uses both ranks today, but the insignia for NCO’s have changed.

(Frankfurt Airport is one of the largest and busiest in Europe.  When I lived in West Germany from 1962 to 1967, I flew into and out of Frankfurt many times.  I also landed at Rhein-Main, the military part of the Frankfurt airport, in July 1971 when I reported for duty in Berlin because I had to change planes there; I also had to change out of my uniform, required attire for the military transport flight from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, into a civilian suit for my arrival in Berlin, where I was instructed not to appear in uniform.  When I lived in West Germany, Frankfurt was also the army base where my mother went for some of her periodic shopping trips at the PX and commissary; until he was transferred to the embassy in Bonn, my father was officially assigned to the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt-am-Main and that’s where his boss worked.  Frankfurt’s also where I took my PSAT’s and SAT’s in 1964 and where I registered for the draft in 1965.)

Showing on a world map the route from Honolulu, halfway across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, across the continental U.S. to Chicopee Falls, then across the Atlantic and half of Europe to Frankfurt, Germany—a long flight in a propeller plane that had to make refueling stops en route—Danny and Hank’s C-54, all the seats removed to make room for cargo, heads for Rhein-Main Air Base.  When they arrive, other planes from Alaska and Puerto Rico are also coming in to land.  When the squadron sets down in Frankfurt, Danny and his crew are immediately ordered to fly a load of coal into Berlin’s Tempelhof Air Base.  Danny’s friend Hank hitches a ride with them to his new post at Tempelhof.  A POW of the Germans during World War II who’d been mistreated by a guard who hated both Americans and Poles—and he was both—Hank holds a grudge against the German people and goes out of his way to be rude and overbearing to them.  (In 1948, the war, which ended only a little over three years earlier, was still such a recent memory that on the entry gate to Hickam Field was still the notation: “TOKYO: 4394 mi. / FLYING  TIME: 26 hrs. 27 mins.”)  Danny, who wants to see some of Berlin, is disappointed at being restricted to the air base so the plane can be unloaded quickly and return to Frankfurt.  Their time on the ground at Tempelhof is 20 minutes!

Hank hates being sent to Berlin for personal reasons, and we see in the film that the city is still a disaster area anyway.  (When my parents visited Berlin in June 1963 for Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, they reported that the city seemed artificial, that life was sort of staged and forced, like a Potemkin city.)   In my day, however, West Berlin was a vibrant and active city, with a full social and cultural life; it was a plum assignment.  Berlin Brigade and its attached units had the best of everything in USAREUR (U.S. Army, Europe) and USAFE (U.S. Air Force, Europe)—PX/BX (and we also had access to the British NAAFI and the French Économat), service clubs, army hospital, recreation facilities, housing, everything—and, at least with respect to military intelligence, the best of the best were sent there.  Generals from The Zone, as we called West Germany (a hold-over from the days of the occupation zones of Germany), came to Berlin to play—especially golf—or get treatment at the Berlin Army Hospital; GI’s stationed in The Zone were brought in by the bus- or train-load for “Berlin Orientation Tours” (about which I comment in “Berlin Stories – Three SNAFU’s,” 18 August 2012, and “Berlin Memoir, Part 1,” 16 December 2016). 

On that first flight into Berlin, the pilot of Danny’s plane (Lt. Gerald Arons) gives a detailed description of flying into Tempelhof Air Base: “All you have to do is to stay in this 20-mile corridor, hold exactly 170 miles an hour, maintain exactly 6,000 feet, fly instruments continuously, keeping a three-minute interval, making radar checks on the second, maintain . . . .”  (He’s interrupted by Tempelhof tower on the radio warning him of two Soviet fighters about to buzz their C-54.)  The Soviets controlled the airspace over their occupation zone of Germany and restricted Allied flights to a very narrow corridor.  Plus, Tempelhof is actually in downtown Berlin: planes come in to land over city buildings.  As Danny quips on that first flight, they “certainly put this field in a nice place, didn’t they?” and Hank winces as he looks out the window to see buildings looming up beneath them, shutting his eyes tight until he hears the landing gear hit the runway.  As the plane comes in over rooftops, Lieutenant Arons jokes, “It’s just like landing in the Rose Bowl!” 

Once they’re safely on the ground, Hank remarks that because pilots have to drop “200 feet in a quarter of a mile,” a steep descent, “I guess you could use GCA over all those apartment houses.”  Indeed, there are several shots of this, both from the air as the flyers make their approaches and from the city as planes land or take off practically outside apartment windows.  We see the second flight of Danny’s plane shown in the film come in right over the rooves of apartment buildings until the aircraft actually disappears from sight beneath the roof line, the airport and its landing strips still in front of it.  Whenever I flew into Berlin, I had the same response that Hank had. (It reminded me a little of the airport in Geneva, where I graduated from high school. That airport is in a little trough surrounded by mountains—including Mont Blanc, at 15,774 feet, Western Europe’s highest peak—and the planes have to fly in high to get over the mountains and then drop suddenly to land before they hit the mountains on the other side.  If I watched out the window during our approaches, my heart ended up in my throat!) 

The same flight restrictions were in force for flights to and from Berlin in the ’70s as in the ’40s and ’50s; only specially certified pilots were allowed to fly in and out of Berlin.  One of these was the newly-appointed CO of Tempelhof, Col. Gail Halvorsen (b. 1920).  In 1948-49, then-Lieutenant Halvorsen became a hero to the children of Berlin (by the 1970s, the adults running the city): he was known as the Candy Bomber because he dropped Hershey bars from his plane whenever he flew over the city on his landing approach.  (He would wiggle his plane’s wings to signal the children below that it was their Candy Bomber.  This provided another nickname for the flier: Uncle Wiggly Wings.)  Halvorsen inspired others, both military and civilian, to lend a hand in this effort, which acquired the name Operation Little Vittles.  I knew Colonel Halvorsen when I was stationed in West Berlin—his daughter was a member of our theater group, which met at the air base—and once when I took an air force hop from Ramstein, then USAFE headquarters, into Tempelhof, the former Candy Bomber piloted the plane.  My little brush with actual history.  (I relate this incident in “Berlin Memoir, Part 7,” 29 March 2017.)

Months after their first flight, the crew of “Big Easy 37” (the craft’s radio call sign) rename their plane Der Schwarze Hibiscus (“The Black Hibiscus”) because of the coal dust that’s accumulated from hauling the fuel.  They become surprise celebrities in Berlin when they are the 100,000th flight of Operation Vittles to land in the city.  At an airfield ceremony, complete with “the honor guard of the Office of Military Government” (which we called the U.S. Command, Berlin, or USCOB, by the ’70s),  by “representatives of the people of Berlin,” as ABC radio correspondent Lyford Moore (who appears as himself), the commentator of the proceedings, put it, three crew members are singled out to receive token gifts: Capt. William A. Stewart, the pilot, Lt. Alfred L. Freiburger, co-pilot; and Danny.  Amusingly, the gifts the Berliners hand out are German-style briefcases like the ones every man, from street and construction workers (who used it to carry their zweite Frühstück—‘second breakfast’—and their lunch) to business executives, carried in West Germany when I was a teenager there.  The co-pilot, Lieutenant Freiburger, was addressed in behalf of the children of Berlin by 10-year-old Helmut Braucher (who’d been coached for his speech by a GI from the deep South so that little Helmut, with his pronounced German accent, uses southernisms like “y’all”—very droll).  It struck me that Freiburger was a stand-in for, or at least a reference to, Lieutenant Halvorsen’s Candy Bomber—whose exploits, I suspect, would have been known to audiences in 1950.

At the tarmac ceremony, Frederica Burkhardt (Cornell Borchers) is introduced to thank Danny in behalf of the women of Berlin and he’s immediately taken with the pretty German war widow.  Then Richard O’Malley, an AP correspondent covering the ceremony (also himself), recruits Danny for a public relations stunt.  O’Malley wants Danny to follow a load of flour airlifted from Rhein-Main to a bakery in Berlin, and see it turned into a loaf of bread, which will end up in the hands of a Berlin child.  When the correspondent tells Danny he can get him a 24-hour pass in Berlin for a couple of hours work, the airman jumps at the offer as a way of getting to see Frederica again. 

Danny gets TDY (temporary duty) orders to travel to Berlin with O’Malley and a few days later, the AP reporter has met Danny in Frankfurt and is accompanying him in the cockpit on the C-54’s flight to Tempelhof.  Fog has descended on the city, obscuring the approach to the air field and O’Malley listens in as the crew responds to Hank’s GCA guidance from Tempelhof’s tower as he talks the plane in through the “building area” until the pilot can see the runway and resumes a “visual landing.”  (“That I gotta see,” says O’Malley, as he shifts over to see out the cockpit window.)  In the next scene, Hank gives Danny and O’Malley a lesson in the equipment and procedures of GCA in his control station in the tower.)

After doing his PR gig for O’Malley, Danny calls the phone number Frederica gave him for her neighbor who has a telephone and finds that she’s at work.  Danny locates her at her work—shoveling rubble from bombed-out buildings off the streets of Berlin into what look like mine trolleys on tracks.  In the movie, there are several scenes of Frederica and other Berliners scooping up war wreckage into various carts and wheelbarrows.  The destruction, still in evidence both in the early ’60s when I lived in West Germany and in the early ’70s when I was in Berlin, had to be cleared by hand because the deprivations of Germany after the war, especially in Berlin, made gasoline-powered machinery unavailable.  In addition, the post-war unemployment was so great until the Wirtschaftswunder—the Economic Miracle—of the 1960s, that hiring out-of-work Berliners to clear the rubble served a benefit. (In a couple of scenes, the bomb-damaged Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche is visible in the background.  While most of the bomb debris was long removed by the time I arrived in Berlin—when my parents were in Berlin in ’63, they told me that there was still war rubble visible around the city—the iconic Memorial Church’s silhouette was unchanged, as it is even today, the bell tower having been kept in its distressed condition as a reminder of the war and its consequences.)

What the movie doesn’t tell is that most of that debris was taken to a site in the borough of Wilmersdorf near the Grunewald, Berlin’s forested “Central Park.”  (Some of the reclaimed bricks were reused.)  The rubble was piled into an artificial mountain named Teufelsberg (“Devil Mountain”), the highest spot in the city at about 395 feet.   On top of that mountain, the Army Security Agency, the military counterpart of the NSA, built an elaborate spy site for communications surveillance (“signal intelligence,” known as SIGINT) called Field Station Berlin, the most secret place in the city.  Usually just called Teufelsberg—the facility was known to insiders simply as “The Hill”—the listening facility was located in the British Sector even though it was a U.S. site.  (The Brits had a small section on the site, but essentially we just shared whatever poop we got with them and the French.)  Bristling with antennas, domes, spheres, and silos, FSB looked like a set from the space opera Star Trek (or Raumschiff Enterprise, as it was entitled on German TV—what a hoot to see Spock speaking dubbed German!).  There were enough microwave transmitters and receivers on top of the complex to zap all the “grunie pigs,” the wild boar that roamed the Grunewald, into roast pork! 

Everyone knew FSB was there—you could see the bulbous towers and antennas, looking like some futuristic city, from many parts of Berlin—but very few who didn’t work there knew what went on.  (One of my classmates from the Russian language program was assigned to the companion listening station in Helmstedt and despite my clearances as an intel officer—I had clearances for which you’d need clearances just to know what the initials stood for—he couldn’t tell me what he did, aside from the obvious: listening in on Russian, East German, and Warsaw Pact communications.  The transcripts I got from Potsdam, which I mention in passing later, came from FSB.  As a counterintelligence Special Agent, I was involved in “human intelligence,” or HUMINT—that’s spies and counterspies, “sources,” and “subjects”—and “electronic intelligence,” or ELINT, more familiar as bugs, taps, and electronic eavesdropping.)  Teufelsberg was used as a debris dump site through the 1950s and was finally landscaped in 1972; construction of FSB was begun in 1963 (a mobile listening station was installed on Teufelsberg in 1961), so it didn’t exist when The Big Lift was filmed.  Even if it did, the filmmakers probably wouldn’t have been allowed to mention that that’s where all the rubble was heading.  Now, of course, Teufelsberg’s all over the ’Net—looking like a sci-fi ghost town!

After Frederica gets off work, she takes Danny on a tour of the city  and he sees a worker putting posters up on a Litfass column, a cylinder-shaped sidewalk structure used for advertisements in cities like Berlin and Paris (where they’re called Morris columns).  When the man sifts through some street trash to fish out cigarette butts, the soft-hearted flight engineer gives him some fresh cigarettes but in the exchange, the worker’s buddy on a ladder above them spills a bucket of poster paste all over Danny’s uniform.  This forces Danny and Frederica to rush back to her apartment where he can change clothes so the young widow can take his uniform to a cleaner; he has to borrow civilian working clothes from Herr Stieber (O. E. Hasse), Frederica’s neighbor, until the uniform is cleaned.  Being out of uniform was a serious offense in the occupied Berlin of the postwar decade.  Danny asserts later, only half joking: “If I’m seen out of uniform, I’ve had it.  They give me ten days, goodbye stripes; worse than that, they’ll take away my PX card.”  In my era, wearing civvies off duty was perfectly fine—although GI’s couldn’t ride the buses and subways for free unless they were in uniform.  

(The cigarette-butt bit reminded me of one of the constants of intel work at Berlin Station: “walk-ins”—people who came in off the street to the HQ compound and said they had something to report.  As you might imagine, 99% of walk-ins were nonsense.  Many, even a majority I’d say, were nuts.  As a result, we often got kooks calling or walking in with all manner of strange reports to make.  One such swore that the KGB was leaving poisoned cigarette butts on the streets so that GI’s would pick them up, smoke them, and get sick.  To prove this, he had brought little bottles of his own blood, which he carried around with him in a tote bag.  Riiight.  I used to see GI’s picking up discarded cigarette butts all the time.  I mean, who could afford 25¢ a pack at the PX?)

While he’s waiting in Frederica’s apartment for her to retrieve his uniform, Danny gets to know Stieber, the neighbor with the telephone.  They introduce themselves to one another and chit-chat briefly, then Stieber takes a seat by the window and takes out a pad and makes notes as planes land at the airport.  (I told you, the planes flew right by the windows!)  Danny asks the man what he’s doing.  “I’m a Russian spy,” he answers matter-of-factly.  Clift is taken aback slightly, as you might expect.  Danny asks if Stieber’s not afraid that the GI might report him.  “Americans know I do this,” Stieber states.  He explains that because the Russians don’t believe the official announcements of the airlift’s progress—since the Russians lie, they assume everyone else does, too—they insist on getting their own statistics.  (This is why Stieber has a phone when so few others can get one—so he can report regularly to his Soviet handler.)  Since the official reports are accurate—the U.S. wants everyone to know what they’re doing; it’s good propaganda—he tells Clift that he leaves out one or two flights, just so the Russians feel they’re getting “real” figures.  Later in the movie, Stieber’s steps out of the living room briefly just as a plane comes in to land.  He sticks his head around the corner, then smiles at Danny and says, “That one was only American propaganda!” 

Stieber tells Danny that the Russians are spying on the Americans with 15,000 German agents in Berlin, and the Americans are spying on the Russians, only with just 10,000 German spies.  (In my Berlin days, there were about 10,000 GI’s and official U.S. civilians posted in the city.  Of those, perhaps 2,000 were engaged in some kind of intelligence work.)  Both sides know that the other side is spying, and that each side also knows that the other side knows.  “Things  must get a little gemischt [mixed up],” observes Danny.  “Oh, ja, a little sehr gemischt [very mixed up],” laughs Herr Stieber.  “But there’s also maybe 500 Russians who are spying for both sides.”  It’s very good for the unemployment problem, he quips.   It’s all very absurd—but not inaccurate. 

When I was in Berlin in the ’70s, not only were the Russians (and the East Germans, of course) spying on us and we on them, but, of course, the French and British were also spying on the Russians and vice versa.  But we were also spying on one another.  And there were spies in Berlin from Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Soviet Bloc countries, all spying on everyone else—including each other.  There were even countries with no obvious need to be in Berlin operating there—Chinese spies, for example.  Berlin was espionage-central in that era—the counterpart of, say, Lisbon in WWII.  With the possible exception of Saigon, Berlin in that period may have had more spies per capita than any other place on Earth.  It certainly had spies from more countries and agencies than anywhere else.  As the label for one exhibit at Washington’s International Spy Museum (see my report “Spook Museum,” 25 March 2010) had it: “BERLIN – City of Spies”! (I’m sure there’s a comedy of errors in this somewhere!) 

The first day I arrived in the city and reported to Berlin Station’s offices, which were in the headquarters compound on Clayallee, named for Gen. Lucius Clay (1897-1978), “father” of the Berlin airlift (who appears in the newsreel at the beginning of the movie), I noticed two black Russian sedans parked, one by each exit from the compound.  (Volgas and Moscvitches were easy to spot: even in the 1970s, they looked like cars from the 1950s!)  I asked about them, and my sponsor told me that they were almost always there, just watching, taking notes and probably photos—and that within an hour of my arrival, they knew my name, rank, and assignment.  (We weren’t clandestine, but low profile.  We wore civilian clothes on duty and were all addressed as “Mr.” or “Miss” outside the office.  When we had to wear fatigues—for the firing range, say, or during an alert—we wore no branch or rank insignia, only the “U.S.” device.  Our addresses and phone numbers were unlisted, and our private cars were all registered in Munich—the 66th Military Intelligence Group headquarters—not Berlin.)  By the same token, I got info copies of the transcripts of the wiretaps from Potsdam, the Soviet military HQ in East Germany.  The Cold War was mighty crowded in Berlin!  Sehr gemischt, indeed.

When it comes time to retrieve Danny’s uniform, Frederica discovers that the cleaner has been called into the Soviet Sector on a family emergency and the shop is closed.  Frederica suggests that if Danny, an American, goes and asks him, the cleaning shop-owner will more likely give him a key than if she went alone—so he goes off in the clothes he borrowed from Herr Stieber.  On the way to the Soviet Sector, they arrive at an U-Bahn (for Untergrundbahn, the German word for ‘underground railway’ or ‘subway’) station, marked with a large letter U.  These signs were ubiquitous in Berlin, designating one of two underground systems in the city; the other was the S-Bahn (for Stadtschnellbahn, ‘city rapid transit,’ a commuter rail line similar to New York/New Jersey’s PATH trains).  Both systems predated World War II so both went into all the occupied sectors—even after the Wall went up.  The difference was that, according to the occupation agreement, the U-Bahn was controlled by the Western allies (and later, the West Berlin authorities) and the S-Bahn by the Soviets (and then the East Berlin government).  And because the S-Bahn was considered East German territory, even in West Berlin, I wasn’t allowed even in the stations, let alone the trains, because of my security status.  (I could use the U-Bahn, even though it went to East Berlin—as long as I stayed on our side of the Wall.)

As they’re about to go into the U-Bahn, Danny realizes that he forgot his cigarettes.  Frederica says he can get some in the station, but Danny says all he has is “scrip.”  During the occupation, so that U.S. cash wouldn’t circulate on the black market, GI’s were issued scrip, a kind of substitute currency that was only good on military bases and in PX’s and service clubs; Germans weren’t supposed to possess scrip (though a black market in it quickly arose), so Danny couldn’t buy anything on the German economy or exchange his scrip for German money.  (One of the reasons the Soviets started the blockade was because the western sectors of Berlin had announced that they would begin accepting the newly-adopted West German Deutsche Mark, loosening the Soviet’s grip on the city.)  Danny can’t even exchange some scrip for Frederica’s marks because she’s not supposed to have any and can’t spend or exchange it legally.  (She offers to buy his cigs for him and he’ll pay her back later.)  

Scrip was no longer in use by the U.S. military in Germany either in the ’60s or the ’70s—though ration books were for items like tobacco, liquor, and gasoline, among some other commodities, to prevent GI’s from buying them in bulk, tax free and subsidized, at the PX or commissary and then reselling them to unauthorized people—such as German civilians.  I worked on a surveillance of a guy suspected of doing just that—as well as selling classified information, a kind of all-purpose sleeze—but the op fell apart and as I was just a hired hand, I don’t know what happened after that; see my post “Berlin Stories – Three SNAFU’s.”

In the U-Bahn station, they find a vendor who sells loose cigarettes (among other, probably black market goods).  You could still buy loosies in much of Europe when I was in school there—a pack was relatively pricey even in the ’60s.  (Of course, I mostly bought my smokes at the PX where a pack of American cigs went for a quarter with a ration booklet; the average price at home was 30¢.  Thanks to the U.S. taxpayer and duty-free agreements, my cancer sticks were subsidized!  When I was in high school in Geneva and ran out of my PX butts, I had to pony up the local price.  Since French cigarettes like Gauloises and Gitanes were strong, unfiltered, and stinky, I had to pay for English cigs or American, the most expensive ones but the ones I smoked—around SFr3.25 at the time for a pack of twenty, about 70-75¢.  That’s worth almost $6 today.)

Despite the potential penalty for Danny’s being caught out of uniform, he and Frederica meet Hank and his “Schatzi,” the intelligent but naïve Gerda (Bruni Löbel), at a night club, where Hank treats Gerda as an inferior.  (“Schatzi” was GI-German slang for something like ‘sweetie’ or ‘tootsie’; it’s derived from the German word Schatz, or ‘treasure,’ which is a common German term for ‘sweetheart,’ as in mein Schatz, ‘my treasure,’ ‘my darling.’)  He’s also rude to Frederica, pumping her about her late husband whom she’s told Danny died in Russia, and her father.  Hank accuses her husband of having been in the SS, but she insists that he was just a draftee, like so many U.S. soldiers.  Hank shoots back, “Some day I’d like to meet just one German who enlisted.”  Her father, Frederica continued, had resisted the Nazis: as a university professor, he protested the burning of books until they burned his books.  When my family lived in West Germany in the early ’60s, we were amused that every German who’d have been of military age during the war insisted that he fought on the Russian front.  Not one former Wehrmacht soldier we encountered had served on the western front.  With so many Germans fighting in the east . . . who was it that was shooting at Brits and Americans like my dad, we wondered. 

Before Hank and Gerda arrive at the restaurant, Danny and Frederica talk about their day in Berlin, riding the U-Bahn and the streetcar (which no longer existed by the time I arrived there).  Danny’s been learning German and he asks Frederica about the difference between addressing people as Sie (the formal form of ‘you’) and saying du (the informal ‘you,’ comparable to the archaic ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in English).  Frederica explains the distinction and Danny wonders how long it takes for two people to duzen one another—to get to call each other du instead of Sie.  Frederica tells him that “usually this would take a long time.” 

 “When you only got 24 hours and you’ve used up eight of them already . . .,”  Danny replies.

“For such emergencies we have the Duzis.  We link arms and drink . . . and then we . . . .”  Danny kisses her.

This is a bit of a thorny issue in Germany—I assume still today.  (The French and most other European cultures, except the British, have the same distinction.)  Who duzens whom and who must siezen is sticky for foreigners.  When I first went to live in Germany, I was still a teenager, so the situation was a little clearer: I could automatically duzen my peers, even when we were just introduced, and I had to siezen their parents and any other adults I met.  My parents had it rougher since over time, they became friendly with some of the Germans they met through my dad’s job or other circumstances.  Since Dad was a diplomat, that put him at a formal distance from most men and women he met, so it was basically safer socially just to keep to Sie for the most part.  Of course, as foreigners. we were given a lot of latitude by our German hosts, who were just delighted that we even tried to speak German, even if we made mistakes.  No one ever invited me to duzen him or her, even though I called Germany home until after I was 20.  (I never participated in a Duzis or drank a Bruderschaft—another ceremony for transitioning from Sie to du—or witnessed either one.)  By the way, connected to the distinction of Sie and du is also the practice of calling people by their first names or, even more familiar, nicknames, which aren’t used as casually as they are in English, especially for us Americans.  The post-war situation in The Big Lift abbreviated the time it would take for two people to get to that level of familiarity, further shortened by the facts that Danny and Hank are Americans—we jump right to first names and nicknames as soon as we meet—and have so little time to get acquainted to new people like Frederica and Gerda.

In the restaurant, Hank happens to spot the former camp guard who tormented and beat him as a POW, and attacks him and nearly kills him.  Danny’s able to stop Hank only by knocking him down and passing military police mistake him for a German attacking Hank.  Still in civvies (in which he can’t be caught), Danny’s chased into the Soviet Sector accompanied by Frederica.  She explains that “Germans go back and forth all day long,” crossing between the sectors—remember, there’s no Wall yet.  Not in my day, of course.  Besides the Wall, the East Germans prohibited West Berliners from entering East Berlin from 1961 to 1973 (though they often got around this by holding ID documents that showed that they came from a city in the Federal Republic, a pretty common gambit).  In addition, U.S. personnel with high clearances like me were forbidden by our government from traveling into East Berlin and East Germany—though, incongruously, not other Eastern Bloc countries.  As a result, I lived in West Berlin for 2½ years and never visited East Berlin (where most of the historic sights were).  (I wrote about this in “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009.)

Danny and Frederica narrowly escape back into the American Sector, where Hank is waiting for them at Frederica’s apartment.  A group of neighbors gathers late in the evening, drinking, noshing, playing music, and singing—a kind of impromptu party.  Another woman who lives in the building is just arriving from work and stops in to say hello.  When she arrives, she makes the rounds of all the partiers, stopping at each one, shaking his or her hand, and saying, “Guten Abend.”  When she reaches the last person, she says she’s tired and off home to turn in and immediately reverses her route, shaking all the same hands in reverse order, saying. “Gute Nacht,” as she works her way back out the door.  That’s so German—the formal, hand-shaking greeting of each and every person present, even though you don’t plan to stay, and then doing the exact same thing to say good night.  Even Hank remarks in a later scene on how often the Germans shake hands; in the scene after Danny’s been to the bakery and given the loaf of bread to a little girl, everyone shakes hands to say auf Wiedersehen, even Hank—except that he mumbles dismissively, “Yeah, yeah,” as he shakes each person’s hand.  In Germany, at least back then—they may have caught the American casualness disease since my day—you can’t just stick your head in the door, wave, and say to everyone at once, “Hi.  And good night,” and then leave.  It couldn’t have been realer if it had been a documentary!

By now, Danny’s fallen in love with Frederica, despite learning from Hank that she lied about the backgrounds of her dead husband, who’d indeed been a member of the SS—and almost certainly not a draftee—and her father, who “never saw a university,” and had cooperated with the Nazis because “he had a little dough, and wanted to keep it . . . .  Walked out on her mother in ’39 because she was Polish,” Hank reported.  “Nice guy,” snaps Hank.  He explains to Danny that a friend of his in “the Document Center” checked Frederica out and found a record of her from the war years.  (As I revealed in “Berlin Memoir, Part 4,” posted on 9 February 2017, we actually had to conduct records checks on people with whom we got friendly outside the unit.) 

The Berlin Document Center was, in fact, the records repository for the Third Reich’s official files, and it was in the American Sector so we kept it as a resource.  It was one of the agencies we always checked when we did background investigations of a German native who was old enough to have lived in the Third Reich.  Mind you, the BDC held all the Reich’s official records, so a file might reveal only that someone was an old-age pensioner, had been a dues-paying member of the musicians guild, or had held a job as a school teacher in Frankfurt.  Only occasionally did a file check of the BDC reveal a criminal record or service in the SS or something nefarious. 

Danny confronts Frederica with the BDC file, and she acknowledges the facts.  Her explanation for the lies is that, like others in post-war Germany, she’s learned to make herself seem brave and pitiful to evoke sympathy from their occupiers.  “When you live in a sewer, you soon discover that the sewer rats are best equipped to survive,” she explains.  After contemplating the significance of Frederica’s lies about her husband and father, and seeing that she’s capable of deception, Danny realizes that he still loves her.  When he reads in the Air Force Times that GI’s like his crew who’ve served in Operation Vittles for six months are due to rotate back to the States soon, he applies to marry Frederica.  

The Air Force Times, like its companion weeklies the Army Times, Navy Times, and Marine Corps Times, publishes official information from the services and the Department of Defense, or National Military Establishment as it was known in 1948.  The Stars and Stripes, a quasi-independent daily newspaper published the by U.S. armed forces abroad, headlines from which are also seen in the The Big Lift, covers the news stories of the day as well as events in the military community, but doesn’t publish official notices and announcements.  So, for instance, the headline “Rotation to Start for Lift Personnel Who Have Served Six Months” ran in the military Times, while the story slugged “Record Fog Shrouds Europe; Sea and Air Travel at Standstill; Air Lift Manages to Deliver Only 70 Tons in 24 Hour Period” was published in Stars and Stripes.  When the list for promotions to captain, in which my name appeared, was released by the Pentagon in November 1973, it was published in the Army Times but not Stars and Stripes—which, however, had run a long story in July about the newly-founded Tempelhof American Theatre that I helped start. 

When Danny’s squadron commander uses the telephone to try to expedite Danny’s marriage application, the connection is so bad that the two officers have to spell out their names to each other using the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, used in the U.S. military from 1941 to 1956 (when a uniform NATO alphabet was adopted).  The JAN, commonly called “Able Baker” after the words for the letters A and B,  was developed so that soldiers and airmen using radio-telephone communications could spell out important information (or any time when initials or letters were spoken) with letters represented by words that can’t easily be confused for letters that sound similar (like B and D,  for example).  When I had to serve as Duty Agent, I had to stay in the station all night to answer the phones (sort of like the Charge of Quarters in a line unit—except spooky).  One phone was, of course, the red alert phone which rang once a night to check the communications system, and the DA had to answer it with a prescribed phrase: the name of the unit and the DA’s initials in phonetic alphabet.  So, when I was DA, I’d have to say, “66th MI.  Romeo-Echo-Kilo.” (That would have been “Roger-Easy-King” in 1948.)

Danny rushes back to Berlin to get Frederica and marry her before he has to report for transfer back to the States.  Fog has enveloped the whole continent so badly that pilots have been instructed that if their planes and crews are in danger, they should turn the aircraft around and return to Rhein-Main.  Indeed, Danny’s plane is enshrouded in fog en route to Berlin and Captain Stewart is about to order it to turn around and go back to Frankfurt when it suffers another hazard: one of the engines catches fire and the crew can’t extinguish the flames.  Before we see Danny’s plane land safely at Tempelhof under Hank’s GCA guidance, there’s a shot of an earlier plane that crashed and is in flames by the side of the runway.  Once on the ground, Danny runs off to find Frederica, rounding up Hank and Gerda as witnesses and telling them to meet him and Frederica at the Bürgermeister’s office.

Herr Stieber suspects Frederica of duplicity when he delivers a letter to her from St. Louis; he intercepts the reply she’s written to her German lover living there, revealing that she intends to divorce Danny as soon as she can without being sent back to Germany after he brings her to the States, and see her lover behind his back until that happens.  In the meantime, Hank, while trying to teach Gerda the meaning of democracy, comes to see that he’s been hypocritical in his own behavior toward Germans.  He’s also now deeply ashamed of the beating he gave the former POW guard, explaining that he had spent seven years waiting for “satisfaction,” but now he doesn’t feel satisfied; he feels “dirty.”  He begins treating Gerda as an equal and with affection as they meet Frederica at the Berlin city hall to be witnesses at her wedding to Danny.  When Danny arrives, he tells Frederica it’ll be a long time, if ever, before she gets to America and turns on his heel and leaves.  Herr Stieber has given Danny the letter she wrote.  Gerda says she prefers to stay in Germany and do what she can to help rebuild her country, and Hank reveals to Danny that he’s not going home but has switched his temporary assignment in Berlin to permanent duty.  Danny’s flight out departs, amidst rumors that the Russians will soon end the blockade (which they did on 12 May 1949).

What most often caught me while watching The Big Lift were the little bits of actual German culture and custom that were incorporated in the movie.  Some of the little things in the flick that hit me were specifically about life in post-war Germany and occupied Berlin.  As odd as it may seem from a chronological perspective, life in Germany was not very different in the early ’60s when I was there as a teen than it was right after the war.  Less rubble, more prosperity (just beginning), but otherwise, it was still “post-war.”  (Of course, it was also the Federal Republic by then—no longer Allied occupied territory.)  Even in the ’70s, when I was there ten years further on, Berlin was still occupied and, except for new uniforms (and still less rubble), plus the addition of the Wall, things were much the same in many ways as they were depicted in The Big Lift, right after the war ended.  It was a time warp, in both instances. 

26 August 2017

“Talk to Me”

by Ryan Bradley

[Actors are constantly faced with the need to adjust their speech patterns.  This is as true for stage performers as it is for film and television actors.  And it’s no different for actors raised with a strong regional dialect than it is for those who grew up with no recognizable accent: if you want to play a spectrum of roles in plays by a range of playwrights, you have to learn to speak in a variety of patterns. 

[Most decent acting programs include speech classes that focus on both helping student actors lose regional accents and teaching them how to adopt accents and dialects for the stage or screen.  There are also many dialect coaches who train actors privately; some give classes and some hire on to productions to work with casts on specific speech requirements.  If you skim the credits for a film or TV show or the program acknowledgments for a play, you’ll often spot the listing for a dialect coach, especially in productions of scripts by popular writers such as Tennessee Williams (southern accents, including New Orleans), Sam Shepard (southwestern), Horton Foote (Texas), William Inge (midwestern), or Athol Fugard (South African)—not to mention the whole catalogue of British and Irish dramatists.

[Ryan Brady’s “Talk to Me” discusses speech training for television, but the same parameters hold for all acting media, including commercials.  The article reproduced below originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine on 23 July  2017.]

*  *  *  *
Peak TV has brought in a flood of global acting talent. It’s the job of dialect coaches like Samara Bay to help them all sound right.

Why should I trust you?” Dominic Cooper said to Samara Bay, his dialect coach. “Trustya,” she replied, crushing the words together. “Why should I trustya,” Cooper repeated. The actor and coach were standing in the driveway of an old stone mansion in New Orleans’s Garden District, on break from shooting a scene for the AMC series “Preacher.” Cooper, who was born and raised in London, plays the show’s title character, a West Texas preacher possessed by the offspring of an angel and a demon. He tried another line, moving his mouth around the hard twang of the “am” in “vampire,” when the vampire in question — his co-star Joseph Gilgun — interrupted their work.

“This is why yewr all fat, innit,” Gilgun joked, stretching his Os, clipping his Is and waving a very large Smoothie King cup. The crack was directed at Bay, the lone American among the three of them; Bay is not fat at all, but slight and sprightly. Gilgun was born and raised in northern England, but his character is from Ireland. He knew a lot of Irish people growing up, he explained, so Bay often left him to his own devices.

The show’s other lead actor, Ruth Negga, was across the lawn, practicing her lines in solitude. Negga was born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland. She was also playing a West Texan, but her accent was more flowing, in part because she was relaxing her vowels — Bay described it as a legato to Cooper’s staccato, appropriate for her world-weary character.

None of this was unusual: In the Peak TV era, a growing supply of international acting talent has met the increasing demand for high-quality television, and people like Bay were there to make it all work. Cooper continued running his lines, pausing on his “yas” and “yurs,” drawing out the edges of the deep-throated vowels, making sure he wrapped his mouth around the words when he whispered them, which he’d need to do in the coming scene.

When it was time for a take, Bay followed her actors into the mansion, slipping in her earbuds as she walked upstairs. She took a seat just beyond the spare bedroom where Cooper and Gilgun had begun blocking their scene. As the filming began, she leaned forward in her chair, cupping her ears and staring into a bank of monitors. Occasionally she whispered to the script supervisor about a word that might require rerecording, or “looping,” in postproduction. When a problem was persistent, Bay quietly squeezed her way past the crew to deliver a note directly to an actor — a bold entry onto the director’s turf, but most of the time a welcome one.

Television viewers, exposed to hundreds of different dialects every day, are increasingly aware of the tiniest differences in how people speak, even as the number and degree of distinctions continue to expand. There’s a wide and complex range of Minnesotan on “Fargo,” and Tatiana Maslany, the Canadian star of “Orphan Black,” does a dizzying array of British, American and even Eastern-European-inflected English accents. But the specificity isn’t relegated to stars. Bay says she was recently dispatched to the set of another TV show to work on a bit player’s Haitian Creole. She read the script and character notes and went to YouTube, a miraculous repository (especially under the “accent” tag), then crosschecked her YouTube finds with a Haitian-language specialist at M.I.T.’s linguistics department, who narrowed them down and sent her a few of his own field recordings. All for a few lines uttered briefly by a one-off character in a network drama that has been canceled.

The right dialects can help actors create a sense of authenticity and also quickly transmit a lot of information about their characters. An actor could sound generally as if he were from the South and pronounce “pen” like “pin.” Or he could also speak in African-American Vernacular English (for instance, pronouncing “south” like “souf”) and sound as if he were from Bankhead, a largely African-American Atlanta neighborhood. An actor could speak with all these linguistic specificities, but with a particular quicker and more clipped speech pattern that has to do with his own upbringing, and then he’d sound like Earn Marks, the character portrayed by Donald Glover in “Atlanta.” In other words: exactly like who that character is, and no one else.

This kind of efficiency and precision is pleasing for actors who take pride in their craft. It also sends a powerful signal to viewers: This is a quality production. For most of Hollywood history, accents were a character feature that could reasonably be ignored or drawn from a very limited menu of “Southern” or British or vaguely Eastern-European dialects. Charlton Heston didn’t bother to modulate his theatricalized Middle American accent for the role of a Mexican drug-enforcement officer in the 1958 noir classic “Touch of Evil.” Mickey Rooney’s 1961 turn as the bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was straight out of a World War II-era propaganda cartoon. It was not until Meryl Streep took home an Oscar for her perfectly accented portrayal of the title character in the 1982 drama “Sophie’s Choice” that audiences began to understand mastery of dialect as a sign of artistic merit.

With the rise of prestige TV in the United States, the demand for skilled performers from around the world — particularly well-trained British performers — has increased, as has the desire to quickly communicate quality with authentic-sounding accents. Actors have worked hard to deliver. For his role in the HBO series “The Wire,” Idris Elba (raised in London by a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother) spent long days with cops to improve his Baltimore sound, which is generally regarded as one of the most subtly accurate and astonishing dialect portrayals of all time. His fellow Brit Andrew Lincoln (“The Walking Dead”) set up camp in Georgia for a few months before filming began to immerse himself in the region’s manner of speaking. Gillian Anderson, born in Chicago and raised in North London, is a rare case of an actor who is naturally bi-accented. In interviews on British television, she sounds British; in America, she sounds American. It might seem like an act, but it’s her personal history, which is exactly what an accent is: an ever-changing assemblage of sounds based on where we’ve lived, who we’ve known and our perception of how we should sound based on our surroundings.

All of that said, much of Bay’s day-to-day work involves helping actors learn to eliminate specificity from their speech. Casting directors for most gigs, especially commercials, prefer something called “General American,” a kind of nowhere accent found only on TV. That makes it hard for some actors to get a foot in the door. Olivia J. Holloway, an actor from a small town in South Carolina, told me about the paradox of speaking in dialect at a time when consciousness of dialect is higher than ever in Hollywood. She hired Bay after she realized she’d been put in a box with other black women from the South; agents kept mentioning how well she’d work in a “12 Years a Slave”-type movie or “Queen Sugar”-type show. To break out, she realized, she would need to learn how to sound as if she were from everywhere or nowhere — but “if you’re from nowhere,” she told me, “you’re nobody. And who’s going to believe in you then?”

Attention to dialectical detail is a relatively recent development, not just in Hollywood but also in human history. Sarah Thomason, a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan, told me a story, probably apocryphal, set around the turn of the 20th century. A French linguist named Jules Gilliéron began charting regional dialects on maps. Lovely and rich with detail, his earliest maps disappeared over time because of the unstable ink he had used to draw them. Thomason says she often began her classes with his story. It perfectly illustrates the slipperiness of dialect, she says, and our inability to capture it as it exists out there, in the wild, where it’s ever-changing, messy and human.

Of course, being human, we’ve tried to tame its wildness. For a long time, especially in an English academy like Oxford or on the BBC, students and broadcasters were taught a standardized, “proper” form of English called Received Pronunciation that tidied up and rounded off diction like a polished stone. Boris Johnson, David Attenborough and Emma Thompson all speak variations of R.P., which is an idealized accent called a sociolect, not a dialect — its entire purpose is to manage sounds, not the regional idiosyncrasies in vocabulary and grammar that make dialects dialects.

American English has always been more unruly. In 1942, Edith Skinner, a drama professor at Carnegie Mellon who coached Broadway actors on the side, codified what were to her the proper-sounding forms of pronunciation and diction in a book called “Speak With Distinction.” Deploying a series of lessons and drills — practice phrases included “or what ought to be taught her” and “a tutor who tooted the flute” — she taught a form of “Standard American English” that doesn’t exist in a natural form anywhere. (Central Indiana is often cited as being the source of a sort of Everyman broadcasterese, but people there in fact speak with an identifiable Midland American, for instance merging words like “cot” and “caught” to sound the same.)

Skinner’s Standard tries to do away with many of the dialectic peccadilloes that make American speech sound so distinctively American. “It’s the choos and joos, mainly,” Bay explains. “And that linking ‘cha’ sound: didya, cantya, wudya, cudya.” Still, American Stage Speech, also called Good Speech, can be useful, Bay says. If you are asked to play the smartest person in the room, for example, or an angry person trying to hold it together, Skinner’s prescription can help you sound rather tight and clipped and proper.

The world of dialect coaches is small — there are only a few dozen working in Hollywood and New York, and nearly all of them share a single manager (a woman named Diane Kamp, who splits her time between the Catskills and a ranch in Montana). There is no union; nearly everyone is freelance, and a few are associated with a university’s theater department. As a result, they are generalists. At 37, Bay is among the youngest. She has a few repeat high-profile clients (she also worked with Negga on the 2016 film “Loving”), and while she now mostly books steady, longer-term gigs like “Preacher,” her reliable fallback is still charging clients for sessions on a sliding scale. (Dialect coaches charge from as little as $100 to $400 or more an hour.) Actors, or their agents or managers, find her because they either have booked a role that demands a certain sound or aren’t booking anything because they don’t sound a certain way. They are often hoping to achieve that general American sound to break in or refashion their career for the Hollywood market.

Bay grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif. She started out wanting to be an actor and was introduced to speech training in San Francisco, at the American Conservatory Theater. She performed in regional theater and eventually Off Broadway, in a Theater for a New Audience production of “Measure for Measure.” When she was 23, she was accepted into the Shakespeare Lab, a six-week program run by the Public Theater in New York. There, she studied under a dialect coach named Kate Wilson, who helped her realize that as great as acting was, she also loved, and was adept at, helping other actors work on their accents. Before long she had individual actors wanting one-on-one sessions.

After 11 years of coaching, Bay has found a consistent approach. Within the first five minutes of the first session, she is likely to tell you to stand up, put away your notebook and run through a set of physical gestures tied to vowels. “Now, we’re going to be like 5-year-olds,” Bay might say. And: “Remember how acting takes your whole body? So does speech.”

She will rub her belly, make her mouth a circle, and go “ooo-ooo-ooo” and nod at you to do the same. This is “oo” as in “do,” but a lot of her clients, Western Europeans and South Americans in particular, misplace this sound into words like “good,” so that the vowels in “do good” sound overly alike, suspiciously foreign: “Doo goood.” This is fine if you’re an Italian chef auditioning for the Food Network and want to keep a bit of your accent intact. It’s not so fine if you’re trying to play a California surfer or a car dealer in Michigan or nearly anyone else, especially someone blandly all-American. You have to drop the “oo” and find the sound in the middle of your mouth.

Bay will show you important variations. She will change her belly-rub into a light stomach punch, and ask you to relax your jaw and feel the sound travel back from midtongue to get the “uh” in “cup.” The understanding of that back-of-the-throat “uh” — a sound so common we throw it in between phrases to give ourselves time to think — will open up the sonic landscape of America to you. Suddenly, “cup” is not “cop” — it’s like “love” and “does” and “what” and “none.”

Yes, Bay will note, these words aren’t all spelled with an O or a U or any single letter or series of letters that would tell you they should sound the same. Spelling is truly, entirely irrelevant to pronunciation. Then, if you’re smart, you’ll pick up your notebook and write that down.

Bay holds most of her sessions in the living area of the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband (a writer), their 2-year-old son and their dog in the hills below the Hollywood sign. Bay sits at her dinner table, next to her client, with both their chairs pushed as far out as the small space allows, because they often move their arms, sometimes standing, leaning, positioning their bodies to more ably work through awkward sounds.

One day Bay was working with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, a British actor who had been cast in a low-budget indie film as a struggling American porn star. He and Bay ran through a whole scene — a fantasy about fame and money — without stopping, then again, slower, more nit-picking, with Bay acting as a sort of referee, pausing on spots that didn’t quite sound right, offering corrections.

“I’ve already got this spot of land picked out,” Stewart-Jarrett said. “I’ve got my mahnsion — ”

“Maaan-shun,” she said, “get rid of that big open ‘ah’!,” The right sound was more like the “aa” in “can”: ugly.

“How ugly?” he said.

“Very,” Bay replied. She moved to Stewart-Jarrett’s next line, which contained an especially tricky phrase that included the words “America and.” Bay says that much of her training involves not just the words themselves but “the liaisons between words.” It is there in the gaps that we make sounds suggesting restive thought or high emotion — and where an actor’s native accent has a tendency to creep in.

“America and” was a liaison minefield: It contained three different “a” sounds, two of them in rapid succession between the words, separate but intimately connected not just in the same sentence but also within the same phrase, thought and breath. Our mouths also have a lot of trouble linking one vowel sound to another. Different English dialects deal with the adjoining-vowel problem differently, Bay said. British English solves it with an R — “Americar and.” American English is, again, closer to the back of the throat, burying the second “a” into a glottal “ungh” — more like “America’and.” Stewart-Jarrett tried this a few times, his eyebrows raised in a look suggesting both mild surprise and deep concentration. “Sorry,” he said, moving on. “I got a little carried away. Carried? Cay-ree-d?”

“It’s a big open ‘care,’ like ‘air’ or ‘Eric,’” Bay said. “The R influences the vowel sound. It’s not exactly right, but a bigger proportion of the country says it that way, says it technically wrong, so that it’s not really wrong anymore.”

Afterward, outside Bay’s apartment, Stewart-Jarrett and I were walking to our cars when he stopped me. “It’s a bit weird,” he said, “letting someone else into this process. A bit naked-feeling.” For the entire session he’d been speaking with an American accent. Now his natural British accent sounded jarring, like a put-on. He sounded like an actor.

[Many acting schools used to teach a “standard American stage dialect,” based on upper-class New England speech.  (Think Katharine Hepburn—though she came by her accent naturally.)  That practice became obsolete in the 1950s because directors, playwrights, and audiences began to demand more natural-sounding speech from the stage—film acting more quickly began to emulate ordinary street speech and television never really copped into the conceit of a mannered way of talking—spurred by the rising popularity of Lee Strasberg’s Method acting as taught at the Actors Studio and practiced on the stage and screen by stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Anne Bancroft, Maureen Stapleton, Sidney Poitier, and Montgomery Clift.

[When I started classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the mid-1970s, I was nonplussed to discover that the school was still teaching this form of stage speech.  Not only did no one (outside of New England) speak that way in real life, but no one spoke that way on stage anymore—not even, to my observation, in revivals of plays from the 1930s and ’40s.  (We were actually taught to say TYEWS-dih and DYOOK for “Tuesday” and “duke.”  Who talks like that?)  There’s a big difference, when it comes to gaining employment as a working actor, between being trained to speak clearly and distinctly while projecting to the rear balcony (miking wasn’t common in the ’70s) and sounding like a Boston Brahmin.  I only lasted at AADA for one semester.

[While I was there, however, I attended several appearances by former Academy students—they were required events—such as Robert Redford and Gena Rowlands.  One of these was an actress then appearing on Broadway in a musical hit—she’s now deceased, but I won’t reveal her name here—who hailed from the American South.  I don’t recall much about her presentation—she wasn’t very interesting or informative—but I do remember that she declared, in her conspicuous southern accent, that she never ridded herself of her native speech pattern.  She sort of giggled, like the  stage caricature of a flibbertigibbet, that she was never able to put her natural accent aside, so she didn’t see the point of trying.  Directors would just have to take her as she was, she insisted. 

[Aside from being amused at the actress’s flying in the face of the Academy’s avowed position on speech training for the stage—I didn’t really care about defying the school by this time in my brief tenure at the American Academy—I was aghast that a working stage actress would essentially refuse to remove an obstacle to employment this way.  It didn’t matter if this actress spoke in her native accent off stage or even on stage in roles where speech wasn’t an issue.  But why so cavalierly deny herself the opportunities to work in productions where a southern accent was inappropriate?  Why limit her castabiliy so casually?  Even though the actress and I were about the same age, I was just embarking on a hoped-for career as an actor, and I was determined to be as acceptable for as many types of roles as I could manage, not limit myself at the get-go.  I couldn’t do anything about my looks or my stature—but my speech was something I could learn to control.  I may not have felt I had to talk like Katharine Hepburn, but I could learn to manipulate my speech pattern the same way I was trying to learn to control my body with dance and mime training.  I just didn’t understand this Academy grad’s attitude.
                                                                            
[Ryan Bradley is a writer based in Los Angeles.  He last wrote for the Times Magazine about the Hollywood producer Jason Blum.]