The Music Box’s 24 hour horror movie marathon is always a delight. There is something intoxicating about the temporary community that forms for one weekend every October. This is a place for the unabashed horror lover, and even if you normally wouldn’t consider yourself one, you will get swept up in the tsunami of a few hundred other audience members cheering when Christopher Lee appears for a cameo, or groaning at a particularly gory death scene.
That being said, I unfortunately only stayed for the first half, but a handful of the movies I did get to see had fat characters:
The link goes to a full version on YouTube, thanks public domain! Jim (Creighton Hale) is a wealthy young man who wants to go on an expedition to Africa, but gets caught up trying to help his fiancee Eve (Thelma Todd) catch a thief… which leads them to a bizarre mansion filled with trap doors and sadistic Satan-worshipping cultists. A few of the nefarious cultists are fat, but given the spectacle that this film makes of other kinds of transgressive bodies (including a little person and other actors some very grotesque special effects makeup), it seems merely incidental. It just gets weirder as it goes along, definitely give it a shot.
Street Trash (1987, dir. J. Michael Munro)
Only caught the last half of this one, about a group of homeless people living in a junk yard who drink tainted booze that causes them to melt. This one gets compared to/mistaken for Troma Studios’ work pretty often, in that it’s unapologetically trashy and cartoonishly vile. In true “this offends everyone!” style, a lot of the jokes and characterizations are based on stereotypes, including two fat characters who are included for a grotesque factor. While most of the victims of the killer liquor melt into colorful puddles, the fat bum who drinks it swells up and explodes, burping and farting the whole time. The other fat character is the owner of the junkyard; maybe he has a nuanced plotline in the first half of the film that I missed, but in the second half he rapes a woman’s corpse. So there’s that. Most of the exploding man can be seen in the trailer, here. (As you might have guessed by now, it’s very cartoonishly gory.)
Another Evil (2016, dir. Carson D. Mell)
I was quite taken with this horror-comedy about a haunted house situation where things get even weirder once mild-mannered homeowner Dan (Steve Zissis) hires “ghost assassin” Os (Mark Proksch) to get rid of the ghosts. The film becomes a bromance of sorts set within a horror film, and the film has a charming down-to-earthy quality that has a lot to do with the ghost hunters being two paunchy average Joes.
I didn’t stick around after that, but the last film of the festival this year was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which I wrote about two Halloweens ago.
Check out my article on BitchFlicks for their current theme week: Ladies of the 1980s, where I compare two abortion narratives in mainstream Hollywood films of the 1980s and how their historical settings take them in different directions. It’s not about fat characters (sadly, I couldn’t find a graceful segue to talk about Wayne Knight’s role as the obnoxious master of ceremonies in Dirty Dancing), but looking at how movies portray medical procedures with cultural baggage isn’t too far removed from how movies portray bodies with cultural baggage. I’ll get you next time, Wayne.
A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.
This is Spinal Tap (1984, dir. Rob Reiner)
Reiner inserts himself in this classic mockumentary as documentarian Marty diBergi, both a dorky outsider to the world of rock and the frequent reminder of the real world outside the band’s bubble where they aren’t the hallowed rock gods they position themselves as. Other fat characters include the band’s creepy keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff).
Groundhog Day (1993, dir. Harold Ramis)
Buster Green (Brian Doyle Murray) is the master of ceremonies for the Groundhog Day ceremony who becomes part of Phil’s time loop routine when he chokes on a piece of steak and must be saved via the Heimlich maneuver (presumably many, many times). Gus (Rick Ducommun) is a blue collar townie with whom Phil gets drunk (also, presumably many, many times).
Hail, Caesar! (2016, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
A fair number of fat characters are in this sprawling cast, from a beleaguered bartender in the sailor dance number “No Dames!”(E.E. Bell) to a nefarious extra (Wayne Knight) to professional person Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill).
Toy Story 2 (1999, dir. John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Ash Brannon)
Al (Wayne Knight) is the main antagonist of the film. Although he owns a toy store, he hates children, is greedy (stealing Woody from the yard sale even after Andy’s mom insists he isn’t for sale), lazy (complaining about having to drive to work that is literally across the street from his building), and represents a misguided approach to toys (wanting to preserve them in pristine condition instead of loving and playing with them). The Prospector/Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammar) is also an antagonist, wanting to go along with Al’s plan to sell the toys to a museum in Japan because he’s never been taken out of the box. Keeping toys in the box is positioned as wrong or sad in the film, but for the Prospector, it’s the best option.
Drag Me to Hell (2009, dir. Sam Raimi)
Christine (Alison Lohman) is the typical thin, blonde protagonist of a horror film. Although the plot focuses on her struggling against a demon summoned to stalk her by a curse, her defining character trait is attempting to reinvent herself and run from her past as a fat girl who grew up on a farm in the South.
On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan)
This classic film follows the struggle of dock workers under the thumb of a mobbed-up union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), one of whose thugs is a fat man.
Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)
Fat characters include Carl (S.Z. Sakall), a good-natured waiter at Rick’s cafe, and Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), who runs the black market in Casablanca and has access to highly desirable exit visas.
Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006, dir. Scott Glosserman)
This charmingly deconstructionist mockumentary features a group of journalism students who are following an up-and-coming slasher Leslie (Nathan Baesel) who aspires to follow in the footsteps of Freddie, Jason, and Michael. Once the stock character teens start to get murdered, though, interviewer Taylor (Angela Goethals) and her crew lose their professional objectivity and turn against their subject. One of Taylor’s goofball cameramen, Todd (Britain Spellings), nobly sacrifices himself by distracting Leslie. He lures the killer away form the main group and across a field, presenting himself as an easy kill and taunting him to chase after the “dough-boy.”
Maniac (1980, dir. William Lustig)
Speaking of slasher films, Maniac is 90 minutes of grimy, minimalist violence. The titular character is Frank (Joe Spinell, who co-wrote the script with C.A. Rosenberg), a fat man who murders women, dresses mannequins in their clothing, and uses their scalps as wigs. As the film progresses, it is revealed that the source of Frank’s madness is his problematic relationship with his mother (either she was a sex worker or there’s an Oedipal complex going on? I couldn’t tell, to be honest). Maniac felt to me like a spiritual sibling of Misery, as Frank’s violence is, like Annie’s, about maintaining the stasis of his little fantasy world. I should have taken notes on that theory right after seeing this, but it was a movie marathon and there was alcohol, so CPBS was on the back burner. C’est la vie. Maniac was remade in 2012 with Elijah Wood in Spinell’s role.
The Devil’s Candy (2015, dir. Sean Byrne)
A horror film that plunks likable characters into a story that practically throbs with foreboding. The best way I can describe the tone of this film via text is to tell you that Sunn O))) provided the score. A metalhead artist (Ethan Embry) and his family are stalked by the previous resident of their new house (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a large man who radiates sadness and vulnerability, but is also allegiant to Satan.
To Sleep with Anger (1990, dir. Charles Burnett)
Lovely, grounded character-driven drama about a black family in Los Angeles who carry on their rural Southern lifestyle. A visitor from their past, Harry (Danny Glover) shows up unannounced and begins to cause trouble in the community. His influence is as direct as inspiring other members of the community to drink and gamble, but also more mysterious, as the fat patriarch of the family, Gideon (Paul Butler) suddenly falls ill.
Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento)
Can Suspiria be spoken about without using a phrase like “visually stunning”? I think it’s a legal requirement. Anyway, an American dance student Suzy (Jessica Harper) attends a German boarding school that is run by a coven of murderous witches. Among the creepy and foreboding sights is a stout old woman, who seems eerily out of place among the young, slender dancers.
(CN sexual assault) A summary of films I saw over the past month with fat characters that I didn’t write about.
Super (2010, dir. James Gunn)
Mr. Range (Don Mac) is a powerful drug dealer who does business with Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Jacques has procured several women to entertain Mr. Range during their transaction, but Range insists on being alone with Sarah (Liv Tyler), who is high. Jacques allows Range to take Sarah into a bedroom. After she tells him she doesn’t want to have sex, he attempts to rape her. Frank (Rainn Wilson) kills Mr. Range. During Frank and Jacques’ climactic showdown, Jacques refers to Range as “that fat n—–.”
The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)
Ma Joad is portrayed by Jane Darwell, who was also in The Ox-Bow Incident. The neo-Biblical feel of Steinbeck’s story features characters who are drawn very simplistically. Ma is a pretty typical matriarch of a rural family in a lot of ways, but she is portrayed with dignity, as the Joad family’s strength and emotional center.
Confidential Report/Mr. Arkadin (1955, dir. Orson Welles)
The great man himself as the titular Mr. Arkadin, a powerful, wealthy criminal who can’t remember his own past. Fat bit players include an indignant chef and a cigar-smoking retired general.
Mommy(2015, dir. Xavier Dolan)
The great thing about Mommy is how it centers and humanizes characters who are often written as obnoxious cartoons, namely Steven, a teenage boy with behavioral issues (Antoine Olivier-Pilon), and Diane, his foul mouthed, fading beauty mom (Anne Dorval). However, most of the other characters in the 2+ hour film are roughly drawn, more aides or impediments to the main characters than characters in themselves. One of these characters is a fat woman who has assumed her husband’s position as editor of a magazine where Diane works. The woman takes sadistic pleasure in firing Diane, telling her that she has no talent as a columnist and was only hired because her husband found her attractive.
F for Fake (1973, dir. Orson Welles)
The last film Orson Welles ever directed was a frenetic documentary about forgery and deception, featuring Welles himself as the narrator and master of ceremonies. Until this point I haven’t written about fat documentary subjects I’ve come across because their weight has been purely incidental, but Welles’ role in his film was intentional (even if it was in part due to his ego). He appears as an erudite and mischievous dynamo in a fabulous black cloak and hat: performing magic tricks, spinning glorious tales for the audience (both watching the film and situated around him at a fine restaurant and on a picnic) while at the same time reminding us that we can’t always trust what we see and hear.
PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985, dir. Tim Burton)
There are a handful of fat characters in this film, all of whom pose a threat or impediment to PeeWee (Paul Rubens) to some degree: Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), a snotty rich kid who pays to have PeeWee’s bike stolen; Large Marge (Alice Nunn), the ghostly trucker who gives PeeWee a ride and a scare; Andy (Jon Harris), a trucker who wants to hurt PeeWee because he’s jealous of his relationship with his girlfriend Simone (Diane Salinger); and some members of the biker gang who want to torture and kill PeeWee, until he wins them over with his dancing:
Content note: self-harm. A summary of films I saw over the past month featuring fat characters that I didn’t write about.
Chef (2014, dir. John Favreau)
A dramedy focused on a middle-aged man who is stagnating in his professional life and distanced from his family, with the most tantalizing cooking scenes I’ve seen since Eat Drink Man Woman. Ramsey (Oliver Platt), a food blogger, criticizes Chef Carl’s (Jon Favreau) cooking, speculating that he has gained a lot of weight over his career because he “must be eating all the food that gets sent back to the kitchen.” Despite the public dig at his size, everyone agrees that he’s a genius chef, and the front of house manager (Scarlett Johansson) has the hots for him. When it is revealed that his critic is also fat, the dig seems somewhat hypocritical, and is followed by Carl lambasting him for making a living off of being mean. Carl’s former father-in-law also subtly picks on him, remarking that he’s gained weight since they last saw each other. Although there is an implication that Carl’s weight is a symptom of his professional stagnation and unhappy family life, there is no indication that he loses weight as he improves his relationship with his son and goes into business for himself.
Beauty and the Beast (1991, dir. Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise)
Several fat supporting characters: Belle’s proto-nerd father Maurice, who is considered an oddball by their community and needs to be saved twice; Lefou (literally “the fool” or “the madman”), Gaston’s toadie who worships him despite constant physical abuse and has a more grotesque character design than the other human characters; Cogsworth, the stuffy majordomo; and Mrs. Potts, the motherly cook. Perhaps of note, Disney is producing a live-action reboot, to be released in 2017, with three of these four characters portrayed by thinner actors. Ian McKellen is playing Cogsworth, Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline is Maurice. Lefou, the one villainous character of this group, will be portrayed by Josh Gad.
Withnail & I (1987, dir. Bruce Robinson)
A character study of two struggling London actors who scrape by on alcohol and bullshit. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) escape their dismal flat for a trip to the country, staying at a cottage owned by Withnail’s fat uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). Monty is wealthy and effete, a retired actor whose homosexuality is a defining characteristic (in his introductory scene, he discusses his love of gardening: “There is, you’ll agree, a certain je nais sans quoi, oh so very special, about a firm, young carrot.”) His generosity and kindness are a godsend to the two destitute protagonists, and to an extent, he is an inversion of the trope of the fat incompetent, having his life more in order than the younger men, who can’t manage to clear out their kitchen sink for fear of what lives in it. However, he is also the middle-class fuddy-duddy foil to their edgy, youthful rebel lifestyle, never questioning the lies they feed him. Partially due to a comedy of errors and partially to Withnail’s dishonesty, Monty believes that Marwood is also gay and attempts to seduce him, to the younger man’s abject terror. Monty is overly persistent, forcing his way into Marwood’s bedroom wearing a silk robe and eyeshadow. He tries to force himself on Marwood, although he also pleads with him to not be ashamed of his sexuality, and only stops when Marwood tells him that he and Withnail are a couple, and that he doesn’t want to be untrue. Monty backs off and leaves the cottage before they wake up in the morning, having left a note of apology.
The Tales of Hoffman (1951, dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
As with Beauty and the Beast, there are a handful of fat flunkies in this film that features several stories within stories. Most of the fat characters are thin actors with big prosthetic bellies, including a few villains’ servants and, in one sequence, an ugly clown whose love for a ballerina is unrequited. The one fat character portrayed by a fat actor is Andes (Philip Leaver), who is the servant of Stella (Moira Shearer). Count Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) bribes Andres into allowing him to intercept a message from Stella to Hoffman (Robert Rounseville), which ultimately allows the Count to separate the lovers from each other.
Tangerine (2015, dir. Sean Baker)
There are a few minor fat characters in this film, the most prominent of whom is Jillian (Chelcie Lynn, who is a big deal on Vine), the madam of a “party room” at a sleazy motel that Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) breaks into looking for Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the girl who’s been sleeping with her boyfriend. It’s not a glamorous role, but none of the roles in this film are. The protagonists aren’t fat, although a few girls make critical comments about Alexandra (Mya Taylor) for not having a flat stomach, but as transgender women of color, they are definitely marginalized based on their physical characteristics. Tangerine is the most vivacious and humanizing portrayal of trans women of color in a film that I’ve seen since Paris Is Burning, and I can’t recommend it enough.
ABCs of Death, “W is for WTF?,” “X is for XXL” (2012, dir. John Schnepp; Xavier Gens)
I didn’t see the whole anthology, so there might be other fat people in the chapters I missed. “W is for WTF?” features two fat men (John Schnepp and someone whose name I couldn’t find on IMDb) as members of a film production team who are struggling with a looming deadline to produce a W segment for ABCs of Death and can only come up with lazy ideas featuring beautiful women in skimpy outfits before the world descends into utter chaos. “X is for XXL” follows a fat woman (actor unknown) who never speaks. She is harassed in public several times due to her weight, and seems to be stalked by an ad campaign for a cereal that claims to have slimming properties. Upon arriving home, she binges on food in a manner that verges on cartoonish (I believe she drinks olive oil straight from the bottle at one point). She then goes into her bathroom with a knife and carves off her flesh, which intersperses with shots of the slim spokesmodel in the cereal commercial.
Although it’s my intention for most of the posts on CPBS to be less about analyses of targeted fat characters and more about my experience as a viewer randomly coming across these characters as I watch films in a more organic fashion, I end up seeing a lot more fat people in film than those I write about here. In what will hopefully be an ongoing monthly feature, here’s a summary of films I saw over the past month that feature fat characters I didn’t write about.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)
There are a few fat people in this landmark horror film. Franklin (Paul A. Partain), one of the main characters, is fat and in a wheelchair. Although not the most nuanced character or performance in the history of film, he is given more screen time, dialogue, and personality than the other members of his group. Once scene follows him as he struggles to navigate his chair through an abandoned house, while his friends’ laughter can be heard from the second floor. I was impressed by this, considering that characterization in slasher films is usually pretty sparse, and that fat and disabled characters are usually not shown in a light that leads the audience to empathize with them. Leatherface is arguably fat as well, especially when compared to his family members; his size adds to his menace, and he is able to keep up with Sally (Marilyn Burns) pretty well during the chase scene, especially considering that he is carrying a chainsaw. In a minor part, a fat man of color driving a semi in the last scene runs over the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) before he can kill Sally and helps her escape.
The Set-Up (1949, dir. Robert Wise)
This film centers on a boxing match: one of the competitors (Robert Ryan), who is unwilling to accept that he’s past his prime, has been instructed to take a fall. Unfolding in real time, we see the fight from the differing perspectives of a large cast, including several anonymous spectators. One of these spectators is a fat man (Dwight Martin) who is shot from a low angle, emphasizing his girth. He laughs at the violence taking place in the ring, although his schadenfreude is not outstanding relative to other characters in the audience. He shown eating every time he’s on screen, going through several different food items over the course of the competition. I saw this film at a theater; by the last half of the film, a good chunk of the audience was laughing whenever the fat man was shown with a new food item.
Blue Velvet (1986, dir. David Lynch)
Set on terrorizing Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) as revenge for having sex with Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini), Frank (Dennis Hopper) forces the two of them to come on a joyride with his crew to a brothel run by his associate Ben (Dean Stockwell). The scene is consummate Lynch, a tense and menacing tableau that incorporates elements of mid-century American bourgeois culture. Part of this tableau are three fat women. Dressed in a conservative manner, they don’t have names or speak, except for one who Ben refers to as “darling” and requests that she fetch glasses for their guests. Their function is to give Ben’s house an uncomfortable tone.
Martin & Orloff (2002, dir. Lawrence Blume)
A comedy about Martin (Ian Roberts), a man who attempts suicide, and the unorthodox psychiatrist Dr. Orloff (Matt Walsh) who forces him on a bizarre journey of self-discovery, strongly influenced by improv and sketch comedy and featuring a dream team cast of improv actors and comedians (Amy Poelher, Tina Fey, H. Jon Benjamin, Andy Richter, the list goes on). When Patty (Amy Poehler) falls in love with Martin, her boyfriend Jimbo (Sal Graziano) falls into a jealous rage. Jimbo is a large, fat man with an absurdly large penis who spends most of his screentime threatening to beat up Martin, often squatting like a sumo wrestler and charging. Through Dr. Orloff’s incidental help, Jimbo connects his anger to his thwarted football career, and decides to ally with Martin.
When Marnie Was There (2015, dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Anna, a 12-year-old struggling with asthma and her sense of self-worth, is sent to live in the country with her foster mother’s relatives for the summer to improve her health. One of her temporary guardians, Mrs. Oiwa, is a fat woman. She is a laid-back maternal figure who treats Anna with kindness and respect, even if she doesn’t always have a bead on the girl’s emotional needs. She is often shown in relation to food (snacking, cooking, and tending her vegetable garden), and connects with Anna over the latter two activities. Another fat character in Marnie is Nobuko, a girl who lives in Mrs. Oiwa’s neighborhood. Mrs. Oiwa tries to encourage a connection between her and Anna, but Nobuko’s extroverted personality makes Marnie uncomfortable. When Nobuko asks Anna some overly personal questions, the quiet girl becomes overwhelmed and calls her a “fat pig.” Nobuko retaliates with some insults of her own before suggesting they drop the matter, but Anna runs away in embarrassment. Before she returns to her home in the city, Anna apologizes to Nobuko, who accepts her apology by forcefully insisting that Anna join the neighborhood trash pickup next summer.
Unfinished Business (2015, dir. Ken Scott)
Dan (Vince Vaughn) is the founder of a startup sales firm and has the poor work-life balance of every white collar American dad in every comedy ever. One of the family problems he doesn’t have time to pay attention to is that his teenage son Paul (Britton Sear) doesn’t have any friends and is being cyber-bullied by his classmates because he’s fat. That plotline resolves with Vince Vaughn giving him a pep talk about being himself. Another notable fat character is Bill (Nick Frost), one of Dan’s clients. He is revealed to be a gay man in the leather scene who, because of his commitment to his job, has stopped working out and doesn’t get attention from men anymore. If you’re not at work, here’s some evidence of how there are no gay men in the world who think Nick Frost is a total babe. No siree. He also is spineless when dealing with his boss (James Marsden), but Dan inspires him to go behind his boss’ back (so he can help Dan out).
The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
In the beginning of the film, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is directionless and animalistic. Drunk at his job as a portrait photographer at a department store, he harasses a fat client (W. Earl Brown) to the point that the man engages him in fisticuffs. He then meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a fat man who is the charismatic leader of a pseudo-scientific religion. Dodd, called the Master, preaches that humans are above animals, and have forgotten their true elevated nature. He makes Freddie’s redemption his pet project; this relationship makes up the bulk of the film.
[CW: racism. Unless I’m speaking specifically about one of the films, actors are credited thus: (Actor in Original/Actor in Remake). –TR]
I’m sure John Waters has scoffed at people who try to ascribe a specific political angle to his films, but I can’t help myself. His outsider characters make me feel empowered by their vibrant, unapologetic weirdness. Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is probably the most whitebread example of this character, but also one of the most lovable. Tracy is a fat white teenage girl growing up in Baltimore in the Civil Rights Era. Her family is working class, but she dreams of fame. Her dancing skills lead to her being cast on The Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand-style pop music and dance show, she becomes an ally to the black cast members who want the show to be de-segregated. The film was adapted as a Broadway musical in 2002, which was made into a 2007 film starring Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, a role originated by Divine. Wanting to see how Hairspray’s portrayal of fatness changed after being elevated into the elite subgenre of films based on musicals based on films, I watched the two films back to back.
Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, 1988
I almost put this project aside before it began. Tracy’s size and indefatigable spirit are essential parts of the story; I couldn’t imagine that much could change. And yet, here we are. The characters and story remain intact for the most part, but there is a noticeable change in how both fatness and race are portrayed. The gains in nuance come with the loss of spirit, unfortunately, making the two Hairsprays into narratives that are complementary in their shortcomings.
Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, 2007
Tracy Turnblad is one of my favorite fat film characters. She doesn’t let anything hold her back or stop her from being “big, blonde, and beautiful.” Rich snob Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick/Brittany Snow) makes cruel comments about her weight, but Tracy still becomes a wildly popular public figure and wins the love of heartthrob Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard/Zac Efron). It’s an idealized situation for a fat woman in the 1960s. The 2007 remake is more explicit about the effect of sizeism on its characters: Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) refuses to hire Tracy for The Corny Collins Show because she’s fat, Tracy misunderstands something that Link says as a dig at her size. Most of the added treatment of characters’ fatness in the remake is attached to Tracy’s mother. John Travolta’s Edna is very insecure about her weight, to the point where she hasn’t left the house in 10 years because she doesn’t want the neighbors to see the weight she’s gained in that time.
Granted, the remake’s treatment of fatness is more grounded in reality. Edna’s subplot reflects a tenet of fat acceptance: rejecting the idea that a fat person must put their life on hold until they achieve a certain weight. It’s important to have narratives that reflect the struggle that many fat people have in accepting themselves and navigating a world that dismisses them based on their size, but that hardly has to be every narrative about fat people. Fat characters who are doing their thing without angst or apology can be just as powerful; the optimism inspired by an idealized setting can mean as much as a more relatable tale. During her audition for The Corny Collins Show Ricki Lake’s Tracy construes her size as a boon, saying that she would be relatable to home viewers who are “pleasantly plump or chunky.” Divine’s Edna similarly charges into the role of Tracy’s agent with no worry that people might not take a fat housewife seriously. The closest the remake comes to the original’s gleeful distortion of stereotypical depictions of fat people is Edna’s self-acceptance being conflated with her appetite (“You can’t stop my knife and fork when I see a Christmas ham,” she sings confidently during the finale). Instead of being completely unapologetic about her deviance from expectations around beauty and propriety and moving forward with the rest of the film, as Divine’s Edna is, Travolta’s Edna starts the film as a sad fat stereotype, gets permission from Tracy, Maybelle, and her husband (Christopher Walken) to accept herself, and blossoms into a more comical fat stereotype. Considering the amount of time the remake gives to Edna’s transformation, the results are disappointing.
Hairspray lacks much of Waters’ signature filth compared to his other films, but it’s hardly sanitized; this is evident when compared to the remake. One of my favorite scenes from the original film is the Hefty Hideaway ad spot. Mr. Pinky (Alan J. Wendl), owner of the plus-size boutique, hires Tracy as his spokesperson. It’s a moment that finds subversive power through the gleeful embracing of stereotypes. Mr. Pinky keeps his store stocked with pastries. “Eat up, girls, eat up,” he encourages his customers, “Big is beautiful!” His commercial spot on The Corny Collins Show features Tracy modelling a chic ensemble, picking up a pink frosted pastry from a display at the end of the runway and taking a bite. The modified exchange in the remake suggests a more comfortable approach to a fat-safe space for audiences. The ad spot is gone. During her visit to the Hefty Hideaway, Mr. Pinky (Jerry Stiller) hands Tracy a platter of donuts, which she hands off without taking one, showing that she’s a “good fatty” with self-control. The underlying current of lasciviousness is redirected into Mr. Pinky trying to guess Edna’s bra size, and his glee when she reveals that she is a few cup sizes larger than he had assumed. The remake, presumably trying to give respectability to fatness the original does not, ends up repeating a regressive trope of fat women’s desirability being chalked up to larger breasts.
Although Tracy is white, the story’s action is largely propelled by racism. The main conflict of the film is the struggle to integrate The Corny Collins Show, which has an all-white cast except for the monthly “Negro Day,” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Rita Brown/Queen Latifah). By prioritizing Tracy’s perspective as she stands in solidarity with her black friends, Hairspray inescapably becomes a white savior narrative, which dramatically limits the impact of its critique of the racism it depicts. The remake tries to compensate by increasing the focus on the black characters’ experiences with racism, but fails to give life to these moments without the original’s unruly, rebellious spirit and ultimately proves an ineffective counterbalance to the original film’s shortcoming.
The remake infuses a Message into the story by equating the struggles of fat people with those of black people. Tracy supports Maybelle, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Little Inez (Taylor Parks) because she relates to them as someone else who is “different,” and not seen on television. Tracy’s sense of solidarity being due to ability to connect her personal struggles with those of others is an important element in stories about struggles for justice that isn’t emphasized in the original. However, the film brings that equation into areas where it doesn’t really work. In one scene that neatly synthesizes stereotypes about both fat people and black people, Edna is reluctant to allow Tracy to hang out at Maybelle’s record store, but is won over by a spread of fried chicken, cornbread, and collard greens during the sexy “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” number.
As with fatness, the remake sanitizes the original’s treatment of race. The original seeks to align the audience’s empathy with the black characters and against the racist white grownups. The satirical depiction of racist attitudes (presumably the ones John Waters heard growing up) doesn’t pull any punches. Velma (Debbie Harry) and Amber try to discredit Tracy by insisting that she is “mulatto”. Mrs. Pingleton panics when she has to walk through a black neighborhood, and we are cued in to the degree of her bigotry by a tribal drumming score. These moments are scrubbed out of the remake. All three antagonists are still assholes, but taking them out of the tasteless, ridiculous light cast by the original only serves to soften the ugliness of their behavior. Depictions of racism are also far less subtle. The remake addresses cultural appropriation through a scene where Velma gets angry at the Dynamites for singing a song they wrote on Negro Day because it had previously appeared on a white episode. This is a far more direct illustration than the original, where Link smarmily informs Tracy, “our souls are black, though our skin is white.” Having realistic depictions of racism in the film while remaining family friendly creates a problematic need to gloss over certain aspects, such as police brutality. When Tracy is on the run from the police and seeks shelter at Maybelle’s house, the danger of police backlash Maybelle would risk (to say nothing of her children) is not even a consideration, because they’re so grateful for the allyship Tracy has shown the Negro Day cast for– what? a week?
Perhaps the most illustrative example of how each film regards outsiders is in the contrast of how the outsiders are portrayed attempting to demonstrate political power. The protests in the original film are spontaneous, energetic, and disruptive, but their purpose changes from integrating The Corny Collins Show to freeing Tracy when she is sent to reform school. The remake sees Tracy joining the black community for a somber candlelight march while Maybelle sings the slow, soulful “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The focus stays on integration, which reduces the problematic aspects of the white savior narrative, but is also devoid of the flamboyant energy that pervades the other scenes. Abruptly changing the tone of the film to express the black characters’ call for integration feels oddly distancing, as though the scene was added out of a sense of obligatory liberalism, and frames political protest as something that is not only rigidly somber, but embalmed in a specific point in history (i.e. the Sixties, when the Baby Boomers fixed everything before moving on to middle management positions). A more vivacious protest scene would not only be better suited to a group of teenage dancers demanding their rightful place in rock ‘n roll, but would also be more engaging for the audience.
The moment that best overlaps the spirit of the original Hairspray with the sensibility of the remake is during the climax of the latter, when Inez forces her way onstage during the Miss Hairspray pageant and gains more votes for her dance moves than either Amber or Tracy. By unapologetically ignoring the arbitrary and stifling rules put in place by white authority figures, Inez expresses herself and achieves her dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show. Her victory isn’t hers alone, though: it is a victory for her marginalized community, and raises the happy ending above individual gain to large-scale progressive change. But if the remake wants to take the civil rights aspect of the story more seriously, why not step away from the white savior narrative altogether and make Inez the protagonist? Tracy Turnblad is an amazing fat heroine, but not an appropriate once for a story about racism.
My last few posts have focused on male/masculine fat best friends. Thus far I haven’t sought out films specifically for their portrayals of fat people– or, to be more accurate, I’ve been heard to whine “But I don’t wanna rewatch Bridesmaids”– so it’s not surprising that most of the films default to having male protagonists with another man, somehow coded as less heroic, in a support role. I decided to lean into the trend and revisit the first two Die Hard films. I first saw Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder a few years ago; while I wasn’t actively looking at the role that body size plays in the character dynamics, I found the developing bromance between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to be one of the more intriguing parts of the film.
As we’ve seen in previous films, McClane and Powell form a contrasting duo; the differences between them go beyond body type and race. Both are archetypal cop characters, but from opposite ends of that spectrum. McClane is a fiercely independent male power fantasy. Explicitly identified with cowboys, he’s the rogue agent who breaks all the rules because his ideas are invariably more effective than the protocols set by those in power. Even his personal life finds him bristling against cooperation: he has become estranged from his family because of his reluctance to leave New York after his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) lands a great job in Los Angeles. There were several reasons that I prefer the original movie to the sequel, which isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the most unexpected reason was that I don’t find McClane nearly as interesting when he’s put in a situation that requires teamwork. It’s somewhat surprising that he outranks Powell by the second film.
McClane is defined by his profession, but specifically by being part of the NYPD. New York City as part of McClane’s identity is an expression of regionalism, but it also seems to be an inherent part of his stubbled, streetwise masculinity. He is out of place at the Nakatomi Christmas party, especially when another man greets him with a kiss on the cheek, and is practically a different species than Ellis (Hart Bochner), Holly’s smarmy, coke-snorting coworker. The film portrays association with LA as a symptom of a character being phony and weak: after moving to LA, Holly goes by her maiden name; McClane has a much harder time gaining respect with his LAPD badge in Die Hard 2. Even the local news team turns into a minor antagonist, as reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) forces himself into the McClane home for the sake of his scoop.
McClane’s likability and authenticity comes not only from Bruce Willis’ charisma, but from his alliances with average joes, especially black men. McClane is initially characterized as an unpretentious populist by making friends with his limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White)– naturally, he sits shotgun and puts his kids’ giant teddybear in the back seat where the LA phonies ride. In the sequel, McClane forms an alliance with nerdy director of communications Leslie Barnes (Art Evans). However, he is more brusque with other average joe characters: possibly due to the stress of having so many people standing between him and the bad guys, or a change in director and writing team, but it may be that LA is rubbing off on McClane. However, the role of Grounding Black Friend is fulfilled most strongly by Sgt. Powell, both in terms of the depth of their relationship and by balancing out the milieu of upper class white LA.
Powell is a by-the-book cop, representing the everyman who supports and roots for McClane. He isn’t as phony as the other LA-based characters, but he is an emasculated figure. His lack of power is visually manifested through fat stereotypes; in both Die Hard and Die Hard 2, he is introduced by an armful of Twinkies. In the first film, he tells a convenience store cashier that the Twinkies are for his pregnant wife, which is met with skepticism. McClane is also introduced while fulfilling a paternal role– wrangling a giant teddy bear for his children– but flirts with a pretty flight attendant in the process. Powell doesn’t have the skilled action hero control of McClane: he doesn’t realize that the Nakatomi Tower is overrun by bad guys until McClane throws one of them onto the hood of his cop car.
Powell is sensitive and emasculated when compared with McClane, but his sensitivity also serves as a strength, in line with the fat detective trope. Not only does Powell form a correct hunch that McClane is a cop, but he does so after one brief conversation. Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), Powell’s superior, arrives just as this conversation ends. His approach to the as-yet-unnamed McClane is cautious, but the audience is more attuned to the need for immediate action: his blowhard skepticism reads like a waste of precious time. Powell also proves himself to be a step ahead of Robinson when he correctly surmises that the terrorists are shooting at the cops’ floodlights, which Robinson loudly repeats as his own revelation once the lights are starting to shatter. However, Powell is a team player. While he directly disagrees with Robinson, he ultimately lacks McClane’s ability to undermine authority. At one point, Robinson interrupts Powell and McClane’s conversation, snatching the radio from Powell’s hand. Powell grimaces at the affront, but says nothing. McClane, on the other hand, responds to Robinson’s demand that the LAPD take over by calling him a “jerkoff” and demands that he give the radio back to Powell.
Powell’s fat detective sensitivity also facilitates the growth of his relationship with McClane. The initial conversation where Powell establishes that McClane is a cop is also enough for them to decide not only to trust each other, but to form an alliance; by their first sign-off, they are calling each other “partner.” The two partners provide each other with necessary information, but Powell also provides the moral support McClane needs, including making McClane laugh by reciting the ingredients of a Twinkie and telling him “I love you, and so do a lot of the other guys down here.”
It’s worth noting that the majority of Powell and McClane’s relationship takes place via radio; they are essentially two voices connecting with each other. In the context of a mainstream action film, McClane is white and athletic, aspects of a default representation of legitimacy. Not so for Powell, who is marginalized as a fat person and as a black person. However, on the radio, Powell is separated from the aspects of his corporeality that could otherwise detract from McClane viewing him as legitimate. We see the different ways McClane and Robinson treat Powell; we could chalk it up to McClane being a heroic everyman and Robinson being a blowhard boss, but it’s worth considering the fact that McClane is separated from the preconceived notions that are inexorably tied to Powell’s body.
The most obvious marker of Powell’s lack of (masculine) power is that he’s been put on desk duty because he has lost his ability to shoot his gun, following an incident where he accidentally shot and killed a kid. He triumphantly regains the ability to fill a human body with bullets at the end of the film, when it means defending McClane from the final bad guy. Even if the scene is a black cop killing a homicidal Aryan, in light of the recent publicized lack of accountability from police departments for police brutality, it’s very uncomfortable to consider that regaining the ability to kill is considered a happy resolution to Powell’s character arc.
Despite having his masculinity redeemed through his friendship with McClane at the end of Die Hard, Powell fills the same role of less masculine, more cooperative foil in his brief appearance in Die Hard 2. He faxes a criminal background check to McClane as he chews on a Twinkie, gently laughing at his friend’s refusal to “wake up and smell the 90s” and learn how to use the technology that has become a basic tool of his profession, untameable cowboy that he is. And again, Powell is more of a friend to McClane than the other law enforcement in the film, notably Captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the head of airport police who impedes McClane’s process every step of the way, along with his brother Sgt. Lorenzo (Robert Costanzo). Both of the Lorenzos are fat; McClane calls Captain Lorenzo a “fat ass” during their unending tennis match of insults. All three fat characters are shown as ineffectual cops when compared to McClane; the Lorenzos’ ineffectiveness comes from complacency and arrogance, treating McClane rudely while failing to see the big picture. Captain Lorenzo initially describes himself as a “big fish” in a “little pond,” but towards the end of the film, he is dismissed as a “bureaucrat.” He is unable to see reality; namely, that John McClane, Supercop is in his airport trying to foil an unfolding terrorist plot. Powell, on the other hand, realizes what’s going on, but isn’t able to garner the respect needed to convey it to those around him.
Captain Lorenzo and Powell are both fat men who are socially inappropriate. They have character arcs where the begin their film with problematic relationships to their profession that are ultimately corrected through their association with McClane. Powell is initially deferential and emasculated (relative to the world of male power fantasy), but finds the strength to argue with his superior in order to advocate for McClane, and then the ability to shoot his gun in order to defend McClane. Lorenzo, on the other hand, is rigid and arrogant, but is eventually humbled when McClane proves the worth of his disorderly methods. I see race as the more component of the difference in these fat characters’ trajectories. McClane spends Die Hard and Die Hard 2 clashing with power-hungry white men (whether military-trained terrorists or jagoff yuppies) and building alliances with salt-of-the-earth black men. We know that he will never become the former because of how he treats the latter, and the latter ultimately exist to accessorize McClane’s quests. The politics of fat in Die Hard cannot be separated from similar questions about the politics of race.
I watched Planes, Trains & Automobiles for the first time ever this weekend; not only did it make me feel more confident in my decision to forego the trip from Chicago to New York and back for the holiday weekend, but it gave me a chance to take in one of the best beloved performances from fat character legend John Candy. PT&A is a simple premise that spins wildly out of control: Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a marketing executive who is trying to get back home to Chicago from NYC on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He’s going to make a 6 pm flight, until things Go Awry, due in equal parts to bad luck and Del Griffith (John Candy), a bumbling shower curtain ring salesman.
Del embodies so many facets of an archetypal fat guy, watching this film made me wish I had a Bingo card with size-based stereotypes in the squares (coming soon from Panda Bear Shape Industries™). He’s uncouth, messy, clumsy, and sponges off Neal. He is frequently snacking and overburdened by materiality, specifically his massive trunk. His wardrobe isn’t too loud on its own (except those pajamas), but he does tend to look unstylish and frumpy next to his traveling companion’s tailored grey business attire.
Despite these shortcomings, Del is also optimistic, friendly, and a savvy traveler. The combination of wanting to help and having specialized knowledge ultimately make him indispensable to Neal, and thus does our thin, straight-laced protagonist gain a loose cannon fat best friend.
Both Neal and Del are straight white dudes, not uncommon for two main characters in a film from the US, but some of the tension between them lies in class (reflected in their differing body sizes). Neal starts the film in an executive boardroom in midtown Manhattan, whereas Del is a travelling salesman. Both men are shown to have strengths and faults due to their social standing. Whereas Neal is shown to have a happy, stable home life and has the literal capital to fund most of their adventure, he is also judgmental and rude, angering people who would otherwise be able to help him. Del is crude and graceless, but also charismatic, seemingly having friends all over the travel industry and getting an entire bus of strangers to participate in a sing-along.
I hope PT&A would be a very different movie if it were made today (and not made by John Hughes), in that I hope it would not be almost exclusively from Neal’s point of view. It seems like a specifically 80s choice to assume that the audience would be able to identify an uptight, entitled yuppie whose blonde nuclear family is so pristine they might as well be shrink wrapped. The story can easily be seen from Del’s point of view, as the film readily concedes in one of the best-acted, pivotal scenes in the film.
Having reached a breaking point, Neal rants at Del about his shortcomings, especially his tendency to tell boring stories. Leading up to his speech, Del tells Neal that he’s “intolerant” and a “tight-ass.” There are several closeups of Del’s reaction, a truly heartrending mix of indignance and hurt. It’s unsurprising thatthis performance is often considered Candy’s best. His simple, dignified response is the kind of thing I’d want in needlepoint over my front door: “…You think what you want about me, I’m not changing. I like me.” Del even gets a stirring backup of Heartfelt Speech Synth Music, whereas Neal’s opening attack was strictly solo. The camerawork, on the other hand, suggests that the audience identify more closely with Neal. Their exchange is a series of angle and reverse-angle shots. During the bulk of Neal’s monologue, the camera shows both men in medium close-up shots; eventually, the shots of Del are slightly closer, bringing into focus the pain and vulnerability in his eyes. Having spoken his piece, Neal breaks this static stance and turns away from Del (and the camera), but Del remains in slightly zoomed in close-up when he begins his response. During his speech, the camera repeats the pattern, but starts with a comparable close-up to Neal before progressing much more quickly to an extreme close-up of his face, full of shame and regret. Del’s parting line allows him to move away from the camera into a full body shot, and back into bed, but Neal remains in closeup for another few shots, as he wordlessly shows his remorse and acceptance of Del by deciding to stay in their shared room for the rest of the night. Visually, the scene is focused on Neal developing empathy for Del, even though Del’s self-defense and assertion of his dignity could have been just as compelling a focus for the scene. But Neal has been designated as the character through whom the audience vicariously experiences the film, and Hughes has deemed in necessary for both Neal and the audience to be explicitly reminded by through a powerful speech that Del is a human being who deserves respect and compassion. It’s truly an effective scene, but as a viewer who readily identifies with fat schlub characters, it’s unnerving to think about the necessity of the scene’s function. Maybe I should keep a little speech like that in my wallet.
Ultimately, the film is about Neal’s emotional journey, both in travelling from his professional life to his family life (a few lines about neglecting his family in favor of work are shoehorned in here and there) and in coming to accept Del, despite his crass ways. The movie climaxes with Neal’s return home, significantly, with Del in tow. By the end of the film, Del has become singularly focused on getting Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner; after they arrive to Chicago, it is revealed that Del literally has nowhere to go, and sitting at the same L stop where Neal leaves him. Neal’s newfound empathy clues him into this, and it is Neal’s choice to include him in a relationship with actual significance; otherwise, having helped Neal achieve his initial goal, Del’s function as a character in the story is complete. For all we know, he would have sat at Van Buren and LaSalle indefinitely until another rich person in minor peril came along. Even Del’s admission to Neal that he is a homeless widower doesn’t have the same build of energy as Neal’s reunion with his wife, who is barely a character; the hook of the song that’s playing is “Everytime you go away you take a piece of me with you,” seemingly the sentiment that Neal’s wife feels for him. The last shot is of Del, smiling as he witnesses the reunion he has helped to bring about.
This is a film that gives us a fat character who is sweet, clever, and keenly aware of his self-worth, but ultimately less complete and presumably less relatable than the thinner, wealthier protagonist. As is often the case with best friend characters, especially ones from marginalized groups, a character who is otherwise interesting and likable on their own is ultimately dependent on their usefulness to the main character.