comedy

The Foxy Merkins (2014, dir. Madeleine Olnek) and the Uncharted Territory of the Fat Lesbian Protagonist

This is super exciting for a few reasons.  A fat, gender nonconforming protagonist!  A film written, directed by, and starring queer women!  A film that passes the Bechdel Test so hard that it would fail the Bechdel Test if applied to its male characters!

And perhaps the most exciting part– at least, for me, but it’s my blog so that means my opinion is basically irrefutable objective fact– is that the awesome feminist film site BitchFlicks published my thoughts on The Foxy Merkins as part of their Theme Week on fatphobia/fat acceptance.

You can read it here!  Eee!

And if you haven’t already seen it, check out The Foxy Merkins on Netflix watch instantly.  It’s a hoot and a half.

I’ll be doing an article roundup of the rest of fat Theme Week in a few days, as well as taking in a few films at the Chicago Critics Film Festival over the next week, so there might be something from that.

Civil Rights, Fat Acceptance, and Protest in Hairspray (1988, dir. John Waters; 2007, dir. Adam Shankman)

[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.

The Irrepressible Body: In & Out (1997, dir. Frank Oz)

(CW weight loss)

Maybe after this blog becomes wildly successful and they make the Tessa Racked biopic, the opening scene summarizing my childhood and heralding my adult preoccupation with queer liberation and fat people in movies could very well when I was 12 years old and saw In & Out in theaters. At the time, however, it had two main draws. It was rated PG-13, and some scenes had been filmed a town over from where I lived. If you haven’t seen this film and are so inspired, I urge you to spend some of it admiring the background. I had positive memories of it and wanted to see how it held up over time.

Summary of the plot: a rural town in Indiana is sent into upheaval when high school English teacher Howard (Kevin Kline) is outed by former student turned celebrity Cameron (Matt Dillon) during an Oscar acceptance speech. Howard is surprised that Cameron perceives him as gay, as he is marrying Emily (Joan Cusack) in a week’s time. Emily has more than the desire for a lifetime commitment invested in their wedding: not only has their engagement lasted 3 years, but Emily has lost 75 pounds in order to be a thin bride.

in & out, kevin kline, howard brackett, joan cusack, emily montgomery

In & Out uses topical humor liberally, but two unutilized mid-nineties news stories actually fit in neatly with the film’s subject matter: the supposed discoveries of a “gay gene” and a “fat gene.” Biological determination is often used as an excuse for fatness or queerness to exist within a culture where “normal” people are straight and thin. We aren’t unnatural, we’re born that way. However, as Kathleen LeBesco points out: “This form of narration is particularly dangerous, however, in that the uses of biological research can cut both ways: science might be used as the basis for legal protection and moral respectability just as easily as it might be used as the proof of pathology and justification for eradication” (Rothblum and Solovay 77).

In & Out takes the optimistic approach to biological determinism. The film speaks not only to the virtue of acceptance, but also the folly of suppression. Emily’s and Howard’s bodies betray the false selves they have created in the interest of fitting into a heteronormative ideal, the achievement of which is in service to unobtainable cultural ideals and in conflict with their true natures. She is not a thin bride, he is not a groom who wants to have sex with a thin bride, “Macho Man” plays over the end credits. However, In & Out doesn’t fully deconstruct the conventional understandings of acceptability that constrict its characters.

Kline gracefully portrays Howard’s ambiguity with an undertone of innocence. In the beginning of the film, he doesn’t seem to be actively denying his sexuality as much as he’s lived his life in a completely heterocentric world without any cause to question his straight identity. Howard’s straightness becomes less and less viable as the film begins to question the omnipresence of heterosexuality, and characterizes it as a bundle of compulsory, restrictive gendered stereotypes. “At all costs, avoid rhythm, grace, and pleasure,” he is instructed by a self-help tape during an attempt to unlock his machismo; the audience immediately knows that musical-loving Howard will not be able to maintain this abstinence for long. But even when he isn’t consciously embracing it, his gayness is constructed in the film as an innate physical aspect. Even a casting choice suggests that Howard’s sexual orientation is a genetic trait: Howard’s mother is played by Debbie Reynolds, a gay icon who is best known for her roles in studio musicals like Singing in the Rain. His body is constantly betraying him, even as he tries to assert his straightness (as it is conflated in the film with manliness). When Cameron “outs” him at the Oscars, Howard’s shocked reaction includes letting his wrist go limp. In the best scene in the film, Howard tests his masculinity by trying not to dance to “I Will Survive,” but cannot prevent his body’s reaction to the disco beat.

in & out, debbie reynolds, kevin kline, joan cusack, wilford brimley, frank oz

Emily’s repeated sentiment is that she can’t believe that she is a thin bride; this not only conveys her happiness, but foreshadows that her current state is a fleeting fantasy. Of course, the fantasy alluded to is her and Howard’s romance, but her thin body is intrinsic. Even if Emily and Howard did get married, it’s not likely that she would be able to maintain a 75 pound weight loss in the long run, if multiple studies are to be believed. Even the threat that she will return to her original weight is verbalized as a threat that she will “start eating again,” a hyperbole that characterizes her goal as requiring the impossible denial of something essential, but also characterizes her as being a typical food-obsessed fat girl just underneath her controlled, trim surface. Emily’s quest to regulate her body is paralleled with Cameron’s supermodel girlfriend Sonya (Shalom Harlow), who includes vomiting as part of her daily agenda and is insulted by the suggestion that she eat a meal after a long trip. Thinness, like straightness, can only be achieved through hypervigilance and self-denial. As soon as the wedding is called off and Howard’s illusion of straightness has dissipated, Emily too begins to drop her illusion and seeks food to binge on. Her fantasy of being a thin bride leaves her collapsed in a heap in her wedding dress, wailing, “I’m starving!”

The least explicit but most present pressure on Howard and Emily to marry is the threat of being categorized as unmarriageable. When Emily blows up at Howard after he comes out during their wedding ceremony, she cries, “I base my entire concept of self-esteem on the fact that you’re willing to marry me!” For Emily, validation comes through marriage, which she sees as evidence that she is worth of love and desire. Deeper into her meltdown, she runs along the side of the road in her wedding dress, begging passing cars to marry her. Being a bride hinges on being thin. Emily describes herself as having been fat her whole life, but that she “didn’t want to waddle down the aisle.” She says that her deceased parents never thought she would get married; her fatness is the only given possibility as to why they would think that. But her achievement of this goal also depends on Howard’s heterosexuality. “You still want to [get married], right?” she asks him. “That’s why I transformed myself, isn’t it? Do you want me to start eating again? …I can, Howard! I’m very fragile!”

But Howard is also using Emily as a means of validating his own normalcy, as cancelling the wedding would mean disappointing his community’s expectations. Howard’s mother tells him immediately after suspecting he might be gay that she loves him no matter what, but forces him to marry so that she can have some excitement in her life through planning the wedding. The pressure to be regain his straight identity through getting married is most poignant at his school, as his beloved students suddenly become uncomfortable around him and Principal Halliwell (Bob Newhart) suggests that he could lose his job.

Although his friends and family all want to believe that he is straight, openly gay TV journalist Peter (Tom Selleck) thinks Howard is gay and calls him out on marrying Emily for the wrong reason. Peter encourages Howard to trust his friends and family will support him. His advice proves to be wise, as the town rallies around Howard in a Spartacus-esque show of solidarity at his school’s graduation ceremony, everyone declaring themselves to be gay as well. Howard maintains his place in his various social units, and the film ends with him attending his parents’ wedding vow renewal ceremony.

Emily’s victory comes when Cameron shows up to replace (and supersede) Howard as the desirer of her as an object. The handsome, successful actor confesses that he fell in love with her when she was a fatter student teacher who tutored him, and chooses her over his supermodel girlfriend (who he says “looks like a swizzle stick”).

Although given more license to exist, presumably her confidence and happiness still depend on being physically attractive. Cameron and Emily express their feelings for each other by reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet, using a literal performance of heterosexuality as a means of connecting to each other. Even if Howard and Emily end the film with more freedom to be themselves, this freedom was given to them by members of the entertainment industry. They are still bound by the somewhat modified cultural norms that initially pressured them into adopting false identities in the first place.

Ironically, it is the film itself that ultimately restricts Howard’s queerness and Emily’s fatness, as these traits are only present in the film in their lack. Howard’s sexual orientation is expressed solely as effete traits, the only erotic exchange with another man is a kiss that is performed as an experimentation (and didn’t even involve tongue). In an odd mirror image, Emily’s happy ending is solely behavioral– during the denouement dance party we see her eating cheese puffs– but we never see her as a fat person. Therein lies the discrepancy of the film’s message: are we truly accepting of something that we can’t bring ourselves to actually look at?

Fatness and Class in Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987, dir. John Hughes)

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.

planes trains and automobiles, steve martin, neal page, john candy, del griffith

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 that this 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.

Fat Guys Trying to Survive Horror Films: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, dir. Charles T. Barton); Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010, dir. Eli Craig)

“I shoulda known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody’d end up dead.”  –Dale, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

“It’s a little past sunset. And if Dracula’s here, he’s gonna want breakfast. And I’m fatter than you, and it ain’t gonna be me.”  –Wilbur, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

The comic duo composed of a fat and thin character is a common trope in Western cinema, and has been for a long time.  The thin character is usually smart and quick-tempered; the fat character tends to be meek and simple-minded (either unintelligent, naive, or both), but also tends to be the source of humor, whether through a savant sense for one-liners, propensity for pratfalls, or outlandish eccentricities.  One of the most famous and most illustrative pairs of this kind is Abbott and Costello, who started out as a Vaudeville act and went on to star in more than 30 films together.  Several of their films are horror-comedy, the first of which is Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, putting the hapless duo in a story filled with supernatural threats.  Most of the fun comes from seeing them in way over their heads, coming to the realization that something is up and trying to figure out what’s going on.  62 years later, the same basic dynamic of two disparately-sized Joe Six Packs inadvertently stumbling into a horror film scenario plays out in Tucker & Dale Versus Evil.  Although both horror and comedy have changed enough in the intervening years to make some significant differences in the dynamic between the characters, there’s also a lot that hasn’t changed for respective fat guys Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello) and Dale Dobson (Tyler Labine).

Dale and Wilbur are both the sole fat characters in their respective films.  Wilbur is directly labeled as the fat guy: his size is directly mentioned in several jokes (e.g. Wilbur says he’s “floating in love,” Chick responds by calling him a “blimp”).  Dale’s size is not directly referenced, but is part of a few typical fat-person sight gags (e.g. inappropriately-timed nudity, falling on his friend) and is arguably a part of his insecurities.  Chad, his main college kid nemesis, has an athletic physique.  Tucker tells his friend to have more confidence, but Dale responds that he’s always had an easier time with the ladies.  (It’s never stated directly that Dale is referencing Tucker’s physique, but they did cast Alan Tudyk…)

The dynamic between the two friends at the center of each movie is very similar. Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Tucker– the thin friends– are both more practical and strong-willed than Wilbur or Dale, and often take the role of leader.  Both Dale and Wilbur are more passive, but the films interpret that in different ways.  Dale’s lack of assertiveness is due to an “inferiority complex,” as Tucker describes it:  if Dale gains confidence, then he will be able to stand up for himself and flirt with women.  Tucker acts like an older brother to Dale, giving him advice and emotional support when he feels bad about himself, such as his initial failure to talk to beautiful college student Allison (Katrina Bowden).  Dale privileges Tucker over his own interests, such as pretending to like fishing because it allows him to spend time with his friend.

Wilbur’s weakness, on the other hand, is an immutable personality flaw, something that is practically part of his biology.  Dracula (Bela Lugosi) is plotting to put a fresh brain in Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) in order to make him a compliant servant; Wilbur is being targeted as the donor because he has an “obedient” brain with “no will of his own, no fiendish intellect to oppose his master.”  Chick acts more like a boss, ordering Wilbur around and trying to rein in his unruly behavior.  Wilbur relies on Chick for physical protection, wailing his friend’s name whenever he’s frightened (of course, this results in the monsters removing themselves from the scene by the time Chick arrives).

Dale’s and Wilbur’s love interests are essential to the plots of both films, and both involve them mooning over women who are intelligent and conventionally beautiful, but again we see the similarities end there.  At the beginning of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, the differences between Allison and Dale are highlighted.  College students like Allison “grew up with vacation homes and guys like me fixing their toilets,” Dale argues early in movie, explaining why he won’t approach her.  But just as Allison is convinced by her friends that Tucker and Dale are evil sadists because they look like villains from movies like Deliverance, Dale’s first impression of her is also a stereotype, and he discovers that she is a tomboy who grew up on a farm and likes bowling. Both Dale and Allison are the moral centers of their respective groups; Allison encourages her friends not to judge the locals of the rural area they’re camping in, while Tucker complains that Dale led them into a fiasco by being “a good Samaritan.”  The growth of their relationship, as much as the string of mishaps and misconceptions that make the titular characters look like serial killers, are the film’s evidence against judging a book by its cover.

tyler labine, tucker and dale vs evil

Wilbur’s love life is the inverse.  In the beginning of the film, Wilbur is dating the beautiful Sandra (Lenore Aubert).  The audience soon discovers that her affection is too good to be true: Sandra is working with Dracula to revive the Monster, and wants to use Wilbur in their experiment.  Later in the film, another beautiful woman, Joan (Jane Randolph), also professes love for Wilbur.  Without pausing to question her motives, Wilbur blithely tries to juggle relationships with both women, even bringing them to the same costume ball.  Joan, however, is also using Wilbur in an attempt to discover Dracula and the Monster’s whereabouts. While revisiting these films to write this piece, I imagined a young Dale watching Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and internalizing that it is foolish for a fat person like himself to consider a viable relationship with someone “out of their league.”

lou costello, abbott and costello meet frankenstein

The differing dynamics between friends is also reflected in how the thin friend reacts to their fat friend’s romantic inclinations.  Chick repeatedly expresses skepticism that women like Joan and Sandra could be attracted to a guy like Wilbur, and tries to talk Wilbur into “sharing,” despite the fact that both women are disinterested in him. Tucker is occasionally frustrated that his friend chooses to woo Allison instead of help with renovations to their cabin, but ultimately he supports and encourages his friend.

Chick and Wilbur find themselves the victims of an objective threat– Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.) are all very real in their world– while Tucker and Dale are largely threatened due to subjective interpretation: the college kids see a scenario they and the audience associate with horror films and map their ghoulish expectations onto it, fueled by Chad’s prejudice against hillbillies and forceful positioning of himself as an anti-hero.  For much of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Wilbur sees the monsters in their supernatural form and tries to convince skeptical Chick that they are real.  Lawrence Talbot (aka the Wolfman) warns Chick and Wilbur of the oncoming supernatural threat, but Wilbur is the one who sees him first in his werewolf form.  Wilbur also resists becoming part of Team Dracula, as he twice averts his gaze from a hypnotizing vampiric gaze and narrowly misses becoming part of the Monster when he is saved by Chick and Talbot.  Dale, on the other hand, tries for much of the film to be seen as benign when he is misjudged as a threat, even going so far as to sit down for a mediated discussion over tea with Chad to hash out their differences.  Eventually, though, he must conform to the college kids’ perception of him as a “psycho hillbilly” in order to save his friends and defeat Chad, who is the real source of danger to the other characters.

Seen in conversation with each other, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil show a progression of attitudes with regards to their fat protagonists.  Wilbur is static, as foolish at the end of the movie as he is in the beginning.  His body is a marker of his personality traits, marking him as objectively unattractive and inherently less dignified than the other characters.  At the beginning of Dale’s story, he perceives himself as the audience perceives Wilbur.  However, Dale lives in a world where perception can be changed and corrected.  His body and appearance never change, but he is able to change his persona through how he presents himself and how others see him, going from diffident fat friend to “killer hillbilly” warrior to romantic hero.