At first I was ambivalent about Uncle Fester, but it didn’t take much research to convince me that he is a fat character. On his Wikipedia page, there is a quote from creator Charles Addams describing him as “fat with pudgy little hands and feet.” Although his body is obscured under his black robe, he has usually been portrayed by larger-bodied actors, such as Jackie Coogan on the 1960s television series and Kevin Chamberlin in the original Broadway cast of the 2010 musical. But as this is a film blog, the focus will be narrowed on the first two films and entertainment pillars of my childhood, the Addams Family and Addams Family Values, with Christopher Lloyd wearing a fat suit to play Uncle Fester.
I have yet to address fat suits on CPBS. The only role I’ve looked at that utilized a fat suit is John Travolta’s in the Hairspray remake, which I didn’t talk about in the article.* The reasons for putting an actor in a fat suit vary based on the film, but there are similarities between Travolta wearing one in Hairspray and Lloyd in the Addams Family movies, which is the spectacle of celebrity. In either film, a fat actor could easily have been cast, but both Lloyd and Travolta are well-known names to mainstream audiences. On top of this, putting both of these actors in a fat suit creates a spectacle based on their public personas that serves as a draw for the film. Travolta’s abrupt left turn from his usual roles as a handsome leading man was one of the main sources of buzz around Hairspray, and Lloyd’s portrayal of Fester fits in with his reputation for playing characters whose offbeat looks indicate an offbeat personality. I’m hard pressed to think of a fat actor for either movie who would have been suited to the role and at a comparable level of fame. (My initial thought for a recast of Fester would be Pruitt Taylor Vince, master of creepy weirdos, but even today he is at the “hey it’s that guy” level of fame.) Of course, this creates a vicious cycle in which a studio wants to hire someone at a certain level of fame, but there is a dearth of fat actors as well known as they want, so a thinner actor is put in a fat suit, preventing fat actors from reaching greater levels of notability. Of course, fat actors are far from the only marginalized group to experience this vicious cycle, as disabled actors, actors of color, and queer/trans actors are often overlooked in favor of performers from more privileged groups who go on to give “brave” performances as marginalized characters– or whose characters are (re)written to have that privilege.
Fester as a character has changed through the years and various media incarnations of the Addams Family (although his ability to light a lightbulb by holding it in his mouth has been consistent). In the films, Fester has brutish tendencies and is as gleefully morbid as the rest of his kin, but he is ultimately someone who is gullible, tender-hearted, and lonely. In both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, Fester’s story revolves around finding a connection with his family in spite of being duped by a manipulative woman. When introduced in The Addams Family, he has been convinced that he is Gordon Craven, son of overbearing loan shark and con woman Abigail Craven (Elisabeth Wilson). He and his mother “pretend” that he is long-lost Uncle Fester as a means of stealing the Addams fortune. Fester-as-Gordon-pretending-to-be-Fester is often perplexed, in way over his head in the Addams’ world and doing a poor job of convincing them that he is Gomez’s (Raul Julia) long-lost brother. Despite believing he is only pretending to be Fester, the relationship he fosters with Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) raises a sense of belonging with the Addamses. As introverted, lurking Fester is a foil to debonair, zealous Gomez, chubby Pugsley is a foil to his svelter sister. Wednesday is intense, dour and sadistic, where her brother is easygoing and (like his uncle) gullible, always playing the victim to Wednesday’s torturer in their games. Fester’s love for the family as a whole grows to the point where he is able to stand up to his villainous faux mother in their defense. A flash of insight strikes (literally, in the form of a bolt of lightning and Fester’s head) and the prodigal uncle’s true identity is restored. His redeemed status in the family is illustrated in the film’s final scene set on Halloween, with Pugsley having opted to dress up as his uncle.
In Addams Family Values, Fester begins the film with his identity intact. He is gleefully ghoulish, not unlike his family members, but as he is no longer bumbling through a con, we see that he is genuinely awkward, shy, and oblivious. In the first film, Gomez waxes nostalgic about what a ladies’ man Fester used to be (while they watch a home movie in which young Fester sticks his finger in his date’s ear), but in the second film, he can barely look at object of his affection Debbie (Joan Cusack, arguably doing her finest work), let alone talk to her. Like Abigail, Debbie is a criminal who survives on deceit and wants to use Fester to get her hands on the Addams fortune. She is a “black widow” who marries, then kills, rich bachelors. No longer reacting to the Addams’ world out of ignorance, Fester is purely unintelligent, to the point of being childlike. While seducing him, Debbie confesses that she is a virgin; he doesn’t know what that means. This doesn’t logically match up with the rest of the family, making Fester look particularly idiotic. In an earlier scene, Wednesday tells a less-informed peer that she has a new baby brother because her parents had sex; this is played for laughs, but apparently Gomez and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) don’t shy away from candid biological discussions. Plus, considering that Morticia and her mother both practice some dark form of magic, you’d think they would have vials of virgin blood or something like that lying around the mansion. When Debbie tells him what a virgin is, he confesses that he is one as well, again highlighting his naivete. Fester’s role as vulnerable outsider is used primarily for laughs (as in this scene) and conflict, where the rest of the family must save him from Debbie, who attempts to turn him into a “normal” person, more to her liking, before bumping him off. Compare this to a thinner outsider with a goth aesthetic in a comedic modern-day fantasy released a few years earlier: the titular character of Edward Scissorhands. Edward (Johnny Depp) is also socially awkward, vulnerable, and longing for love. However, unlike Fester, his loneliness and vulnerability are romanticized. Despite having dangerous blades for hands, Edward is an artist who doesn’t want to harm anyone. Fester is sweet and caring, but also delights in mayhem and grotesquerie. Edward’s love for Kim is pure and chivalric, as opposed to Fester’s love for Debbie, which is misguided and dangerous. Edward is a source of creativity and wonder for the mundane community he tries to live in, while Fester is merely an oddity.
In a subplot, Fester’s young proteges find themselves in a similar dilemma. Thanks to Debbie’s influence, Wednesday and Pugsley are also removed from their home and threatened with assimilation into normalcy at Camp Chippewa, a summer camp “for privileged young people.” Camp Chippewa is a microcosm of the mundane world that the Addams are normally apart from, where people with non-normative bodies and identities are marginalized and attractive, athletic WASPs rule. Wednesday and Pugsley befriend Joel (David Krumholtz), a nebbishy kid with multiple allergies. The privileged-privileged campers, led by ultra-snob Amanda (Mercedes McNab) and enabled by chipper camp directors Becky (Christine Baranski) and Gary (Peter MacNicol), torture the outsiders with condescending mock-concern. According to Becky, the WASPy campers “are going to set an example to show that anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time!,” while completely disregarding the needs and preferences of the marginalized campers. When the annual summer camp pageant is announced as a tribute to Thanksgiving, Wednesday is cast as Pocohontas, the leader of the Indians (played by the other outsider kids), and Pugsley as a fat-suit wearing turkey whose part includes a song begging the audience to kill and eat him. And of course, as the Internet reminds us every Thanksgiving, Wednesday leads the other misfits in a spectacular rebellion.
The Addams family is a subversion of American values, delighting in death and misery where most people would rather not think about such topics. The family and their ilk include not only a Gothic aesthetic and diabolical values (Morticia laments that, as a busy wife and mother, she doesn’t have enough time to “seek out the dark forces and join their hellish crusade”), but an embracing of non-normative bodies. In The Addams Family, Fester is re-introduced to Flora and Fauna, a ravishing pair of conjoined twins whom he courted as a young man. Extras in scenes of the extended Addams family and friends include little people. While this isn’t exactly liberatory, as little people are often present in films as little more than “weird” set dressing, it reinforces the idea that the Addams’ world embraces difference, along with death and destruction. Although the inverting of social expectations fuels much of the humor in the film, perceptive audience members may wonder what the films are saying that these are also characters who passionately pursue their interests, are proud of their family history, care deeply about each other, and don’t exclude anyone based on ability or appearance.
* …but I will talk about now. John Travolta in a fat suit reflects my overall opinion of the Hairspray remake, namely that its admirable attempt to be more empathetic to the marginalized characters it portrays is undermined by its move towards wider mainstream acceptance as a movie. One would expect to see a name as big as Travolta’s attached to the role of Edna, but John Travolta, a straight A-list celebrity who is an open and enthusiastic member of a religion that decries homosexuality, is a far cry from originator Divine a fat drag queen whose name was synonymous with trashiness. In the remake, Edna is given more emotional depth in the form of being unwilling to leave the house until she loses weight (or, as actually happens, until she is empowered by Tracy to do so), but the casting choice was not to give this role– a potentially valuable career opportunity for a less famous actor– to someone who would have experienced the anxiety of being in a public space where they are reviled for what they look like. Rather, the role went to someone whose reason to feel anxiety about appearing in public would likely be his immense popularity.