cult film

Roundup: The Music Box of Horrors 2016

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:

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929, dir. Benjamin Christensen)

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.

 

 

 

 

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Roundup: March 2016

A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.

Take This Waltz (2011, dir. Sarah Polley)

This romantic drama follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a writer who finds herself torn between her loving, stable marriage to chef Lou (Seth Rogen) and her prickly, burgeoning crush on their rickshaw-driving artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby).  I was hesitant to include this because Rogen is thinner in this film than most of his work (he made this film around the same time as Green Hornet), but I decided to go with it as the film juxtaposes him with Daniel, who is very athletic (literally spending his days running around Toronto).

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Orgazmo (1997, dir. Trey Parker)

A self-consciously B comedy that is a sendup of low-budget action films, the porn industry, and (of course) Mormons, Orgazmo pits kung fu fighting Latter Day Saint Joe (Parker) against evil porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs).  Maxxx is fat, as are some of his cronies/actors Jizzmaster Zero (Ron Jeremy) and his dimwitted bodyguard whose name I didn’t write down (mea culpa, unsung hero).  But another notable scene pairs Joe with a fat porn actress called T-Rex (Ruby Hart, credited on IMDB as “The Fat Lady Stripper”), and touches on a number of tropes:  the ground shakes when T-Rex approaches, she is masculinized (her lines are dubbed with Parker doing a voiceover), she is crass and sexually voracious, Joe is terrified of her, and the onlookers are disgusted, with the exception of weirdo Dave the Lighting Guy (Matt Stone).  The scene can be found here (NSFW; typical Parker/Stone humor).

The Ladykillers (2004, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

A remake of a  1955 heist film that pits a group of thieves against an elderly Christian woman (Irma P. Hall) who unknowingly rents a room in her house to their grandiloquent ringleader (Tom Hanks).  In true Coen fashion, the film is peppered with idiosyncratic fat characters: a sweaty, easily-bribed boss (Stephen Root); a security guard who is constantly laughing and surrounded by food wrappers (Walter K. Jordan); a deputy sheriff who frequently naps at his desk (John McConnell).

The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)

One of Pixar’s best, in a world… where superheroes are forced into hiding as normal people, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to ignore his and his family’s special abilities.  Having to live as insurance agent Bob Parr, he gains weight and is referred to as fat at least a few times, but is still able to fight well enough to defeat a massive killbot single-handed.  Once he has the opportunity to put his super-strength to use again, an exercise montage helps him get back his trimmer physique.

Meet the Fokkens/Ouwehoeren (2012, dir. Rob Schröder, Gabriëlle Provaas)

I usually don’t include fat people in documentaries that I see; in most cases, a subject being fat is happenstance.  That is the case here– a profile of Louise and Martine Fokken, Dutch twin sisters who were sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district for over 50 years, and just happen to be fat (although photos show that they were slimmer in their youth).  Although fatness isn’t explicitly discussed, they are contrasted with their slimmer, younger colleagues and laughed at by some passerby.  The idea of older, fatter women being sexually active, as well as objects of desire, is unthinkable to many people; making it the subject of a full-length documentary is a necessary subversion of assumptions about who sex workers are.

fokkens

Roundup: February 2016

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.

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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.

 

carl casablanca

 

Roundup: November 2015

A rundown of fat characters in films I saw over the past month, but didn’t post about.

Stranger by the Lake (2014, dir. Alain Guiraudie)

A French thriller set at a remote cruising spot, following Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who witnesses his favorite hookup Michel (Christophe Paou) committing murder.  Almost all of the characters in the film are men who have sex with men.  They are also mostly young and fit, with the exception of Henri ( Patrick D’Assumçao), a middle aged man with a beer belly who sits by himself and says that he is never propositioned for sex.  Only Franck approaches him for conversation, and their relationship remains platonic.  

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Vanya on 42nd Street  (1994, dir. Louis Malle)

This incredible film documents a group of actors who gather in an abandoned Manhattan theater for informal rehearsals of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, under the direction of Andre Gregory.  Jerry Mayer plays Waffles, a sycophantic and persistently cheerful tenant of patriarch Serybryakov (George Gaynes).

Jurassic World (2015, dir. Colin Trevorrow)

I noticed two fat characters before Blu Ray took pity on us and malfunctioned.  Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who Doesn’t Understand the Dinosaurs, serves as a foil to Owen (Chris Pratt), who Understands the Dinosaurs.  His goal is to weaponize the raptors for military use.  When the Indominus rex breaks free of its enclosure, one of its first victims is a fat security guard, who is monitoring the enclosure but fails to notice that there is a problem.  His death is somewhat reminiscent of Gennaro’s in the first film: paralyzed with fear and hiding behind a Jeep, he remains motionless while the dinosaur destroys his cover and devours him.

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Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), a fat character from Jurassic Park. Also, a representation of what watching Jurassic World feels like.

ThanksKilling (2008, dir. Jordan Downey)

A low-budget horror comedy about a group of college kids terrorized by a cursed turkey over Thanksgiving break.  Billy (Aaron Carlson) is the group’s fool, to borrow a term from The Cabin in the Woods.  He is a loose cannon redneck who makes more inappropriate comments than the other characters (with the exception of the Turkey).  He is introduced ripping his undershirt over his excitement for Thanksgiving break, to which Johnny the jock comments that he doesn’t want to see his “tits.”  Billy is the one who suggests that the group gets drunk in the woods after their car breaks down, and a research montage later in the film includes a shot of nerd Darren teaching Billy how to read.  Billy dies when Turkey tricks him into swallowing him, then bursting out of his guts.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015, dir. Roy Andersson)

This film is a loosely connected series of static-shot vignettes that comment on mortality, morality, and human nature.  An opening sequence, “Three Brushes with Death,” feature two fat men who drop dead.  One dies in a ferry cafeteria; a second fat man takes his beer when the cashier points out that it’s been paid for and is up for grabs.  A fat dance instructor (Lotti Tornros) is inappropriately physical with a slender, younger male student (Oscar Salomonsson), running her hands over his body under the pretense of correcting his posture.  In a later scene, they are in the background having an intense conversation; he leaves her sitting at a restaurant table as she sobs inconsolably.  Another scene features a fat woman playing with a baby in a carriage.  Yet another is of a fat woman working in a laboratory, chatting on her cellphone while a confined monkey is tortured.  There is no narrative to speak of, but the most prominent characters are a pair of travelling novelty item salesman who are unsuccessful at their trade.  One of the salesman, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) is fat.  He is the more serious of the two and apparently the one in charge, describing his coworker as a “crybaby” and generally taking charge during their sales pitches.

“Anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time:” The Addams Family and Addams Family Values (1991 and 1993, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)

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.

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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.

fester and pugsley

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

pugsley turkey

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.

Roundup: October 2015

October was a busy month for me, but I did manage to squeeze in some quality moviegoing experiences at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Music Box of Horrors.  Unsurprisingly, it was a month of fat villains and fat victims.

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.

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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.

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The Blind (Drunk) Leading the Blind (Drunk): Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz; The World’s End (2004, 2007, 2013; dir. Edgar Wright)

My article The Blind (Drunk) Leading the Blind (Drunk): Masculinities and Friendship in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is up on BitchFlicks as part of their theme week on masculinity.  The Cornetto Trilogy are three of my favorite films, and Andy Knightley (Nick Frost) in The World’s End is one of my favorite fat characters, a topic I hope to explore more in depth on here in the future. I had a lot of fun writing it.  Please check it out, as well as the other articles about masculinities in film and television.

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.