family

My best friend: Lady Bird (2017, dir. Greta Gerwig)

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut doesn’t bring anything new to the cinematic table in terms of story or visual technique; what makes it exciting is her outstanding attention to detail.  Having also been a Catholic high school senior in 2002, I knew I was in for something that was going to hit me where I live when I saw the image of Lady Bird’s titular protagonist (Saoirse Ronan) standing in the communion line with her arms folded over her chest.  A fair amount of Lady Bird’s charm is based in nostalgia, the escapism of looking back to the past, whether part of a personal or historical timeline.  Remember what it was like to have complicated feelings about Dave Matthews Band?   Your first cell phone?  Pretentiousness as the hallmark of a suitable boyfriend?  

But nostalgia in Lady Bird isn’t a fully romanticized experience.  Lady Bird breaks from the mold of movies with teenage protagonists focused on affluent, privileged families.  Lady Bird’s family struggles with money, which colors most of the protagonist’s relationships.  She dates Danny (Lucas Hedges) until she finds him kissing another boy; the scene where he pleads with her not to tell his parents that he’s gay is heartrending.   And, relative to this blog, is Lady Bird’s larger-bodied best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).  There’s a moment where the skinny Lady Bird casually mentions wanting to lose weight to Julie.  “Really?” Julie responds, her bewilderment and self-consciousness immediately familiar to me and, I’m sure, most other fat audience members.

Lady Bird and Julie share a paradigmatic protagonist-sidekick dynamic.  Lady Bird is louder and more confident; Julie is more reserved, and tends to follow her friend’s lead.  Julie is also, typical of fat characters, more socially awkward than Lady Bird.  Julie’s ineptitude is subtle and relatable, not clownish.  She fawns over math teacher Mr. Bruno (Jake McDorman), but her crush never inflates to the point where she is a buffoon (or a victim); she is gracious when he introduces her to his pregnant wife.  A sequence of characters auditioning for the school musical nicely illustrates the friends’ contrasting personalities:  Lady Bird does a fiery rendition of the Barbra Streisand-popularized “Everybody Says Don’t,” while Julie opts for the gentle and out-of-place hymn “Prayer of St. Francis.”  Julie, however, is cast in a substantial role in the musical while Lady Bird is relegated to the chorus.  Julie also has a knack for math while Lady Bird struggles with her grades, resisting the trope of a fat character being worse at everything than their thin counterpart.

While the two girls are seemingly inseparable, Lady Bird decides in the second half of the school year that she wants to reinvent herself and ditches Julie in favor of attaching herself to rich, popular Jenna (Odeya Rush) and cool, intellectual Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).  Jenna and Kyle are conventionally attractive, but also smirking and apathetic.  Maintaining relationships with Jenna and Kyle means adopting a facade, a tactic completely alien to Lady Bird.  Her first attempt to get Jenna’s attention is to insult Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) and suggest that a revenge prank is appropriate for a routine admonishment against violating the school uniform.  Julie is shocked and reminds Lady Bird that she’s fond of the nun, which Lady Bird immediately denies.  Lady Bird lies to Jenna about where she lives (a switch from describing herself to Danny as being “from the wrong side of the tracks”) and takes up smoking to impress Kyle.  

Of course, Lady Bird is too headstrong to accommodate her new friends for long.  She is seriously disillusioned after she has sex for the first time with Kyle, assuming it his first time too, only to have him casually reveal that he’s had several partners before her and is much more casual about sex than she. The breaking point comes on the way to prom.  Lady Bird reluctantly agrees with their plan to ditch prom, but bristles when “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band comes on the radio and Kyle disparages it.  There is a scene earlier in the film, after Lady Bird finds Danny cheating on her, where she and Julie are crying and singing along to “Crash Into Me.”  No longer able to tolerate trying to be someone else, she tells Kyle to drive her to Julie’s home.  When Jenna asks who Julie is, Lady Bird defiantly replies, “She’s my best friend.” 

Part of Lady Bird’s attention to detail are the numerous loose threads that the film gives us.  These aren’t plot holes, rather, accurate reflections that life rarely comes with neat conclusions, and rarely allows us to witness conclusions to struggles in which we aren’t immediately involved.  We see supporting characters moving in and out of personal problems, only glimpsing their interior world long enough to see them as human beings.  Kyle drops Lady Bird off at the apartment complex where Julie lives– confirming that, like Lady Bird, Julie is also an outsider at their school due to her family’s economic circumstances.  Julie is revealed to be in her apartment, still in her bathrobe, crying.  The audience never finds out why, we simply see Lady Bird ask for her forgiveness and convince her to come to prom.  At prom, the reunited friends dance joyfully with each other and hang out until dawn, at which point Julie reveals that she is spending the summer with her dad and will be going to the local community college, while Lady Bird is moving away in the fall.   

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Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), prom night

The end of the film finds Lady Bird in her first days at Barnard in New York City.  She seems to have synthesized her experiences over the course of the film, excited to be cool and worldly in the way that drew her to Kyle and Jenna, but also unrelentingly true to herself.  At her first college party, she asserts her belief in God in a conversation with a self-assured atheist and, when asked her name, drops her self-appointed nickname and introduces herself by her given name, Christine.  Even though Julie is not present in the latter portion of the movie, which focuses specifically on Lady Bird’s troubled relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), there is a direct parallel between Lady Bird asserting herself as Julie’s friend to Kyle and as a theist at the party in New York.  Lady Bird’s relationship with Julie is the childhood that she’s leaving behind her, but also an essential part of who she is. Even if the two go their separate ways, we know that they are both better people for having learned how to apologize and forgive.  Lady Bird suggests that all its characters could easily be the protagonist of their own movie.  Although Julie fits the awkward fat friend trope, we also get glimpses of her inner life, suggestions that she has also had a coming of age over the course of the film.  The resonant emotional honesty and compassion of Lady Bird redeems its reliance on stock character types.  

See also:

America Magazine:  Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird Is a Rallying Cry for Catholic Schoolgirls Everywhere

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Trope Deep Dive: Fat Boys and Thin Girls: Angus (1995, dir. Patrick Read Johnson), The Motel (2005, dir. Michael Kang), Terri (2011, dir. Azazel Jacobs)

My intention with this series of posts about romantic storylines featuring fat men and thin women was to choose films using a specific parameter:  fat men and thin women who start a relationship during the course of the film and are still together when it ends.  This time around, that ended up being more of a hindrance than help.  I wanted to focus on adolescent characters, so I watched three films with fat male protagonists and plot summaries that suggested romance– AngusThe Motel* and Terri.  None of the three ended with the hero happily coupled with the object of his affections; The Motel and Terri end in explicit rejection.  This surprised me.  Certainly not all coming of age films focus on romance, or even use beginning a relationship to signify maturation.  Neither film I watched last summer with fat boy protagonists, Chubby and Heavyweights, had romantic storylines for their protagonists, though I suspect that’s more to do with the protagonists being closer to childhood than young adulthood.  I wanted stories of fat characters learning to believe in themselves to include at least some subversion of the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to find willing romantic partners. But as I have a prolific once-per-month posting average to maintain, plus these films have some interesting similarities and center fat characters more than most, I figure they’re worth talking about. 

As is required by the genre, all three young protagonists need to learn important life lessons in order to confront or transcend the difficult situations they find themselves in at the beginnings of their respective stories.  All three are outsiders.  Terri (Jacob Wysocki) and Angus(Charlie Talbert) are bullied and unpopular explicitly because they are fat.  This isn’t as much the case for The Motel’s Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), although he is not shown at his school nearly as much as the other two boys.  He is nonetheless othered due to his ethnicity and class status, as part of a Chinese-American family who eke out a living running a cheap motel.  It’s worth noting that all three have nontraditional family structures.  In addition to the dynamic of the family business and having a home culture that’s markedly different from that of the society around him, Ernest’s father abandoned their family.  Angus’ father died soon after Angus was born; his family consists of his tough-as-nails trucker mom (Kathy Bates) and his tough-as-nails grandfather (George C. Scott).  (Worth noting: in the short story that Angus is based on, “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune,”  his mother and father are both gay and remarried to stepparents of the same gender.  Moviegoing America apparently wasn’t ready for that particular configuration of loving but alternatively-structured family in the mid 90s.)  Both of Terri’s parents are MIA; his only family member is an uncle (Creed Bratton) who has an unnamed illness.  As part of their atypical families, the boys all must take on atypical roles for teenage boys.  Terri and Angus act as caretakers for their elder male relatives, while Ernest works housekeeping duty at the motel.  Not only are these roles feminized and serve to detract from any hope they have of conforming to romantic male lead standards as much as being fat does, but also detract from the amount of time they have to spend with their peers (and therefore mean fewer opportunities to meet and interact with girls).  

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Melissa (Ariana Richards) and Angus (Charlie Talbert), the Winter Ball Court/Unwilling Spectacle

Angus also features an interesting story beat around othering and feminization in terms of clothing.  Fat bodies in movies (and also in, you know, society) vacillate between invisible/excluded and hypervisible/spectacle.  When Angus is elected king of the Winter Ball as a prank, he is suddenly recategorized, going from having his achievements on the football field ignored to facing having to dance with his long-time crush in front of the whole school.  The intent/expectation that he will suffer humiliation is compounded when he has to rent a tuxedo, but despite protests that he wants a “socially acceptable” black tuxedo, his only option is purple.  But what seems like a cruel parody of the role he is supposed to embody becomes a symbol of his defiance, a dare for people to accept him instead of an invitation to mock him.  Terri and Ernest both have specific clothing, but it reinforces their invisibility.  Terri wears pajamas 24/7 (which I took as a symptom of depression), but nobody notices or asks except when his assistant principal makes him a special project.  Ernest tends to wear t-shirts that are garish, especially when compared to his mild personality; without saying anything, it’s obvious that they were purchased from a thrift store.

The combination of social isolation and difficult personal life also make the protagonists’ relationship with an older male figure important to their maturation.  Terri has a tenuous relationship with Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the assistant principal who can act thoughtlessly at times, but also models the self-confidence and tenacity that Terri lacks, opening up to the depressed student before he himself is willing to open up.  Angus has Grandpa, whose motto is “screw ‘em.”  He is marrying a woman thirty years younger than him; his stubborn refusal to let others’ judgments sway his decisions and his ability to woo a beautiful woman despite being old and fat both inspire Angus and foreshadow his success with the girl he has a crush on.  Ernest’s grandfather (Stephen Chen) takes a very hands-off approach to parenting (but does pick on his weight).  Luckily for Ernest, he is the main character in an indie dramedy and is therefore destined to cross paths with an eccentric loose cannon who brings some fun and freedom into his seemingly hopeless life, Sam (Sung Kang).  Sam tries to be a surrogate father figure, teaching him how to drive and trying to convince him to stand up for himself.  However, Sam is also more toxic than Grandpa or Mr. Fitzgerald, as a self-destructive divorcee who manipulates Ernest into letting him stay at the motel without paying.  

In addition to older male characters who teach the protagonists how to navigate being an outsider, the love interest characters are also outsiders in their own rights.  Despite being a popular cheerleader, Melissa (Ariana Richards) is as much a victim of bullying as Angus, as her boyfriend Rick (James Van Der Beek) uses her as a pawn to try and humiliate our hero.  During the climactic scene at the school Winter Ball dance, she admits to Angus that not only is she as nervous as he is about being publicly humiliated, but she is also bulimic, something she had never told anyone else.  “Do you ever get tired of who you are?” she asks him.  “Do you know who you’re talking to?” he responds.  Terri has a crush on Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who becomes a social outcast when a classmate fingers her in class.  This is partly Terri’s fault: his outsider status allows him moments of quiet observation where he sees the otherwise surreptitious sex act, his other classmates then see what he’s looking at and make a scene.  He does, however, attempt to make things right by defending her to Mr. Fitzgerald, who wants to expel her, and detracting unwanted attention from her in subsequent classes.  His support builds their friendship and gives him a shot with her when she suggests they hang out together after school.  Despite being conventionally attractive, in contrast to the protagonists, Heather and Melissa both have bodies that require regulation, Heather through slut-shaming and Melissa through an eating disorder.  In this way, they find empathy and companionship through the boys who are social pariahs for their own unruly bodies.  In The Motel, however, similarity is a problem.  Christine (Samantha Futerman), like Ernest, is part of a Chinese immigrant family and has an atypical childhood for an American kid, working at her family’s business. Unlike the other two films, their similar outsider status may be what prevents any potential romance.  When giving Ernest advice on romance, Sam tells him that Christine won’t want him because he reminds her of her upbringing, and she wants a boyfriend who will offer her escape.

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Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) and Christine (Samatha Futerman), finding relief from their jobs together

Perhaps because of empathy gained from being an outsider, or because of the feminized roles they play in their family lives, the protagonists treat the girls with more respect than do their male peers.  (Given that there is no culmination in romance, especially for Ernest and Terri, The Motel and Terri risk a “nice guy” dynamic.)  While Terri protects Heather and respects her boundaries, his friend Chad plans to get her drunk and have sex with her because he thinks she’s an easy target due to her reputation. As mentioned above, Rick uses Melissa in a plan to humiliate Angus without her consent, then gets mad at her when she teaches Angus how to dance instead of allowing him to fail. Ernest stands by while three classmates of Christine’s trespass on her family’s property to skate and try to get her to give them free food.  She hesitantly agrees, uncomfortable with the idea but longing for their approval.  Even outside a romantic context, there is a tacit trust and intimacy between each pair that the female characters lack in other interactions with male peers.

Angus is the only film of the three that ends with ambiguous potential for romance.  Notably, Angus is also the most idealized protagonist. He makes a lot of self-deprecating comments about being fat, but he is on the football team, being considered for a prestigious magnet school, and is able to stand up for himself. He is able to physically overpower Rick, but can’t because he faces suspension. His character growth is about replacing his fists with words, naturally culminating in a speech that is the best moment in the film.  The last scene of the film is Melissa giving him a kiss on the cheek after he walks her home.  What’s to come of this we don’t know, but in all fairness, she did just get royally screwed over by her jerk boyfriend.  Some time to herself would be healthy.  Both Heather and Christine also deal with external circumstances that affect any desire for romance with Terri or Ernest, fatness not ever being an explicit factor.  Heather’s classmates have ostracized her due to being sexually active.  Terri has a chance to have sex with her (he doesn’t) because she is drunk.  She leaves a note for Terri asking that he not talk about the incident at school and emphasizing that she is his friend.  And in The Motel, as previously noted, Christine’s lack of attraction for Ernest may be due to associating romance with escape from her family life.

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Terri (Jacob Wysocki), concerned for Heather’s (Olivia Crocicchia) wellbeing

Although none of the films end happily with romance, they do end on hopeful notes as we see signs of maturation in the protagonists. Ultimately, the resolution has more to do with their relationships with their older male role models than their female love interests.  Angus, as previously noted, learns to solve his problems with dramatic speeches instead of violence and  discovers that idealized Melissa is a vulnerable human being, because he takes Grandpa’s advice to “screw ‘em” (repeated to him by Melissa) and does what he wants despite potentially being judged by others.  “I’d had my moment,” he tells the audience in the ending narration, “and then I heard my grandfather’s voice say to me, ‘Go have another.’”  After being rejected by Heather, Terri spends a day with Mr. Fitzgerald, not only for his own benefit but also to give the older man company, as he is separating from his wife and sleeping in his car on school grounds.  “She’s embarrassed,” he tells Mr. Fitzgerald.  “I’m not going to say anything if that’s what she’s worried about… I don’t think I’m read for all that stuff yet, anyway.”  “Who is, you know?” Mr. Fitzgerald responds.  The last shot is of Terri walking through the woods by himself, looking content.  The Motel’s climax sees Ernest confronting Sam, refusing to be manipulated and telling Sam that he has to leave the motel if he isn’t going to pay for his room.  Instead of having to passively accept that his father left him, he is able to actively reject a dad-analogue figure for not treating him with respect.  The boys all learn to value themselves despite the fatphobic (and in Ernest’s case, racist) rhetoric thrown at them; even if the expectation that a fat boy would fail at a romantic endeavor isn’t necessarily subverted, the expectation that a fat boy would fail to love himself is unquestionably skewered by all three films.

*If discussion about The Motel seems less detailed than the other two films, it’s because it was the first of the three I watched, and I lost my notes.  It’s definitely worth watching, though.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women after Marty: Only the Lonely (1991, dir. Chris Columbus); I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With (2007, dir. Jeff Garlin)

The impulse to revisit old stories is a strong one that long pre-dates the advent of film, but it’s not hugely controversial to say that many movie remakes and adaptations usually pale in comparison to the original.  Sometimes a change in setting and/or time can be a welcome take– A Fistful of Dollars is considered a classic right along with Yojimbo, for instance– but often, the remake speaks to the continued relevance of the original, whether intentionally or not.  Both Only the Lonely and I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With are heavily inspired by Marty, focusing on the emotional lives of fat bachelors in their thirties who live with their mothers.  Marty is widely regarded as, to use the words of I Want Someone…’s protagonist James, “a perfect movie,” so it’s not surprising that these films that pay homage to it don’t reach its artistic heights.  However, both are interesting when seen in conversation with Marty, as they respectively take their inspirational concepts to more romanticized and more cynical places.

I was looking forward to, and then disappointed by, Only the Lonely.  Its character motivations and development are simplistic, especially relative to the scale of the action.  Marty may seem overly modest with its timeline of one weekend in which two people meet and decide whether or not to see each other again, but the tight focus on the characters’ inner lives is a much more potent draw than Danny (John Candy) and Theresa’s (Ally Sheedy) courtship where their second date is on Halloween and their wedding scheduled for Christmastime.  Only the Lonely is also less equitable in sympathy for its characters, focusing more on getting the audience to root for Danny than build any potential complexity into the situation. Marty’s mother experiences anxiety triggered by her niece and nephew wanting her widowed sister to move out of their home to make way for a new baby.  Motivated by fear of abandonment, she criticizes Marty for wanting to date Clara, but in prior scenes, she is portrayed as a kind woman who wants her son to be happy.  Compare this to Rose Muldoon (Maureen O’Hara) in Only the Lonely, who is similarly afraid of abandonment, but is depicted more as an obstacle to Danny’s happiness than a grounded, relatable person.  Rose has a long history of not only “telling it like it is” (i.e. making insensitive remarks to whomever she pleases, including critical remarks about people’s ethnicities), but uses guilt to manipulate Danny to the point where the audience sees his vivid, anxious imaginings of her dying horribly because he wasn’t there to protect her.  Her fear of abandonment is not without grounds, as Danny’s brother Patrick (Kevin Dunn) is unwilling to let her move into his home in the suburbs, but she also has the potential for companionship from her neighbor Nick (Anthony Quinn), who is in love with her (and whom she initially rejects for being Greek).  Instead of Rose being frightened by the plight of another widow, Danny is spurred into seizing the day by an elderly bachelor friend (Milo O’Shea) who implores him not to end up the same way.

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Danny and Theresa on their first date, a picnic at Comiskey Park.  Even though the filming location for Danny and Rose’s house is a 5 minute walk to Wrigley Field.  Pick a damn side, executive producer John Hughes.

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With also has a wider scope than its predecessor, in that the focus is on James’ (Jeff Garlin) career troubles as well as his desire for love. Marty tells Clara about his dream of buying the butcher shop where he works, but we don’t see it plague him to the extent that frustration with acting does James.  Acting shares a significant similarity with relationships:  both pursuits require making oneself vulnerable to judgment and rejection, as both require the approval of other people to happen.  James finds that his fatness explicitly affects his success at both.  He books a job on a mean-spirited candid camera-style show; when he expresses doubts about the show’s ethics, the director (Paul Mazursky) encourages him by saying that he’s “got the whole fat guy thing wrapped up.”  Later, James is shocked to discover that not only is a remake of Marty being cast, but that he was passed over to audition for the title role, which he’s confident he would be great for.  His bewilderment is only exacerbated as seemingly nobody he talks is familiar with Marty, which he describes as “a perfect movie.”  He storms the auditions, where a group of conventionally beautiful women are waiting to read for the role of Clara, and discovers that the titular role has been given to Aaron Carter, and Gina Gershon will be playing Marty’s mother.  “Marty’s mom is hot?” James asks in disbelief.  “She is now,” the casting director (Roger Bart) replies.  James’ skill or lack thereof is a moot point, as he is disqualified from substantial roles due to his age and appearance.  Although James’ story includes more comedy than Marty’s, it’s fairly obvious that Garlin is also creating this film from a very personal perspective.  

As with Marty, Only the Lonely and I Want Someone… feature protagonists who live with their mothers.  Both films also suggest that their protagonist are fat and reluctant to move on to a more independent lifestyle at least partly due to these overly close relationships with mothers who provide food.  James’ mother (Mina Kolb) cooks food that he can’t seem to resist, including a scene where he tries to leave the dinner table due to frustration with her nagging, yet doesn’t because he’s still hungry.  James admits that he lives with his mother because it’s “comfortable,” but also because he worries for her safety.  His mom, however, isn’t as stagnating a force in his life as she appears at first glance:  she encourages him to crash the audition for Marty, and when he tells her that he wants to move out, she expresses relief.  In the denouement sequence where James is getting his shit together, he mentions that not only is he living alone now, but he sees his mother infrequently, suggesting that they are both happier with independent lives.  As mentioned above, in Only the Lonely, Rose smothers Danny to a hyperbolic degree.  In the opening scene, she picks on him for eating yogurt for breakfast instead of his usual Danish, saying he’s “anorexic” and that yogurt is “sissy” when he tells her that he’s “trying to cut back.”  Paradoxically, by encouraging him to maintain a masculinized attitude towards food (ie. prioritizing taste over health concerns), she emasculates him by passively controlling his choices.  His later inability to cook dinner for Theresa shows that he relies on Rose to cook for him.

As much as living with his mother at 38 suggests that Danny retains a childlike dependence on Rose, any immaturity is tempered by virtue. He fails at making dinner for Theresa and is a low-ranking police officer, but later in the film he talks about becoming a cop and living with his mother as choices he made in the wake of his father’s death to take care of his family, re-casting a seemingly pathetic life as the result of selflessness.  His size becomes a symbol of his ability to protect Theresa, as shown in a scene where he helps her sneak out of the house by using his larger body to hide her from Rose’s view.  It’s played for laughs, but speaks to the way in which Only the Lonely gives Candy’s fat body romantic potential.  Protection is what Theresa wants from a romantic partner:  someone who “will always stand up for [her], who will never let [her] down.” Their size disparity is also gendered, as his largeness also calls attention to how petite she is, how appropriate her physique is for a female love interest. When Rose meets Theresa, she criticizes her for being too thin (the Hollywood screenplay equivalent of saying that perfectionism is your biggest flaw during a job interview).  Even his seemingly humble job has perks, as he has connections all over the city that allow him to, among other things: picnic on the field at Comiskey Park, commandeer a fire truck on short notice in the middle of the night, and get an Amtrak train to make an unscheduled stop.  His ability to be a provider proves nothing short of magical in his quest to win Theresa’s heart.   

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James’ meetcute with Beth, in which she gives him a free ice cream sundae.

In I Want Someone…, James’ fatness is suggested to influence every change in his love life over the course of the narrative.  A woman he is dating breaks up with him at the beginning of the film, in part because he’s “in terrible shape,” although she then denies that it has anything to do with him being fat.  Later, he goes on a date with Beth (Sarah Silverman), a manic pixie dream girl who works at an ice cream parlor. He can’t quite believe he’s on a date with her, as he explains, because she’s a “hottie” and he’s “Baron von Fat.”  She responds by assuring him he’s not fat.  A more thoughtful response from her might have been to reassure him of her interest– James is told a few times throughout the movie that he isn’t fat, which comes across as obvious bullshit given the influence his size has on the narrative.  After they sleep together, she reveals that she had never been with a fat man before and she wanted to experiment, before telling him that she doesn’t want to see him again.  James’ fatness is something that his potential romantic partners must treat as an exception, whether positively or negatively, usually the latter.  The positive interaction is with Stella (Bonnie Hunt), who he meets in the jazz section of a record store.  He feels confident flirting with her after her coworker (Amy Sedaris– this cast, right?) lets it slip that she’s a “chubby chaser.”  Although flustered and full of denial when he asks her about it, the James-getting-his-shit-together sequence includes her at a performance of his, watching him with admiration.  Their romantic potential is ambiguous, but their rapport is undeniable, having mutual interests and easily joking around with each other.  Compare this to Danny: he hasn’t dated in a while before Theresa, but his fatness is never explicitly mentioned as an influencing factor.  Even after he proposes to Theresa, his brother suggests that he could do better than someone as “plain” as her; Danny must convince his family (regarding his brother, by “convince” I mean “punch so hard he flies halfway across the room”) that she is worthy of his love.  As with Marty, there is pressure to not commit to a “dog,” but if Danny has had any similar experiences to Marty or James striking out with a woman because of their appearance, it’s glossed over by the film.  Theresa’s “baggage” is shown in a charming light.  She is extremely introverted, which both makes her seem like someone in need of a big protector, and also feels like an echo of Sheedy’s most famous role as Allison in The Breakfast Club.  (Consider that at this point in her career, Sheedy was a few years post-Brat Pack; compare to Betsy Blair, who had been blacklisted by HUAC during the production of Marty).  Her job at her father’s funeral home is talked about as being a turn-off (Rose calls her a “ghoul”), but she is able to express her quirky, artistic side by doing the deceased’s makeup to make them resemble old movie stars, which is totally appropriate for a ritualized expression of grief.

There’s a fine balancing act that goes into portraying marginalized characters, as far as how to show them dealing with with social obstacles and how those experiences affect their internal worlds.  On one hand, we have James, who can only find some form of acceptance professionally or romantically when put into a box based on his fatness. Women are interested in him as a novelty or a fetish, and he is relegated to specific roles by his size and then denied them in preference of a younger, thinner actor.  On the other hand, we have Danny: his fatness is not ignored by the film, but just as far as it makes him a cuddly teddy-bear.  His extended bachelorhood is squarely blamed on his family dynamic, which feels like an unrealistic oversimplification.  Even unapologetic, confident fat people have to deal with haters, and that has an impact on how anyone navigates their professional and love lives.  On the other hand, lots of fat people are in happy relationships and/or have successful careers (including Garlin himself, who was making Curb Your Enthusiasm by the time he was the same age as James).  But even in real lives that are more complicated and nuanced; one take or the other can feel more resonant.  Sometimes we want the soft edges of a Hollywood rom-com, other times the gruffer indie comedy feels more appropriate.  So while I didn’t necessarily feel that these films are equal in terms of the amount of thought put into their creation (I mean Theresa tells Danny she’s trying to learn how to assert herself then she asserts herself when Rose insults her and then immediately BREAKS UP WITH DANNY BECAUSE SHE WAS ABLE TO DO THE THING SHE DIDN’T THINK SHE COULD DO AND HE DIDN’T DO IT FOR HER COME ON WHAT IS THAT okay I’m done now I promise), on a macro level, we need to have access to both points of view. Although dialing back the mom-hate just a notch would be nice.

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

“You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.” Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout epic about the golden era of porn, Boogie Nights, flirts with the culturally subversive potential of the community on which it focuses.  When I recently rewatched the film (having first seen it over a decade ago), the inversion of the male gaze jumped out at me.  We do see female bodies in states of undress, meant to arouse, but Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg)– or to be more specific, Dirk’s 13 inch penis– is the sun at the center of Boogie Nights’ universe.  Although the audience must wait until the very end of the 2 ½ hour film for the full frontal reveal, Dirk’s penis is very much a presence in the rest of the film.  When he whips it out, the camera focuses on the character who is doing the gazing.  The audience’s thrill and titillation is vicarious; we are invited to empathize with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), and others as they marvel at Dirk’s cock, instead of to consume depersonalized images of Dirk’s body.  Similarly, during Dirk’s debut scene, the sight of him and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) fucking is distanced from the audience as Jack’s camera is literally put between us and them.  The more clearly framed images are those of the cast as they watch Dirk’s performance; Scotty J’s (the dear departed Philip Seymour Hoffman) near-painful desire for Dirk, combined with the discomfort of holding up the boom mike, is of particular note. (More on him in a bit.)

phillip seymour hoffman, boogie nights, scotty j

Another aspect of the potential subversiveness of Boogie Nights is the characters’ sexual relationships.  The main characters form a family of sorts, headed by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber. Treating each other with support and affection, the members of this family both mimic and exist outside the boundaries of the heterosexual nuclear family. While we don’t see them engaging in kink or sex between characters of the same gender, making sex into an art and a profession is queering, to a degree.  Their lifestyles and sexual choices are used as reasons to marginalize them:  Buck (Don Cheadle) is denied a business loan, Amber loses custody of her child, and Dirk is queer-bashed while hustling.  (One of his attackers calls him “donkey dick,” turning the attribute that made him special in his community into an oddity.)  Whereas sex in movies is usually burdened with emotional weight, a cause of strife and jealousy, most of the characters in Boogie Nights are effervescently casual about it. However, we are given a few subplots where characters divert from the free-love culture promoted by Jack and his crew.  One is Little Bill’s (William H. Macy) blatant cuckolding by his wife (Nina Hartley), which culminates with him carrying out a murder-suicide; the other is Buck and Jessie (Melora Walters), who are pushed together as wallflowers at Jack’s Christmas party, marry, have a baby, and start a small business, executing so perfectly in line with the American dream that Buck’s commercial for his stereo store is dripping in red, white, and blue.  The trajectory of both couples in the film ultimately comes down to the husbands’ agency; both of whom take themselves and their wives out of the industry because they don’t fit in.  Little Bill and his wife apparently aren’t able to successfully navigate their relationship through her desire to have sex with other men– the film does not confirm whether or not she performs in Jack’s films, but casting real-life porn legend Nina Hartley in the role certainly implies she does.  The implication that Buck is out of place comes through his clothing; he dresses like a cowboy, which customers at his part-time salesman job find off-putting and his co-star Becky (Nicole Ari Parker) tells him is no longer fashionable.  When Jessie and Buck meet, he is dressed in a flamboyant new outfit with a braided wig, which he laughingly takes off as they warm up to each other, suggesting that he has been pretending to be someone else as part of Jack’s group, but has finally found someone he can be himself with.

The fat characters in Boogie Nights don’t make the choice to leave the community in the same way that Little Bill and Buck do, but neither do they have access to the inner circle, the ability to become true members of the family.  Kurt (Ricky Jay), the Colonel, and Scotty J reflect the subversive aspects of the porn community, but in a less romanticized way than the thin, conventionally beautiful characters.  Kurt, the director of photography, shows the same commitment to well-made porn that Jack does, but does not have the same emotional connection with his coworkers.  In an early scene, he badgers Little Bill about the lighting for the next day’s shoot, oblivious to how distraught Little Bill is over finding his wife having sex in Jack’s driveway amid a circle of spectators.  After Little Bill walks off, Kurt goes to join the spectators, placing his voyeuristic interests over the wellbeing of his colleague.  The Colonel, who funds Jack’s films, initially comes off as avuncular and powerful, similar to Jack.  However, this changes abruptly in 1980, as the new decade turns the harsh house lights on the party of the 1970s.  He is arrested for child pornography, representing a corruption of Jack’s idealized porn goals.  His pathetic rationalization, “I just want to watch,” is a creepy parallel of the self-conscious performance of Dirk and Amber’s sex scene in the first half of the film.  This revelation is too much for the otherwise warm and indulgent Jack, who turns his back on his old friend.  And then, there is the aforementioned Scotty J.

scotty j gif

Scotty J is the only character who is meant to be read as queer, as his arc in the film is his crush on Dirk.  Scotty enters the film through the side gate of Jack’s house during a pool party as two men carry an overdosing woman out the same way; the side portal into Jack’s world for the aspects of it that are not given much focus.  “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate starts playing as Scotty sighs.  Serving as his point of view, the camera pans across the the conventionally beautiful party-goers who might as well be a different species.  Scotty’s skin is pale, hair is messy, and his clothing ill-fitting; his belly sticks out from under his tank top.  His very posture is gauche; he tends to stand with his head tilted in a manner that suggests an awkward teenager.  Once he zeroes in on Dirk, lounging in a beach chair, he approaches and forces an introduction with awkward small talk (“Nice to meet you.” “Me too.”).  He fawns over Dirk, accompanying him from his dressing room to the set like an acolyte (as he chews on a pen in suggestion of where his mind is).  His hero worship of Dirk contrasts with Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), who treats Dirk as a competitor but is positioned in the film as his right-hand man, where Scotty is merely flitting around in the background.  In a scene of the three men buying matching outfits, Scotty can’t quite button his pants, and looks awkward and out of place next to the other two.  This brief moment in Dirk’s upward career trajectory is a moment of relatable awkwardness and ostracization for many fat viewers who have been part of a social clothes shopping expedition with thinner friends.

The turning point of the film is the 1979 New Years Eve party, the last night of the idyllic 70s before the downturn into the 80s. Scotty transgresses the boundaries of his relationship with Dirk, first by revealing that he’s bought an identical Corvette, and then by trying to kiss him.  Dirk shoves him away, and Scotty automatically apologizes, explaining “You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.”  Scotty wants to know if he can be accepted as the desired object of Dirk’s gaze.  Reflecting the emotional support and sexual open-mindedness shown by the family, Dirk is shocked but tries to be kind to Scotty as he but turns him down and returns to the rest of the party as quickly as he can.  Boogie Nights is full of characters regretting choices that have separated them from their loved ones, but no moment is so visceral, uncomfortable, or intimate than the lingering closeup of Scotty J sitting in his ‘Vette, sobbing his heart out and repeating “I’m a fucking idiot” over and over.

scotty j car

After that turning point in the film, Scotty is swept along with the course of the other characters’ stories, assigned to watching them.  He squirms uncomfortably in the background as Dirk starts his downward spiral of drugs and poor decision making.  When the characters find second chances at the end of the film, he films the birth of Buck and Jessie’s baby.  (During this montage, we also see the Colonel in prison, being abused by his cellmate.)  Scotty is not ejected from his group of friends the way the Colonel is, but after being rejected by Dirk, is not given his own chance at growth or redemption.  True to his personality, Scotty embodies an awkward position in Boogie Nights.  He is a stand-in for the audience.  Like Scotty, we able to gaze all we want at the porn actors who arouse our desire, but we are never able to touch them, to be with them. The feelings they invoke in us are ultimately fantasy.  However, this is where Scotty’s story ends.  The other characters grow and move on to other pursuits, just like we are able to move on to other experiences and aspects of our lives once we are through with our role as audience member, but Scotty remains mired in the role of unfulfilled gazer, an object of our pity (or derision).  This too, is a flirtation with subversion that is ultimately fantasy: Scotty J is a disempowered gazer relative to the object of his gaze (Dirk), but given that he is fat and queer, the film is attempting to change the power relationship using someone who is already marginalized.

“I can’t wait for people to see you, really see you:” Mad Men Season 5 (2012)

At the beginning of September, I saw Queen of Earth in theaters.  “Elisabeth Moss is such an incredible actress,” I thought to myself.  “I wish I could see her in more movies.

Or I suppose could finish watching Mad Men.”

I’m abominable at keeping up with series.  Mad Men is one of my all-time favorite television shows, but I had stopped watching at the end of season 5.  It’s been taunting me every time I get on Netflix, I want to watch it through the end myself instead of hearing spoilers for season 7, and, like I said, Elisabeth Moss.  Anyway, thereby hangs the tale of how I’ve been spending my viewing time this month.  I started with “Out of Town” (season 3, episode 1) to refresh my memory, and, as of writing this post, I’ve seen up through “Time Zones” (season 7, episode 1).  

It goes without saying, but one of the core themes of Mad Men is exploring the social change the US went through in the Sixties.  Its setting is a perfect lens for this conflict; not only is it largely set in the cultural vanguard of New York City, but it focuses on advertising, a profession helmed by the old guard who are tasked with staying current, producing media that is, at its self-professed best, orthodoxy in revolution’s clothing.  Consider Roger Sterling (John Slattery), an old-school mentality in a space-age office, a man who experiments with LSD and hallucinates being at the 1919 World Series.   

Most of the main characters are very privileged, but because of this ubiquitous dynamic, the lack of diversity often presents opportunities to comment on itself.  It can reveal how out of touch they are, such as Freddy Rumsen’s (Joel Murray) myopic opinions of women, or Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) petty complaints that today would come with #FirstWorldProblems attached.  We see the limits that the characters who are of marginalized identities face in ways that effectively circumvent devices such as on-the-nose dramatic speeches, such as Don’s (Jon Hamm) unwillingness to believe that Sal (Bryan Batt) as a gay man could be the target of unwanted sexual advances, or an accounts wunderkind whose career is declared over after a disabling accident that would not prevent him from carrying out his essential job functions.  Characters who face discrimination, even in smaller roles, are usually treated with empathy and given dimensions beyond the politics they symbolize.  We are privy to glimpses into Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) personal lives, and we are spared no discomfort when characters we’ve known since the first episode mistreat them.  

mad men herb

Given this tendency of Mad Men to open its characters and story up to historical meta-commentary, the way in which fat people are present on the show is somewhat disappointing.  Most of the fat characters on the show are small roles, but embody stereotypes about fat people.  Many of these roles are steeped in class, big-bodied folk tending to be Don’s plodding clients from less glamorous cities and industries, or blue collar bit roles.  The larger roles tend to be people who embody stereotypical fat character traits.  The most glaring example is Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), who shows up in season 5 when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is courting the Jaguar account.  New Jersey and nouveau-riche, Herb is a vulgar contrast to the posh, British Jaguar bigwigs.  He shamelessly uses his company’s account as leverage to get Joan (Christina Hendricks) to have sex with him.  Usually, sex scenes on Mad Men are preceded by wordless, implicit seduction, or pithy statements of desire.  The line Herb uses on Joan?  “Lemme see ’em.”  The pathos of the affront to Joan’s dignity and exploitation of her sexuality is heightened by the disgust implicated in her having sex with a fat man.  Frustrated with Herb’s bossiness and unable to move past the idea that Joan exchanged sex with him for business, Don impulsively drops Jaguar.  Breaking the news to the partners, he asks Joan if she doesn’t feel “300 pounds lighter.”  

But you’ve seen the show.  You know that I’m writing this article to talk about the fifth season story arc of one Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Hofstadt Francis (January Jones), shorthanded on the Internet as “Fat Betty.”  Having divorced Don, married Henry, and moved her family into a mansion over the last two seasons, the next chapter in Betty’s adventure is noticeable weight gain, attributed to her boring life as a housewife.  (On a practical level, the writers were working around January Jones’ pregnancy.)  Having been a sophisticated, graceful presence for the past four seasons, we now have a Betty who sits on the couch with her hand in a box of Bugles like a common schlub.  “Tea Leaves,” the episode where we see her physical change for the first time, is treated as spectacle.  Betty is shown getting out of the tub as if to prove to the audience that yes, she really has gotten fat.

mad men bath

And really, the change isn’t that dramatic.  Her body doesn’t seem to be that much larger than Joan’s, who is not read as fat.  

mad men joan

The drama merely comes from the fact that her formerly slim body has become larger than it is supposed to be.

Broadly speaking (ha), this was a time when the mainstream American beauty ideal was not as extremely focused on thinness as today, but it was also a time when the expectation of women to adhere to a set of aesthetic norms was not met with resistance.  The women of Mad Men are all significantly impacted by their looks.  A fourth season focus group for Pond’s cold cream where the secretaries discuss their beauty routines quickly turns into a somber discussion of their fears of being alone and ignored because they aren’t beautiful enough.  The sentiment resonates throughout the show, particularly with Betty. She has done well, based on what she’s expected to as a middle class woman, largely in thanks to her charm and beauty.  Her life, however, is also the most empty. She finds little joy in being a wife or a mother.  Betty in a nutshell is best illustrated in season 3 episode “The Fog.”  Under anesthesia during Baby Gene’s birth, she has a dream in which her recently departed father tells her, “You are a house cat.  You are very important and have very little to do.”  Nothing and nobody in her life inspires her to try and be anything outside of a beautiful wife and mother.  (Considering how often characters read popular books of the day, I’m a little surprised we don’t see her thumbing through The Feminine Mystique.)  When she gains weight, she is pressured to restore the image she maintained as Don’s wife.  Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) tells Betty to ask her doctor for diet pills, since she is still of an age where her looks need to be pleasing to men.  Ironically, Henry doesn’t care about her weight gain:  “I don’t know how many ways to say it, but I don’t see it.”  “I know,” Betty snaps back, “Your mother’s obese.”  In her mind, it isn’t possible that Henry genuinely finds her beautiful; his view has been distorted by his fat, overbearing mother.

Betty’s story arc largely overlaps with her experience of dis-ease.  Her doctor, giving her an exam before prescribing diet pills, finds a lump on her thyroid.  She worries that she is dying, especially after a chance meeting with a friend in an advanced stage of cancer.  However, once she is told that the tumor is benign, the immediately describes herself as “just fat.”  Her fatness is attributed by the show to mental dis-ease.  In order to “reduce,” she goes to Weight Watchers meetings, which function as a support group with discussions about healthy ways to deal with troubling emotions and stressful situations (assuming that the participants are the weight they are due to over-use of food as a coping mechanism). 

As I’ve previously discussed, fat film characters aren’t determined by specific physical measurements, but rather by their bodies in relation to the bodies (and attached expectations) of the other characters.  Her own husband claims not to see a difference, or at least doesn’t care.  However, Betty is fat because of who she’s being compared to.  Not only is she fat compared to what her body looked like in the past (she was a model when she met Don) and what Mad Men’s audience expects to see, but she is fat compared to Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré).  Betty’s first appearance in season 5, “Tea Leaves,” is of her struggling to squeeze her larger body into a dress, then declining to go to the event she was preparing for because of her inability to close the zipper.  Her larger body is a shocking spectacle, as we have grown accustomed to a specific image of Betty.  This sequence is immediately followed by slender Megan in her underwear– no shapewear for her!– effortlessly slipping into her own dress on the way to a client dinner with Don.  In a later episode, “Dark Shadows,” Betty glimpses Megan’s body, thin like hers once was, in a state of undress.  Their following exchange immediately has an acidic edge to it; cut to Betty going to the fridge as soon as she gets home and spraying Reddi-Whip into her mouth before thinking better of it and spitting it into the sink, standing alone in her dark kitchen.  As with the dresses, this crass image of Betty stands in contrast to an idealized one of Megan:  in the previous episode “Lady Lazarus,” Megan performs as a chipper housewife for a Cool Whip commercial pitch that charms everyone except Peggy.

At first, Betty’s spite may come across as baseless.  Betty chose to end her and Don’s marriage after she had already fallen in love with Henry, with whom she is much happier.  Despite Don’s numerous infidelities during their marriage, he didn’t get involved with Megan until after they had divorced and Betty remarried.  It’s not like she’s still in love with her ex-husband, for and about whom she barely has a civil word.  But still Betty treats Megan with a petty acrimony that is similar to the relationship Don has with employees of rival firms.  The sense of competition Betty feels between herself and Megan has less to do with Don than it does with how she sees herself.  Her weight gain means that she’s failed as a woman and wife– as Pauline tells her, one of her essential functions is being attractive, which is impossible above a certain weight (Henry’s opinion notwithstanding).  Thus Betty’s reactions to Megan focus on subverting her legitimacy as a woman and wife.  After seeing Megan’s slim body, Betty finds a note from Don praising his current wife’s loveliness on the back of one of Bobby’s drawings.  (The drawing of a harpooned whale would be an accurate illustrations of how Betty feels about herself.)  Her jealousy leads her to reveal to Sally that Don had been married to someone else before he and Betty had met, and encourages her to ask Megan about the details.  The suggestion associating Megan with Don’s deceit leads the volatile teenager to call her stepmother a “phony.”  Unable to change her negative perception of herself, or the pathetic cultural trope of “sad, fat housewife” she’s found herself in, Betty lashes out at Megan, someone vulnerable to the same pain she is experiencing.

mad men betty note

Betty is also seen relative to Pauline, her mother-in-law.  Betty describes her as “obese,” assuming that Henry is unable to be disgusted by her weight gain because his mother has wrongly desensitized him.  As a younger, childless woman and new bride, Megan’s position in life is Betty’s past, unable to be regained.  Pauline, a grandmother with grown children, is her future.  But it seems a bleak one; not only is Pauline fat, but she gets her way by being bossy and unpleasant.  She takes care of the children when Betty and Henry are away, and somehow manages to be a worse influence on Sally than Betty, speaking with fondness of her emotionally abusive father and telling her young granddaughter the details of the Richard Speck murders in a manner that ghoulishly verges on fetishistic.  Betty is caught between Megan and Pauline, unable to retain her equivalence to the former and terrified of becoming the latter.

Ultimately, Betty is not a fat character.  Fatness is a phase for her, an expression of her internal struggle that fades as we move into season 6.  The cause of her weight loss, we are led to assume, is due to adherence to Weight Watchers, but also comes with a return to her roles as wife and mother.  In the second to last episode of season 5, “Commissions and Fees,” Sally is visiting Megan and Don in the city, but gets her first period.  Scared, she takes a taxi back to Rye to be with Betty, who feels validated by being relied on for comfort and wisdom.  As Betty smugly tells Megan on the phone, “she just needed her mother.”  In season 6, Henry tells Betty that he has decided to run for office, and that he can’t wait for people to “really see [her]”.  Whether due to the pressure of being highly visible or finding fulfillment in a role she enjoyed enacting when married to Don, by “The Better Half,” the eighth episode of the season, Betty is once more the slender blonde we’ve come to know and have ambivalent feelings towards.  The episode hammers home that her attractiveness has been restored.  We initially see her in a gown at a political fundraiser, being propositioned by a strange man.  Confessing this to Henry on the drive home leads to the couple making out.  Later in the episode, Don ogles a beautiful woman at a gas station.  The camera pans up a pair of bare legs to reveal they belong to Betty.  Appropriate to its protagonist, Mad Men has a brief liaison with exploring how complex, relatable characters are affected by fat stigma, but ultimately can’t commit.

“Straighten, Tighten:” Intersections of Fatness and Queerness in The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)

When I woke up on a Friday morning a few weeks ago to Twitter blowing up about SCOTUS declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, I was happy that my home country was finally moving away from a gender-discriminatory policy.  Not deliriously happy, mind you.  I feel some kinda way about the political energy and focus poured into marriage equality.  But I do have a sentimental side, and I see how much joy getting married has brought to the people in my life who decided to take the plunge.  (This post isn’t more timely because I traveled halfway across the country to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends.)  I had a solo mini-celebration for marriage equality that evening with The Birdcage, which I was fond of in high school and had been meaning to revisit.  I remembered the excellent comic performances; it’s enjoyable enough to take the film at face value.  What surprised me was how deeply I empathized with the character at the epicenter of the film’s tumultuous humor, Albert (Nathan Lane).

The opening scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) and their houseman Agador (Hank Azaria) cajole a hysterical Albert into rallying herself* for a drag performance ushers the audience into a first impression of her that is intertwined with her self-image. She describes herself as “fat and hideous”– a declaration Armand, her director and significant other, knows so well that he mouths the words along with her– and says that she’s “gained and lost over 100 pounds in the past year” in an effort to be thin and beautiful enough to maintain her star status and his love.  Although not an extremely large person, she does have a stocky body, where the other performers at the Birdcage (and many of the thong-clad extras in scenes of the public milieu of South Beach) are slender and muscular.

the birdcage, nathan lane, albert

Albert’s sensitivity and flamboyant nature are frequent sources of humor.  Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) react to Albert’s outbursts with a certain level of weariness that suggests a routine scenario for their family.  But even though she is an outlandish character in a farce, her anxieties come from a very real place.  The nonplussed reactions she receives from strangers, plus Val’s unwillingness to introduce her to his conservative future in-laws speak to her outsider status in the vast majority of the world.  Despite being a headliner who plays to sold-out houses and is more than willing to self-advocate, she lacks necessary social capital to navigate on her own outside her South Beach bubble.  In a subplot, she wants Armand to sign a palimony agreement so that she will be provided for in case their relationship ends.  Although talented, there is no denying that she is older and fatter than the other performers; who’s to say what her career would look like without Armand and the Birdcage?

The Goldmans’ underlying family tensions are exacerbated when Val declares his intention to marry Barbara (Callista Flockheart), the daughter of staunch conservative Senator Kevin Keely (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), who is Barbara Bush by way of Lady Macbeth.  Hit with scandal when Kevin’s “common redneck” colleague dies in bed with an underage black prostitute, Louise suggests using the wedding as a distraction technique to symbolize a return to family values.  Convinced that the Keelys will never connect themselves to a gay, Jewish** family, Val asks Armand to pretend he’s the father of the heterosexual “Coleman” family.  Val initially asks that Albert not be present for the Keelys’ dinner, but Armand insists they compromise and pretend that his companion is heterosexual Uncle Al.  Although the Goldmans want their son to be happy, there is ultimately no sugarcoating that Armand is willing to side with Val and pretend Albert isn’t part of their family unit so that Val can access a social institution the two of them can’t by ingratiating himself to a politician who thinks they’re destroying America.  Her reactions, oversized in most situations, are appropriate in this case. When she refers to herself as “the monster, the freak,” neither Armand nor Val deny that she is characterized thus by their plans to hide her.

For the Goldmans, achieving normalcy is largely about restraining (“straighten, tighten”).  Not only is Val the beneficiary of the charade, he is the main orchestrator, the ambassador of straightness in a queer enclave.  He is a man of few words, forever tolerantly waiting for the exuberance around him to die down.  “Don’t add, just subtract,” he repeatedly advises the Birdcage staff, who help transform the Goldmans’ colorful home into a “monastery.”  The subtraction includes wanting to present Katherine (Christine Baranski), Val’s biological mother, as Armand’s wife.  Albert can barely hide her discomfort around reserved, athletic Katherine, who owns and operates a successful gym.

the birdcage, nathan lane

Although Armand is more masculine and paternal than Albert, Val asks him to tone down his stereotypically gay mannerisms (eg. how he walks, talks, and gestures).  Armand, in turn, coaches Albert to restrain herself, emotionally and physically, in order to play is straight.  “Look at your pinky!  Look at your posture!”  He tells her to hold her unruly body more firmly and tone down her emotional responses.  Dismissing small setbacks (e.g. breaking a piece of toast) seems like a revelation to her:  “Of course!  There’s no need to get hysterical.  All I have to remember is I can always get more toast.”  But the couples’ desire to help their child achieve the life he wants comes at the expense of their own.  Right before the Keelys’ arrival, the family gathers in the master bedroom, their vivacity stripped away in the pursuit of heteronormativity.  Armand remarks that he looks like his grandfather, who “killed himself when he was 30.”  Their clothing and demeanors suggest a funeral, Albert the most uncomfortable of all.

The performance of straightness that the Goldmans put on is a wickedly funny inversion of the colorful, campy drag show that is their profession.  Agador calls himself “Spartacus” and lowers his voice by an octave or two, Armand is so stiff that Val feels the need to fabricate a football injury for his father, and Albert presents herself as an old-fashioned housewife from Smalltown, USA whose ludicrously conservative political views terrify her family, but manage to charm Kevin.  Appropriately, the Keelys themselves are practically drag versions of straight conservatives, wearing clothing so drab as to practically be Orwellian and barely hiding their elitist, repressive viewpoints under jes’ folks rhetoric.  One of my favorite moments in the film is after the two families first meet, when Kevin responds to a polite question about his trip to South Beach with a soporific monologue that spins out into a patriotic travelogue gone wrong.  Of course, they too look at the dinner party as a path to social legitimacy (or, as Louise puts it, “salvation”) that will hide their own connection to deviance.  The Keelys too have a fat skeleton in their closet, as Lousie tries to prevent Kevin from stress-bingeing on candy, and they are stalked by a tabloid journalist (Tom McGowan) who’s “put on so much weight since the Simpson trial.”

As a fat, gender nonconforming person, I deeply felt Albert’s need to be loved and, when people do express love for her, the fragility of her trust.  It’s rough living in an environment where people like you are constantly positioned as inherently unworthy of respect.  Even in the safety of home, family, and community, it is impossible to completely forget the hostility of the outside world, or how easy it is for that hostility to be present in a loved one.  As Albert says, fed up with the emotional burden of being a source of shame for Val, “…everyone laughs at me.  I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am.”  She says this as she is leaving for the cemetery, dramatically communicating that she feels she is dead to her family.  The scene is not completely serious, as her tone and gestures mimic a diva in a classic melodrama, but it does reflect the real emotional fallout that many LGBTQ people have experienced due to being rejected by their families, including suicide in some instances.

This isn’t the first film I’ve seen with parallels between fatness and queerness, even if fatness is a less explicit factor in The Birdcage than In & Out.  They are barriers to achieving a goal (in both cases, a wedding that will provide social legitimacy).  Albert’s size doesn’t threaten Val and Barbara’s engagement, but she does worry that Armand isn’t attracted to her any longer and doesn’t want to make their partnership legally binding.  Albert’s body, specifically her emotions and mannerisms, is seen as excessive to the point of threatening the family’s social legitimacy.  Her queerness is irrepressible, and the men of the family take it upon themselves to orchestrate a solution.  However, once her influence is removed from the family, Val and Armand alone are not enough to win Kevin and Louise’s trust.  It is only through relying on her “threatening” inclinations to be feminine and maternal (Armand describes her as “practically a breast”), and her skill as a drag queen, that Albert can pass as Mother Coleman.  Once seen as a heterosexual, female mother, she becomes a legitimate (and favored) member of the family in the eyes of Kevin, who is the apex of power in the film, both in terms of social capital and allowing Val to marry Barbara.  The facade of normativity cannot be maintained for long, but the temporary diversion from her outcast status is enough for Albert to sustain the dinner party longer than Val or Armand could on their own.  Her drag skills come in handy again to prevent the Keelys from being spotted by the press, ending the film with a power reversal where the heterosexual elite are sheepishly reliant on the queers for a different kind of salvation than Louise originally anticipated.

Albert and Armand’s happy ending isn’t just because they get to be themselves, but because they triumph due to how their lives have been shaped by being marginalized.  It’s not an explicit score for the fat kids, like Hairspray, but it does find power in qualities that get combined with fatness: femininity, sensitivity, and excess.

*Albert identifies as a gay man and is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns.  There are several points in the movie where Albert shows a preference for feminine pronouns, thus my use of she/her/hers in this article.  Apologies if this is confusing.

** Sander Gilman’s Fat Boys: a Slim Book includes an interesting history of the conflation of Jews and fatness in the historical Gentile imagination.  Suffice it to say that there are stereotypical characteristics common to Jewishness, fatness, and effeminacy, such as a lack of athleticism and a penchant for heavy foods (“When the schnecken beckons!”).

Link: Director’s Club Podcast Bonus Episode: Cape Fear & Shutter Island

Director’s Club Podcast is going on hiatus, but not before putting out a series of bonus episodes over the next few months.  The topics are requests from listeners who donated $50 or more to the production of Most Likely by Bang! Films, an independent romantic comedy featuring the acting talents of my bff Jess Conger.  (You can’t fight synergy, Lemon.  It’s bigger than us all.)

I was a guest commentator on the first of this series of bonus episodes, in which Patrick and I talk about Martin Scorcese’s divisive thrillers Cape Fear (1991) and Shutter Island (2010).

Listen to the episode here, or download it from the iTunes store.