Romantic love is a fraught topic for this blog. It’s an incredibly common motivation in film, but one that fat characters are so often disconnected from. Frequently, they are assumed to be undesirable, unlucky in love (whether unable to attract a mate or part of an unhappy couple), non-sexual, or grotesquely hypersexualized. Not including this post, I’ve written about fat characters in 112 movies that I’ve watched since starting this blog in June 2014. Here’s the breakdown of romantic relationships including fat people that start during and last through the ends of those films, by size and gender (both of which are, of course, rigid binaries):
Although not a large or representative sampling of film as a whole, fat romance is present in a little over 10%. In addition, notice the most frequent pairing: when fat characters have storylines where they and another character fall in love, it’s commonly a fat man paired with a thin woman, who is commonly conventionally attractive.
I wanted to look at this trope, but was struggling to pick a title or two. I have the excellent fortune to have a partner who works at a brick-and-mortar video store, and thus access to thousands of titles. I called him at work.
“Do you have Only the Lonely?” “No.” “Do you have King Ralph?” “No.”
Apparently, my fortune has its limits when crossing paths with my thing for 90s rom coms. I explained to Patrick that I was looking for a movie in which a fat man and a thin, conventionally attractive woman fall in love, and are still together at the end of the film. I had called during a slow night; when I arrived at the store an hour later, this pile was waiting for me:
And he had only gone through the comedy section and pulled films based on his personal knowledge of the plots.
It’s not like this phenomenon is shrouded in mystery. In a culture where most filmmakers are straight men, and art has traditionally catered to the straight male gaze, there is more leeway for a male character to be a relatable Joe Six Pack (or lack thereof) and less for a female character to deviate from widely accepted beauty standards. On top of this, most widely-distributed films get made with box office numbers in mind. The result: something “refreshing” or “progressive” usually takes a baby step or two away from convention, fearful of alienating audiences (and operating under the assumption that the audience isn’t already alienated). However, because the change in convention is so often discrete, it’s easier to isolate and inspect what it means to have fatness as an element in an otherwise normative film romance. Does fatness have an effect on how love and desire are portrayed? Gender? Does having a fat lover reify the expectation that a female character conform to beauty standards, or does it provide opportunity to subvert those expectations? Is there a film out there that meets the aforementioned criteria and includes people of color besides The Nutty Professor?
Since this dynamic crops up time and time again in the pool of films that are appropriate topics for CPBS, I intend to take a closer look at it through a series of articles. Do you remember last year, when I said I was going to do a series of articles about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career and then I didn’t? This will be kind of like that, except this time, it will actually exist. I’m starting with two films that I have easy access to: Superbad and Knocked Up.
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).
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.
I’ve written previously on CPBS about trying to pin down the parameters of fatness. My approach to selecting films and characters to write about is to see fat (and, implicitly, average/thin) as a contextual label that tacitly includes socially ascribed values, un/acceptability almost always being one of them. This open definition has room for a range of body sizes and shapes, and thereby, a range of challenges. Most characters, by virtue of being in widely distributed films, tend to be “Hollywood fat.” The conflict attached to their size of their bodies is the inability to be accepted into systems that are usually criticized for being shallow and elitist. Often the impact of their fatness on their character arc stays on that level. Muriel Heslop may be ostracized by her peers for being fat, but she is able to walk into literally every bridal boutique in Sydney and try on dresses that they have in stock.
It goes without saying that being demeaned based on narrow standards of physical acceptability is a real, common, and painful phenomenon, but leaving the fat person’s experience in the realm of “The jerks don’t think they’re beautiful but then they have some transformative life experiences and learn that they really are” is a vast oversimplification. I believe that challenging viewers to empathize with people and situations they had prejudged or overlooked is one of the most powerful effects that cinema can have, and fat characters are usually in a relatively comfortable place for most viewers– which is why What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an essential addition to this blog. Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), aka Momma, is a fat woman whose weight and size impede her mobility; the impact this has on her children is a significant part of the plot. She isn’t treated as a joke or a horror story.
Although the previous sentence isn’t something that can often be said of people of Darlene Cates’ size when they appear on a screen, make no mistake: the film doesn’t idealize or center Momma. As with many marginalized and supporting characters, Momma functions as a symbol. Similar to Misery’s Annie Wilkes, Momma can be equated with domestic stagnation. She was “the prettiest girl around these parts” (the evidence of which is a photo of a younger, slender Momma on the family fridge) until her husband’s suicide. Her weight is attributed to her prolonged bereavement, ensuring that she is “wedged” in the house that he built for his family. “We don’t really move. I mean we’d like to, but my mom is sort of attached to the house,” Gilbert (Johnny Depp) explains to manic pixie dream girl Becky (Juliette Lewis) with a wry half-smile, referring both to Momma’s limited mobility and her emotional constraints on leaving the house. He continues describing his mother to Becky in terms that refer to both her size and her inability to move forward with her life: “Did you ever see a beached whale on television? …that’s her. That’s my mom.” Hardly a compassionate description. Compare her to Arnie (Leonardo diCaprio). Gilbert is also responsible for his brother’s well-being, but highly mobile Arnie isn’t a barrier to Gilbert’s wanderlust, and is able to travel off into the sunset alongside him.
Momma comforts Arnie after one of his multiple attempts to climb the town’s water tower.
Momma’s stagnation also seems to affect her younger son in particular. She cradles Arnie when he’s upset and refers to him with pet names like “my sunshine.” Her infantilizing treatment of him contrasts with his impending 18th birthday, as well as the stress that Arnie’s siblings go through trying to rein in his childlike antics (such as climbing the town’s water tower), occasionally exploding in frustrated violence. The film takes place roughly over the course of a week, during which time Arnie’s nose is bloodied both by his brother and younger sister.
The house itself, symbolic of the Grape family and their baggage, is not in good condition. Gilbert’s handyman friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) observes that it has “a serious foundation problem.” The house’s disrepair is attributed to the strain of bearing Momma’s weight; the few times we see her moving through the house are accompanied by the creaking and groaning of the floorboards under her feet; in one scene, her journey from the bathroom to the couch where she spends most of her time is intercut with shots of Tucker in the basement, observing the floorboards bending and showering dust from the impact of her footsteps. As with other tensions that remain undiscussed, her children keep the house repairs a secret from her, sneaking boards into the basement to secure the floor that shakes under her feet. The image recalls the cartoonish cliche of a fat person’s footsteps causing the ground to shake.
Momma’s inability/unwillingness to leave the house and reliance on her children to care for her tethers Gilbert to the house, stifling his dreams, which in practice comes across as his constant brooding. The town is depicted as sapping Gilbert’s will to live. Arnie’s comments lack a filter but usually skewer a situation’s truth. “You’re getting smaller!” he crows at his brother during the film’s opening scene. “You’re shrinking! Shrinking! Shrinking!” But any dreams Gilbert has beyond getting out of his hometown are nebulous and largely unspoken, which Becky attributes to him always thinking about other people. Despite being a caretaker for both his mother and brother, his selflessness has definite limits. He has an affair with a married woman (Mary Steenburgen), makes insulting comments about his mother to Tucker and Becky, and gets angry and sullen with Becky when she talks about leaving town, even though she is literally travelling through in a camper. If anyone in the family deserves to be characterized as always thinking of others, it’s older sister Amy (Laura Harrington), who is constantly in service of others onscreen, cooking for the family or helping her mother ambulate. Amy’s happy ending is relegated to Gilbert’s narration, where he tells the audience that she gets a job managing a bakery in Des Moines, and that younger sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) is looking forward to “switching schools,” presumably under her sister’s care.
Momma also functions as a source of shame for Gilbert. Their relationship is understandably complicated. She holds him responsible for Arnie’s safety and he often fails her; she can’t move past her husband’s death, which results in additional burdens on Gilbert and his siblings. However, his frustrations with her are ciphered as disgust at her size. Gilbert’s desires, which Becky categorizes as selfless, include wanting Momma “to take aerobics classes,” prioritizing her unacceptable weight over her grief or her social isolation. When Tucker asks Gilbert how Momma is doing, he replies “She’s fat.” His friend defends her by saying, “She’s not the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
Inextricable from Gilbert’s sense of shame is how Momma is treated as a spectacle, an experience not unfamiliar to many people of Momma’s size. Momma was Darlene Cates’ first acting job; she was discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges as a guest on Sally Jesse Raphael, talking about life at her size. During the interview, she said, “I’ve always had this fantasy, this goal, of being able to go to the mall… and sit there, and not have anyone notice me.” Fat characters, especially those who are Momma’s size, are often included in films as spectacle. Whether for eliciting laughter or disgust (often both), they often solely exist for the purpose of the emotional reaction of the audience looking at their bodies. Many of the townspeople making Momma into a spectacle are children, suggesting that the impulse to stare at her is immature. In the beginning of the film, Gilbert is willing to help a neighborhood child peek into the living room window to get a glimpse of her, but doesn’t want to bring Becky home, as is an expected step in their blossoming romance. He wants to stay outside the house, making snide comments to his friends and being safe in the crowd of spectators; being seen inside the house, as part of the family unit containing his unacceptably fat mother, is too much for him.
The Endora community, from Momma’s point of view.
Although Gilbert eventually brings Becky into the house, Momma herself shows more courage than he does. After climbing the town water tower one too many times, the cops put Arnie in jail. Momma responds by leaving the house for the first time in over seven years to get her son. She tells her children to get her coat for her, but ends up going into town with a blanket thrown around her shoulders, a coat able to accommodate her likely being a difficult item to find. She marches into the sheriff’s office, to the surprise of everyone present, and demands Arnie’s release without having to go through any procedures that the sheriff tries to insist are necessary. Momma’ trip back to the car, assisted by Amy, is a gamut of children laughing at her and adults giving disgusted sidelong glances. One man even snaps a photograph. This scene is centrally composed of closeups of Momma and Amy, isolating them in the frame and focusing on their determination to get to the car in a dignified manner. The gawkers are seen in longer shots; we see them in groups, how they outnumber the Grapes, their feelings of disgust nearly overwhelming. The family is uncharacteristically quiet on the drive back home; during dinner, Ellen breaks a pane of glass throwing something at a group of children trying to sneak a peek at Momma. Although the act of going to the town square is objectively small, it is the essence of one of the main reasons Momma doesn’t leave the house: she is made to feel shame for who she is by nearly every passerby. Her lack of hesitation to confront that in order to save Arnie from a scary situation makes the blanket around her shoulders look more like a hero’s cape than an ad hoc coat. In the next scene, Becky tells Gilbert that Momma’s actions were “so brave… you know that, right?” He doesn’t respond, staring at the map of places to where Becky has traveled.
Arnie has his 18th birthday, typically a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence. Perhaps still feeling the shame placed on her by the town from her trip to the sheriff’s office, Momma watches the festivities from a discreet window. She and Gilbert have a heartfelt conversation in which she apologizes to him for being “this way” and he denies being ashamed of her. In a gesture to both atone for the shame he has felt around Momma and to bring Becky more fully into his life, Gilbert asks Momma to allow him to bring Becky inside and meet her. Momma, understandably, is initially resistant, but Gilbert persists: “This is different. Nobody’s gonna laugh. I’m not gonna hurt you any more, Momma.” She relents, and is introduced to Becky, who is young and pretty and slender, who embodies the person Momma was and the person Momma is compelled to measure herself against. Momma’s impulse, literally right after the two of them shake hands, is to apologize for herself: “I haven’t always been like this.” “I haven’t always been like this,” Becky responds, neutralizing the expectation of shame or regret around Momma’s body, normalizing their differences. Momma laughs, the tension in the room dissipates.
After the events of the day, Momma complies with a repeated request Amy makes of her in the beginning of the film and Gilbert’s unexpressed desire: she moves. Without fanfare, she ascends the stairs to a bedroom on the second floor. The scene appears to unfold in real time and focuses both on her children’s reactions and the effort it takes for her to get up the stairs. The soundtrack is largely her heavy breathing and the creaking of the staircase under her feet; her face shines with sweat once she reaches the second floor, and her children have to help her get into bed and rest. Finally at peace in her relationship with Gilbert, she calls him her “knight in shimmering armor… you shimmer and you glow.” Presumably because her body was not able to handle the strain, Momma dies while the family cleans up the remains of Arnie’s party. As is the case with many heroes, Momma sacrifices herself for the sake of her loved ones.
The family’s grief is compounded by a horrifying thought: the police may have to call in extra manpower to remove Momma’s body from the house. Ellen panics: “There’s gonna be a crowd.” “She’s no joke… I’m not going to let her be a joke,” Gilbert vows. Tragically, he finally returns to seeing his mother as someone worthy of dignity only after her personal agency has been eradicated. Instead of trying to ignore or accept the stares of the townspeople, or try to fight against them, the family makes a radical decision to liberate Momma from them altogether. The only way for Momma and her children to be freed from shame is to remove her body from the equation entirely, for her funeral to be the project of her family alone. They remove their belongings from the house and light it on fire, with Momma’s body inside. She is not the only one liberated by this act; freed of the dual constraints of Momma and the house their father built, Gilbert and Arnie are free to ride off into the sunset with Becky and the magical convoy of campers that roll through their town every summer.
Because the film focuses on Gilbert’s personal conflict and growth, Momma’s depiction is mostly limited to her experiences as a fat person, and how her size affects her relationships with her family and her community. Although this is a notable limitation, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is landmark for how it asks the audience to look at the story. While Momma’s relationship with her family is complicated, especially with Gilbert, we are invited to empathize with her, and see the cruelty and negative effects of the judgmental gaze that is so often turned onto people of Momma’s size. Considering that virtually all other pieces of media depicting people like Momma invite the audience to embody that judgmental gaze, the subverted viewpoint of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape makes it essential, despite its flaws. See Also:
No Small Parts episode #8: Darlene Cates A webseries dedicated to the lives and careers of character actors presents a heartfelt tribute to both Momma and Cates, who lives in Texas with her husband of 40+ years. As a self-identified fat actor himself, webseries creator Brandon Hardesty makes a poignant comparison between his own career and Cates’: “If I turned down every role where my weight is used as a one-off joke or a sight gag, I’d probably never work again.”
When we talk about the lack of representation for marginalized groups in media, we often make creating new characters and stories synonymous with meeting the need for greater diversity. This is, undoubtedly, vital to the continuing evolution of art and entertainment in a changing culture that is moving towards a more accurate and inclusive reflection of its audiences. But just as vital is revisiting classic works for new (or, as the case may be, very old) interpretations of who the characters are. Being the default is the nature of privilege, which in US culture looks like being white, male, able-bodied, cisgender, straight, thin, Christian, etc. etc. until proven otherwise. Thus, fictional characters are often presumed to fit in this intersection of identities unless explicitly characterized as other– and are often cast in spite of being characterized as other. So it was a surprise but hardly a shock when I stumbled across an article at Slate suggesting that Shakespeare could have written Hamlet with the intention he be played by a fat actor. In every representation I could think of, Hamlet has been played by a relatively thin actor. The photos of Hamlets in the article start with the angular Benedict Cumberbatch, and don’t include the film versions starring Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh, or Mel Gibson. The article does, however, make an interesting argument based in the text for Hamlet to be fat and ends with an interpretation the kind of which I try to get at in my writing here on CPBS. Check it out.
Acceptability is a theme that comes up time and time again as I overthink the films I see. Achieving and maintaining acceptability is often essential to navigating the social sphere, yet also so fraught with paradoxical traps and narrowly-struck balances, it might as well be obtained by switching it with a bag of sand from a booby-trapped pedestal. Consider marriage. Weddings are often part of a happy ending, the culmination of a character arc about a couple who meet or whose relationship deepens due to the events of the movie. We expect the romantic love that our overwhelmingly heterosexual casts of characters experience to lead to marriage, just as we expect marriage to be a milestone in every person’s life. But be warned: despite the expectation to get married being a given, the desire to get married– especially if it’s a general goal– is a hallmark of the immature and the unstable (and usually female characters, what a coincidence). If you don’t get married by a certain age (especially you, ladies), you’re weird. But just, you know, be cool about it.
Muriel’s Wedding features a fat protagonist who is caught up in this paradox. The titular role was a breakout performance for Toni Collette, and it is often noted that she gained 40 pounds for the part. Muriel Heslop lives with her family in a small Australian tourist town full of small-minded people. She talks repeatedly about being a success, being someone, which is synonymous with her getting married. Carrying out traditionally feminine roles, especially marriage, is a major focus of the women in her life. The opening scene is frenemy Tania’s (Sophie Lee) wedding reception, as the tossed bridal bouquet plummets like a missile in slow motion from a cloudless sky, an image that repeats to break the film into three chapters (the first titled “The Bouquet”). When Muriel catches it from among a gaggle of single women, the others act as though catching the bride’s bouquet is tantamount to a law, instead of a superstitious ritual. Her friends tell her that she’s being “selfish” for catching it. “What’s the use of you having it, Muriel?,” her “friend” Janine (Belinda Jarrett) asks, “You’re never going to get married. You’ve never even had a boyfriend.” Even after Tania finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, she insists that she loves him, and as a bride, she’s “supposed to be euphoric.” Muriel’s friends decide to accompany Tania on her honeymoon trip and dump Muriel because she doesn’t fit their “mad” party image, explaining that she doesn’t wear the right clothing, listen to the right music, and– of course– is fat.
Muriel’s parents, Bill (Bill Hunter) and Betty (Jeanie Drynan), also fat characters, are the only married couple in the film. Betty especially is absorbed in her role as wife and mother. A quiet, absent-minded woman, she is obedient to her husband to the point of repeating him word for word when he tells her to do something and actively ignoring his poorly-concealed affair with thinner, glamorous cosmetics salesperson Deirdre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson). Bill is a city councilman who is obsessed with his image as a powerful man with powerful connections, constantly frustrated by his unemployed, “useless” children, whom he complains about and berates in front of his business associates.
Despite her flawed home life, Muriel longs to get married, which she equates with success and making something of herself. She lives in a dreamworld, covering her bedroom wall with photos of brides, listening obsessively to ABBA, and compulsively lying and shoplifting. In the context of her friends and family, however, the audience is apt to show more compassion for her idealistic escapism. Not until Muriel reconnects with her former classmate Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths) does she have an alternative to longing for a wedding day. Rhonda is a vivacious, chain-smoking troublemaker. “Stick with me because I’m wicked too,” she tells Muriel, assuming that her new-found friend is stepping out on a nonexistent fiancee. Rhonda admires Muriel for coming out of her shell and cheerfully informs Tania that her husband is sleeping with Nicole (Pippa Grandison), one of her sycophants. Rhonda and Muriel cement their bond through a lipsynced performance of “Waterloo” at a talent show, while Tania and Nicole brawl in the audience. Unwilling to return home and face her dad, from whom she’s stolen thousands of dollars, Muriel runs away to Sydney to live with Rhonda.
The repeated image of the bridal bouquet heralds in the second act, entitled “Sydney: City of Brides.” Formerly preoccupied with the fantasy of becoming someone else, Muriel makes it happen in Sydney. She changes her name to Mariel (“marry-el”). She gets a job at a video store, where she obsessively watches a tape of Diana and Charles’ royal wedding. She changes her look, forgoing a wavy ponytail and leopard print in an attempt to look like Tania for a straightened bob and leather pants, more akin to Rhonda’s style. When Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer, Mariel takes care of her. When Rhonda protests that she’s a burden, Mariel explains what their friendship has meant to her:
“When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I’d just stay in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. Sometimes I’d stay in there all day. But since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one ABBA song. It’s because now my life’s as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”
Mariel’s life with Rhonda fulfills the emotional needs previously met by listening to ABBA. Instead of music that prioritizes the harmonizing of two female voices, Muriel has a life centered around her friendship with another woman, where she has the power to reinvent herself. Although Mariel’s family still insists on calling her Muriel, Rhonda honors her friend’s new name without hesitation. Despite the external changes, though, Mariel is still connected to her past as Muriel Heslop of Porpoise Spit. Her family feels the repercussions of her stealing, and her father is brought up on charges of accepting bribes, which he claims he was forced to do after Muriel cleaned out his bank account. Also, she still longs to be a bride, and makes a hobby out of trying on wedding gowns at every boutique in Sydney. She sees marriage as the ultimate step in her transformation, being able to leave behind the perception the folks back home have of her once and for all:
“If I can get married it means I’ve changed, I’m a new person… Because who would want to marry me… I’m not her anymore, I’m me… Muriel Heslop! Stupid, fat, and useless! I hate her! I’m not going back to being her again.”
This obsession drives a wedge between her and Rhonda. The two women face their individual situations in very different ways. Rhonda is transformed involuntarily, as a life-saving surgery takes her ability to walk. She survives by clinging to who she knows herself to be, continuing to smoke, wear combat boots, and tell people off when they condescend to her for being in a wheelchair. Mariel runs from her loneliness and painful past through self-transformation and lies. Her quest for a husband further separates her from Rhonda. She meets David Van Arckle (Daniel Lapaine), a South African swimmer who is looking for a marriage of convenience so he can compete in the Olympics on the Australian team. Mariel leaves her friend without help and unable to pay the rent, giving Rhonda no choice but to move back to Porpoise Spit with her mother.
The third act is entitled “Mariel’s Wedding:” at first glance a culmination of the story, but slightly off in some significant ways. Tania and the other girls from Porpoise Spit are her bridesmaids, while a neglected Rhonda sits off to the side. A giddy Mariel marches down the aisle to “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do,” apparently needing ABBA in her life again. The congregants don’t look happy for her, but rather stare at her as if she is a spectacle. Her groom is reluctant and stunned. Although Bill walks her down the aisle, Betty is not present, arriving late and sitting in the back. Deirdre takes her place as mother of the bride and Mariel marches past her without acknowledging her. On their wedding night, David asks Mariel what kind of person would marry someone they don’t even know. When she points out that he has done the same thing, he insists defensively, “I want to win. All my life, I’ve wanted to win.” “Me too,” she responds. Mariel has achieved her goal, her transformation is supposedly complete, but Rhonda confronts her after the ceremony and tries to give her friend a reality check: “Mariel Van Arckle stinks. She’s not half the person Muriel Heslop was.”
The mother of the bride, at the back of the church.
Mariel seems content to sit in her living room and watch her wedding video over and over, but the fantasy ends with the news of her mother’s death. After accidentally shoplifting a pair of sandals and needing Bill to bail her out (he tells the cops that she’s “not quite right”), he decides to leave her for Deirdre once and for all, making her feel as useless as he tells his children they are: “They say I wasn’t elected to the state government that time because my family wasn’t up to scratch… I never had a bloody chance.” Even in her death, Bill tries to force Betty into the role of diffident mother. Deirdre makes an off-key attempt at comforting Mariel by telling her that Betty’s death was a “sacrifice” that will convince the judge to go easy on Bill at his trial. “She’ll be glad in the end her life amounted to something,” she says, before making passive-aggressive digs at Betty’s housekeeping skills. Joanie (Gabby Millgate), Muriel’s fat sister who has largely spent the film smirking at her older sister, tearfully reveals that Betty committed suicide, but that Bill got rid of the pills she used to cover it up. However, Betty’s anger and hurt can’t be totally erased: Muriel’s little brother tells her that their mother set the backyard on fire because their brother wouldn’t mow it.
The breaking point for Mariel is Betty’s funeral, where Bill is preoccupied with his ability to get a faxed message of condolence from a former prime minister, and Betty’s eulogy states that Mariel’s wedding was the happiest day of her life. Mariel runs out of the church, where David is waiting for her. She breaks up with him, finally accepting that their marriage is a lie and can’t continue: “I tell so many lies, one day I won’t know I’m doing it.” (Of course, she does this after they sleep together.) She also restores use of the name she was given at birth.
Not that you can blame her.
In breaking up with David, Muriel embarks on a new, honest chapter in her life, but also leaves behind the world that her father, and by extension the rest of Porpoise Spit, in which success means building an attractive, happy personal image, at the expense of relationships with others. Bill is relentless in talking about himself as an influential man, the savior of Porpoise Spit who brings in resorts and high rises, the father who dumps his devoted wife for a glitzy businesswoman uninterested in caring for his children. Tania is hellbent on riding the wave of high school popularity as long as she can, maintaining her beautiful party girl image and forcing herself to be happy in her marriage, even though neither her nor her husband have much stake in commitment (“But Rose Biggs sucked your husband’s cock!” “I know. I sucked her husband’s cock, and it made me realize, we all make mistakes.”) Even the town of Porpoise Spit is built on tourism, relying on an image of happiness and fun in order to survive. Her entire world is founded in deception, but only Muriel seems to be characterized as a liar and cheat, excessive fat girl Muriel who is arrested for shoplifting during her friend’s wedding and dumped by her so-called friends for her inability to cultivate a specific image as successfully as they. It’s telling that Muriel doesn’t lose any weight over the events of the film; her look changes, but becomes more low key and is not remarked on. The film shows her becoming a more authentic, honest person, something that doesn’t require weight loss or a makeover.
Throughout the movie, Rhonda is the only one interested in rooting for Muriel as she really is. She actively chooses to befriend dorky Muriel over Tania and her friends, she inspires Muriel to leave Porpoise Spit. She even overlooks Muriel’s lies about being engaged, and is only angry when Muriel abandons her in her time of need. Rhonda’s friendship is the natural source of redemption for Muriel. Muriel breaks up with her family, giving her dad a portion of the money she stole from him and telling him that he has to take responsibility for her siblings “and tell them they’re not useless.” Free of Bill’s influence, Muriel then rescues Rhonda, who is living with her overbearing mother and tortured by social calls from Tania and company. Rhonda forgives Muriel, calls Tania and her friends a bunch of cocksuckers, and immediately leaves for Sydney with her friend. Outraged (despite having copped to sucking someone’s cock a minute earlier), Tania chases them to the taxi, screaming defensively, “Who do you think you are to call me [a cocksucker]? I’m married! I’m beautiful!” Neither Muriel (for whom Tania feels contempt) nor Rhonda (for whom Tania feels pity) are “on her level,” so it’s unthinkable that they should have the last word.
Even though Muriel and Rhonda don’t have a romantic relationship, their love for each other is as redemptive and optimistic a happy ending as one would expect to find in a typical romantic comedy. Riding to the airport together, the two friends leave behind them a suffocating community and reliance on their naysaying families, finding something more important than acceptability in each other: a relationship where they can make mistakes and need help, without shame or rejection. Rhonda and Muriel shout their goodbyes to Porpoise Spit, and “Dancing Queen” plays, as Muriel’s happiness has once more become lived instead of listened to.
Over the past 20 years, Pixar, it goes without saying but I need a way to start this post so bear with me, has become a name synonymous with quality animation and heartfelt stories. While an element of the fantastic is an essential part of every Pixar film, the best ones are also relatable, sensitive observations of near-universal emotional struggles. The films often deal with themes of loss and maturation, either through the change of the status quo or being separated from a loved one. While life tends to hit us with these kinds of experiences over and over again, they are particularly poignant for young people; grownups watching these films get the double whammy of relating to the characters’ experiences and seeing them through the lens of nostalgia, remembering what it was like being a kid and struggling with sharing the spotlight, or rebelling against parental expectations. When a film is emotionally impactful on such a deep level, it’s because it gives us characters who are relatable and realistic, even if they are robots or talking fish. Perhaps because they are aimed at children, these films tend to rely on classic structures of storytelling, including their interpersonal dynamics: often these films are driven by a motley crew of colorful characters and/or a mismatched pair. Since the ideal balance to strike is an initially accessible film that invites the young audience to a more challenging level of observation, the challenge (as I see it) is to move past easy generalizations and stereotypes that could exist as the individual characters within these more easily understood relationships and stories. With regards to fat characters who are part of these commonly seen social structures*, three Pixar films show varying degrees of success at thoughtful, nuanced portrayals.
A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s second feature-length film; while visually it is a great leap forward from the animation in Toy Story, it never reaches the emotional heights of its predecessor. In an ant colony whose survival depends on teamwork, bumbling inventor Flik (Dave Foley) is a liability. After accidentally destroying the offering of food that a gang of grasshoppers extorts from the colony in return for “protection,” Flik is exiled under the pretense of being sent to find “warrior bugs” to help the ants defy the grasshoppers. Stumbling across a circus troupe, he mistakenly assumes them to be warriors; the troupe, in turn, mistakenly assumes Flik is hiring them for a performance. The motley crew circus troupe is a marked contrast to the mass conformity of the ant colony, but besides having neat tricks and personal quirks, they aren’t fleshed out. Unsurprising, considering that the plot is basically Seven Samurai in less than half the runtime, and there are eight characters in the troupe (nine, if you don’t count Tuck and Roll as a combined entity). The troupe includes Frances, a snarky ladybug with a chip on his shoulder from being misgendered one too many times (Dennis Leary), Manny, a mystical praying mantis magician (Jonathan Harris), and this guy:
Heimlich (Joe Ranft) is an actor in the troupe, performing sketches with Slim the Walkingstick (David Hyde Pierce) and Frances. He speaks with a German accent, reminiscent of fat German gourmands like Augustus Gloop. Heimlich is just as brave (or not) and just as competent a performer (or not) as the rest of his troupe, but fat stereotypes are largely what differentiate him as an individual from his friends. He is shown eating much more frequently than the other characters– compare this to the grasshoppers, who are greedy enough to exploit the ants for exorbitant amounts of food, are not portrayed as fat, with the possible exception of dimwitted toadie Molt (Richard Kind), who is smaller and broader than his ringleader brother Hopper (Kevin Spacey, chewing the vocal scenery). Heimlich’s hunger is shown as inappropriate; he stops a performance to ask an audience member to share their candy corn wit him. Even his name suggests inappropriate eating. There are jokes and story beats based on the size of his body, such as getting wedged in tight spaces and other characters struggling to pick him up. Heimlich’s prodigious consumption, while being a defining character trait, also serves a practical purpose in that he is preparing to transform into a butterfly (perhaps a nod to The Very Hungry Caterpillar). He looks forward to the day when he will be a “beautiful butterfly;” when he finally emerges from his chrysalis, he looks like the same character with slightly different markings and tiny wings that aren’t capable of lifting him. He is, however, overjoyed at his “beautiful wings” and doesn’t acknowledge that he can’t fly with them, suggesting that his happiness in his appearance is tied to a lack of awareness of his own body.
Last year’s Inside Out met with near-universal rave reviews for its innovative concept. The story is simple: an 11-year-old girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has trouble adjusting when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. The majority of the film plays out in Riley’s mind, a spacey environment ruled by her anthropomorphized emotions: Joy (Amy Poelher), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Riley is a happy kid with a secure life, so Joy is her ruling emotion. During the substantial exposition, Joy explains how the seemingly negative emotions of Anger, Fear, and Disgust help Riley stay safe, but talks about Sadness as a nonessential. Starting out as a motley crew of these five emotions, the film quickly shifts to become about a mismatched pair trying to work together, as Joy and Sadness are flung to the recesses of Riley’s long-term memory banks in a moment of panic. On top of being opposite emotions, Joy and Sadness have contrasting looks:
Sadness is fat. Her outfit of a shapeless sweater and glasses is gauche. She slouches and hides behind her hair and speaks in a soft voice. She is the visual opposite of Joy, who has a slim body, boundless energy, a pixie cut and a feminine, form-fitting dress, who skates gracefully along with Riley and literally glows. Sadness’ introduction in the film is accompanied by the strains of a tuba. Her movements are sluggish; she is droops uncertainly over the control panel. At one point, she is “too sad to walk;” Joy literally drags her around by the foot. (Of note: when Sadness collapses, the sound effect used is practically the same as the one in A Bug’s Life when Heimlich collapses. I described it in my notes as “blurpy.”)
After its theatrical release, several articles and thinkpieces were published about Sadness being a fat character (none of which particularly resonated with me, to be honest, but they aren’t hard to Google if you’re curious). Slender Joy (Amy Poehler) is the character who children are more conditioned by other media to like. She looks like Tinkerbell and acts like Woody. She’s also the protagonist, the emotion who takes the lead in Riley’s mind and narrates the story. As Riley is learning to express grief in the external world, Joy is learning to accept Sadness’ importance in Riley’s life, and that memories can have a complex mix of emotions attached to them. Along with Riley and Joy’s character growth, Sadness also learns that she plays an important role in Riley’s life and that there are times where it’s appropriate for her to be at the helm. In fact, Sadness’ initial contribution to her and Joy’s journey, being able to navigate the maze of Long Term Memory, is due to Joy’s lack of faith in her, as Joy directed her to read their procedural manuals in Headquarters to keep her out of “trouble.” Notwithstanding, her self-doubt seems to be learned from Joy’s constant attempts to prevent her from doing anything (and, externally, Riley dealing with the expectation to be her parents’ “happy girl”). The thin character’s opinion of the fat character is largely what validates her existence. It is worthy of note that, during glimpses into other characters’ minds, Sadness is always a fat character, but the leader emotion changes. Sadness is in control of Riley’s mother’s mind, but is more thoughtful and measured than Riley’s Sadness.
Riley receives the support she needs once she acknowledges Sadness.
Even if the character designers were not consciously saying to themselves “fat people are sad, therefore let’s make this character fat,” their intent was to portray a character whom others do not want to be around, whose presence is a detraction, a character who is only accepted after others undergo growth and maturation. And they made that character look like a fat woman. The sticking point when it comes to representations of characters from oft-stereotyped groups, like fat people, is the impossibility of seeing even a well-meaning depiction independent of those numerous experiences of a character being fat for a Reason, to communicate something about their personality or present their body as symbolic of something. You know, the reason for this blog being a thing. Maybe it would be different if there were more fat characters whose body size was incidental, in addition to having as complex a portrayal as characters of other shapes and sizes.
In other words, it would be great to see more characters in the vein of Russell from Up. Russell (Jordan Nagai) is a tenacious, talkative Wilderness Explorer scout who is hellbent on earning a badge for assisting the elderly (“I’ve got to help you cross something!” he tells Carl when they first meet). In his attempt to assist grieving widower Carl (Ed Asner), he is pulled along on an adventure to Paradise Falls, a remote spot in South America that Carl’s departed wife Ellie dreamed of visiting. Carl and Russell initially seem to have nothing in common, but eventually it’s revealed that they are on very common missions, avoiding grief by clinging to symbolic material possessions. Carl conflates the house that he and Ellie shared with his lost love, talking to the house as though it was her and attaching it to helium balloons to he can float it to her dream spot to live out the rest of his days alone/with “her.” Russell’s dedication to being a Wilderness Explorer and earning his badge is an attempt to bring his estranged father back into his life, hoping that his father will participate in the badge pinning ceremony.
Russell is far from an idealized character, but his imperfections aren’t mapped onto the size of his body. He is socially unaware, but this is more due to being an excitable 8-year-old who’s been given an opportunity to geek out about his hobby. His limitations are not completely conflated with the size of his body. He fails at assembling a tent, which is a near-requisite joke about camping. He struggles to climb the garden hose tether leading from the ground to the house– related to a lack of athleticism, but when it means saving his friends, he is able to climb it with no problem. He brings a supply of chocolate bars with him, a pretty typical fat kid trait, but once he sees that Kevin the bird likes chocolate, he becomes more interested in using it as a tool of strengthening their relationship than eating it himself.
Although he loses his GPS device almost immediately, Russell serves as Carl’s guide in a few important ways. Russell has knowledge of the natural world and camping that help on their adventure, such as identifying dangerous stormclouds and bandaging Kevin’s leg after she is attacked. More importantly, though, both characters have to learn to let go of their original goals and the items they make important, a move which is spearheaded by Russell. After Carl chooses to save his house over Kevin the bird, Russell throws his Wilderness Explorer sash to the ground in disgust, giving up “assisting the elderly” in order to assist Kevin, whose life is at stake. After this gesture, Carl flies the house after Russell, but has to discard the furniture and other mementos of his life with Ellie out to make it light enough to get airborne. Although Carl is the elder, he follows Russell’s example. At Russell’s pinning ceremony, Carl awards him the soda cap pin Ellie gave him when they were children which he wears on his lapel throughout the film, “for performing above and beyond the call of duty.”
im not crying youre crying
Although Pixar films have certain shared traits that serve as brand DNA, the varying creators attached to different projects and the apparent market demand for sequels and spinoffs (which often mean a decrease in quality) mean that not every film they produce lives up to their reputation of superior family entertainment, nor does an exceptional concept or visual achievement say anything about the consideration of what it means to be an outsider beyond the context of said film’s immediate story.
*Not fat societies, mind you. WALL-E to be discussed at a later date.
As I said in my previous post, 2015 was a great year for films with female protagonists. We saw a whole range of diverse characters and situations, from The Assassin to Tangerine, Girlhood to Iris. I also didn’t realize until I looked back at my blog posts from the past year that it was also the year of the female character right here on CPBS. Starting the year out with Ma Rainey in The Ox-Bow Incident, the majority of the films I wrote about had fat female characters worth talking about. It shouldn’t be surprising that the role of body size in beauty standards was a recurring theme in many of these films. Fatness is a complicated topic, but attractiveness is undeniably a factor in how it is considered. Many fat characters, especially women, are contrasted against a conventional idea of feminine beauty. That beauty can manifest as another character, perhaps the most explicit example being The DUFF, or the contrast between Anais and her sister in Fat Girl. Often, a character is being measured against an ideal (eg. Emily in In and Out, who is hellbent on achieving her fantasy of being a skinny bride) or expectation (eg. Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, who subverts the presumption that the acapella group she is part of is made up solely of “twig bitches”). Even settings where a seemingly foundational social norm is rebelled against usually keep other hegemonic ideals intact, such as the gay community and household in The Birdcage where Albert feels devalued and ostracized both because of her size and gender expression. The unifying factor is a standard that has transcended agreement to become common “knowledge,” a fabricated rule that causes bona fide unhappiness when characters are deprecated in this way, which can even impede their ability to achieve their goals. Consider Susan’s outlandishly frumpy secret identities in Spy, which both make it difficult to blend in and communicate the lack of respect her coworkers have for her. In all of these cases, fat women characters face difficulties due to their bodies’ lack of social value. They are all deemed less valuable than their peers based on their bodies. As these characters embrace and/or prove their personal worth over the course of the film, the social fabrication of these standards and adherence to them are shown to be mutable and hollow, more of a hindrance than a motivation or guide.
Recently, I saw a film that illustrated this same idea, but rather than providing a fat character to root for, the focus is on the ridiculousness of the figures making these judgments. Milos Forman’s 1967 farce The Firemen’s Ball skewers the inept bureaucracy of communist Czechoslovakia. Despite this specific intention, its observations can be mapped onto structures of control in other contexts where authority is suspect. The film’s humor is derived from the ineptitude of a company of firefighters organizing a ball for their community: the cursory reasoning that informs their decision-making, their selfishness and pettiness, their expectations juxtaposed with their hapless inability to control the unfolding and increasingly chaotic events of the evening.
As the ball begins, the Entertainment Committee (it should be noted that all the firefighters in the film are middle-aged men) is in a room separate from the festivities, crowded around a magazine photo of contestants in an international beauty pageant. They make up a typical boys’ club, crowded together with pints of beer and cigarettes, arguing about the logistics of the beauty pageant they intend to run during the ball. They “sensibly” arrive to only allowing the eight “most beautiful” young women at the ball to participate; the one crowned beauty queen will have the honor of presenting a gift to the elderly former chairman of the fire department. This subplot puts the male gaze in front of the camera, under the guise of carrying out an official ranking of beauty as entertainment. The results are hilariously uncomfortable. Subsequent scenes feature three committee members approaching young women with the dubious honor of having been selected as pageant contestants as they carry out their self-appointed duty with an undercurrent of embarrassed self-awareness at how boorishly they are acting with the most paper-thin of excuses. They argue about how to judge which women are the most attractive: by their breasts, faces, or legs. They skulk around the edges of the dance floor and peer at women from the balcony. The women they approach largely react with confusion, and the committee awkwardly tries to filter out undesirables who are nominated by proud parents or foolishly assume that a means of entertainment at an event would be open to anyone interested.
The squeamish licentiousness of the beauty pageant takes place in a room separated from the ball, where many more firefighters than the entertainment committee are gathered behind a table to inspect the contestants as they rehearse. Even if the “judges” of the pageant tell themselves that they are acting for the good of the event, the reactions of the young women’s parents suggest that they aren’t fooling anyone. A mother of one of the young women escorts her into the room and cheerfully insists on staying to “find out what it’s all about,” to the dismay of the firemen (who eventually get her to leave by electing one of their ranks to ask her for a dance). One man begs the committee to include his daughter Ruzena, a larger-bodied girl than the other contestants. Her father tries to poke his head in the door every time it opens, despite having begged them to make her a part of the pageant. A second father bursts in and drags his daughter from the room, telling the entertainment committee that they are “dirty old geezers.” This illustrates the paradox of being considered a beautiful woman in a patriarchal system: the desire to be attractive paired with the anxiety over attraction leading to trouble.
The artificial nature of the beauty pageant was, in my experience, made further obvious by a lack of context. Forman probably wasn’t taking the reception of his film 50 years down the line into consideration, but as a Millennial raised on Hollywood, it was difficult to determine how I was expected to judge these women’s looks. Against expectation, the events leading up to the beauty pageant rehearsal do nothing to clue the audience into which of the women is supposed the be the belle of the ball. The entertainment committee approaches several girls in the beginning of the movie who aren’t part of the final eight; one appears very drunk, another very disinterested. A young woman (whom I found attractive) is randomly grabbed from the dance floor and recruited; she complains that she wasn’t actually chosen. What we really have to go off is the reactions of the firefighters. For instance, I thought Ruzena was rather pretty (she looks a bit like Molly Ringwald), but after she enters the rehearsal room, one fireman assures another, “Don’t worry, they’ll improve.” His opinion is also complicated by an earlier scene where Ruzena has sex with her dance partner; even if the committee doesn’t find her attractive, she is desired. As a viewer, I was relying on the literal male gaze to understand the dynamics of the scene, who I was supposed to see as attractive and who wasn’t desirable. This gaze is, unsurprisingly, reflected by the camera, with shots that follow the leers of the entertainment committee and focus on eroticized body parts while they assess the female ball attendees.
The commencement of the pageant serves is an effective tonic for the underlying creepiness of the rehearsal scene. The entertainment committee’s authority over the beauty pageant– indeed, the structure of the beauty pageant itself– quickly erodes. The contestants are reluctant to parade up to the stage; first one, then all of them, run off the dance floor and seek sanctuary together in the ladies’ room. Once they begin to run off, chaos breaks out. The audience, chanting “we want the queen,” carry laughing women from the crowd to the stage. The entertainment committee gathers outside the women’s restroom, begging the contestants to come out, as the audience cheers for a fat, middle-aged woman who stands on the stage, wearing the crown intended for the winner and waving to the crowd. The former chairman, the original intended beneficiary of the pageant, sits alone and neglected in the crowd. Eventually, the firemen are distracted from trying to salvage the beauty pageant by the sound of a siren: cut to a community member’s farmhouse, burning to the ground.
The genesis of this chaos is trying to be and create something one isn’t and can’t: a group of firemen from a small Czech town attempting a replication of an international beauty pageant with themselves as the judges, with only a magazine and their own imaginations as blueprints. While under the pretense of benefiting the community– they are, after all, the entertainment committee for this large gathering– they shift the focus away from what the partygoers might want and towards their own desire to be in control, to be the ones surrounding themselves with beautiful women at the mercy of their judgment. The firemen are engaged in the pageant, but the audience is indifferent and the contestants are apathetic, then uncooperative. While focused on trying to maintain control and conform to a specific prefabricated fantasy, the firemen forgo their true responsibility to the community, neglecting to respond to a fire alarm until a fire is out of control. It’s a story that we see replicated time and time again in various institutions: adherence to precedent and retention of power trumps purpose and critical thought. Consider how recently, for instance, the Academy Awards nominations for 2016 yet again pass over innovative, critically acclaimed films and work done by people of color in favor of nominees who adhere more closely to conventional, traditional tastes and expectations. Likewise, most of the films we see feature characters who exist within audience expectations and stereotypes. Some films like The Firemen’s Ball make this dynamic part of their focus, but all films are influenced by it in their creation, distribution, and reception.
At first I was ambivalent about Uncle Fester, but it didn’t take much research to convince me that he is a fat character. On his Wikipedia page, there is a quote from creator Charles Addams describing him as “fat with pudgy little hands and feet.” Although his body is obscured under his black robe, he has usually been portrayed by larger-bodied actors, such as Jackie Coogan on the 1960s television series and Kevin Chamberlin in the original Broadway cast of the 2010 musical. But as this is a film blog, the focus will be narrowed on the first two films and entertainment pillars of my childhood, the Addams Family and Addams Family Values, with Christopher Lloyd wearing a fat suit to play Uncle Fester.
I have yet to address fat suits on CPBS. The only role I’ve looked at that utilized a fat suit is John Travolta’s in the Hairspray remake, which I didn’t talk about in the article.* The reasons for putting an actor in a fat suit vary based on the film, but there are similarities between Travolta wearing one in Hairspray and Lloyd in the Addams Family movies, which is the spectacle of celebrity. In either film, a fat actor could easily have been cast, but both Lloyd and Travolta are well-known names to mainstream audiences. On top of this, putting both of these actors in a fat suit creates a spectacle based on their public personas that serves as a draw for the film. Travolta’s abrupt left turn from his usual roles as a handsome leading man was one of the main sources of buzz around Hairspray, and Lloyd’s portrayal of Fester fits in with his reputation for playing characters whose offbeat looks indicate an offbeat personality. I’m hard pressed to think of a fat actor for either movie who would have been suited to the role and at a comparable level of fame. (My initial thought for a recast of Fester would be Pruitt Taylor Vince, master of creepy weirdos, but even today he is at the “hey it’s that guy” level of fame.) Of course, this creates a vicious cycle in which a studio wants to hire someone at a certain level of fame, but there is a dearth of fat actors as well known as they want, so a thinner actor is put in a fat suit, preventing fat actors from reaching greater levels of notability. Of course, fat actors are far from the only marginalized group to experience this vicious cycle, as disabled actors, actors of color, and queer/trans actors are often overlooked in favor of performers from more privileged groups who go on to give “brave” performances as marginalized characters– or whose characters are (re)written to have that privilege.
Fester as a character has changed through the years and various media incarnations of the Addams Family (although his ability to light a lightbulb by holding it in his mouth has been consistent). In the films, Fester has brutish tendencies and is as gleefully morbid as the rest of his kin, but he is ultimately someone who is gullible, tender-hearted, and lonely. In both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, Fester’s story revolves around finding a connection with his family in spite of being duped by a manipulative woman. When introduced in The Addams Family, he has been convinced that he is Gordon Craven, son of overbearing loan shark and con woman Abigail Craven (Elisabeth Wilson). He and his mother “pretend” that he is long-lost Uncle Fester as a means of stealing the Addams fortune. Fester-as-Gordon-pretending-to-be-Fester is often perplexed, in way over his head in the Addams’ world and doing a poor job of convincing them that he is Gomez’s (Raul Julia) long-lost brother. Despite believing he is only pretending to be Fester, the relationship he fosters with Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) raises a sense of belonging with the Addamses. As introverted, lurking Fester is a foil to debonair, zealous Gomez, chubby Pugsley is a foil to his svelter sister. Wednesday is intense, dour and sadistic, where her brother is easygoing and (like his uncle) gullible, always playing the victim to Wednesday’s torturer in their games. Fester’s love for the family as a whole grows to the point where he is able to stand up to his villainous faux mother in their defense. A flash of insight strikes (literally, in the form of a bolt of lightning and Fester’s head) and the prodigal uncle’s true identity is restored. His redeemed status in the family is illustrated in the film’s final scene set on Halloween, with Pugsley having opted to dress up as his uncle.
In Addams Family Values, Fester begins the film with his identity intact. He is gleefully ghoulish, not unlike his family members, but as he is no longer bumbling through a con, we see that he is genuinely awkward, shy, and oblivious. In the first film, Gomez waxes nostalgic about what a ladies’ man Fester used to be (while they watch a home movie in which young Fester sticks his finger in his date’s ear), but in the second film, he can barely look at object of his affection Debbie (Joan Cusack, arguably doing her finest work), let alone talk to her. Like Abigail, Debbie is a criminal who survives on deceit and wants to use Fester to get her hands on the Addams fortune. She is a “black widow” who marries, then kills, rich bachelors. No longer reacting to the Addams’ world out of ignorance, Fester is purely unintelligent, to the point of being childlike. While seducing him, Debbie confesses that she is a virgin; he doesn’t know what that means. This doesn’t logically match up with the rest of the family, making Fester look particularly idiotic. In an earlier scene, Wednesday tells a less-informed peer that she has a new baby brother because her parents had sex; this is played for laughs, but apparently Gomez and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) don’t shy away from candid biological discussions. Plus, considering that Morticia and her mother both practice some dark form of magic, you’d think they would have vials of virgin blood or something like that lying around the mansion. When Debbie tells him what a virgin is, he confesses that he is one as well, again highlighting his naivete. Fester’s role as vulnerable outsider is used primarily for laughs (as in this scene) and conflict, where the rest of the family must save him from Debbie, who attempts to turn him into a “normal” person, more to her liking, before bumping him off. Compare this to a thinner outsider with a goth aesthetic in a comedic modern-day fantasy released a few years earlier: the titular character of Edward Scissorhands. Edward (Johnny Depp) is also socially awkward, vulnerable, and longing for love. However, unlike Fester, his loneliness and vulnerability are romanticized. Despite having dangerous blades for hands, Edward is an artist who doesn’t want to harm anyone. Fester is sweet and caring, but also delights in mayhem and grotesquerie. Edward’s love for Kim is pure and chivalric, as opposed to Fester’s love for Debbie, which is misguided and dangerous. Edward is a source of creativity and wonder for the mundane community he tries to live in, while Fester is merely an oddity.
In a subplot, Fester’s young proteges find themselves in a similar dilemma. Thanks to Debbie’s influence, Wednesday and Pugsley are also removed from their home and threatened with assimilation into normalcy at Camp Chippewa, a summer camp “for privileged young people.” Camp Chippewa is a microcosm of the mundane world that the Addams are normally apart from, where people with non-normative bodies and identities are marginalized and attractive, athletic WASPs rule. Wednesday and Pugsley befriend Joel (David Krumholtz), a nebbishy kid with multiple allergies. The privileged-privileged campers, led by ultra-snob Amanda (Mercedes McNab) and enabled by chipper camp directors Becky (Christine Baranski) and Gary (Peter MacNicol), torture the outsiders with condescending mock-concern. According to Becky, the WASPy campers “are going to set an example to show that anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time!,” while completely disregarding the needs and preferences of the marginalized campers. When the annual summer camp pageant is announced as a tribute to Thanksgiving, Wednesday is cast as Pocohontas, the leader of the Indians (played by the other outsider kids), and Pugsley as a fat-suit wearing turkey whose part includes a song begging the audience to kill and eat him. And of course, as the Internet reminds us every Thanksgiving, Wednesday leads the other misfits in a spectacular rebellion.
The Addams family is a subversion of American values, delighting in death and misery where most people would rather not think about such topics. The family and their ilk include not only a Gothic aesthetic and diabolical values (Morticia laments that, as a busy wife and mother, she doesn’t have enough time to “seek out the dark forces and join their hellish crusade”), but an embracing of non-normative bodies. In The Addams Family, Fester is re-introduced to Flora and Fauna, a ravishing pair of conjoined twins whom he courted as a young man. Extras in scenes of the extended Addams family and friends include little people. While this isn’t exactly liberatory, as little people are often present in films as little more than “weird” set dressing, it reinforces the idea that the Addams’ world embraces difference, along with death and destruction. Although the inverting of social expectations fuels much of the humor in the film, perceptive audience members may wonder what the films are saying that these are also characters who passionately pursue their interests, are proud of their family history, care deeply about each other, and don’t exclude anyone based on ability or appearance.
* …but I will talk about now. John Travolta in a fat suit reflects my overall opinion of the Hairspray remake, namely that its admirable attempt to be more empathetic to the marginalized characters it portrays is undermined by its move towards wider mainstream acceptance as a movie. One would expect to see a name as big as Travolta’s attached to the role of Edna, but John Travolta, a straight A-list celebrity who is an open and enthusiastic member of a religion that decries homosexuality, is a far cry from originator Divine a fat drag queen whose name was synonymous with trashiness. In the remake, Edna is given more emotional depth in the form of being unwilling to leave the house until she loses weight (or, as actually happens, until she is empowered by Tracy to do so), but the casting choice was not to give this role– a potentially valuable career opportunity for a less famous actor– to someone who would have experienced the anxiety of being in a public space where they are reviled for what they look like. Rather, the role went to someone whose reason to feel anxiety about appearing in public would likely be his immense popularity.
I hadn’t heard of Marty until my partner recommended it for the blog, which was a little embarrassing when I found out how well-received it was in its day. A low budget film version of a tv production, Marty won both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was a career highlight for star Ernest Borgnine, who until that point had been best known for his role as a villainous staff sergeant in From Here to Eternity. The trailer for The Catered Affair, Borgnine’s next film, perfectly illustrates the impact of Borgnine’s work in Marty.Borgnine isn’t the star of The Catered Affair, nor is he the most glamorous star in the cast, but the studio used him as the spokesperson based on Marty’s warm reception by audiences.
The premise of Marty is modest and relatable, set in the present-day Bronx and following 24 hours in the life of Marty Piletti (Borgnine). We are introduced to Marty behind the counter of the neighborhood butcher shop where he works. He helps two customers in a row who inquire about his little brother’s wedding, and as “what’s wrong” with Marty that he is a bachelor at 34. Everyone in Marty’s life feels entitled to comment on his lack of a wife, a status to which he feels resigned. His bachelorhood is not pathetic in and of itself, rather the pathos comes from the relationship-shaped hole in his life. He doesn’t have much else going on besides his job (though he does have ambitions of buying the shop from his boss). A conversation with his best friend Angie is largely a repetition of “What do you feel like doing tonight?” “I don’t know, what do you feel like doing?.” At Angie’s suggestion, he phones a woman he had met a month prior– “the big girl,” as Angie describes her– to ask for a date. We only see Marty’s half of the conversation, the camera slowly pushing in on his face as he is rejected (“the big girl” presumably being someone who ought to struggle with finding a date for Saturday night as well), highlighting his loneliness and vulnerability. Marty is shy and socially awkward, but he explicitly attributes his bachelorhood to his size and physical appearance. “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” he tells his mother (Esther Minciotti) when she tries to convince him to spend his Saturday night at the dancehall where Marty’s cousin met his wife. When she persists, his facade of resignation slips to reveal a raw, frustrated pain. “I’m just a fat little man, a fat ugly man… you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache, a big night of heartache.”
Marty and Angie go to the dance hall. Angie quickly finds someone to dance with him, but after getting a quick once-over, the woman Marty asked for a dance turns him down. As Marty is standing by himself, Clara (Betsy Blair) enters the film. Paralleling Marty’s introduction, she is at the receiving end of someone’s disapproval: her blind date is disappointed that he has to waste his Saturday night with someone as plain-looking as she. He offers Marty $5 to take Clara off his hands; Marty refuses, and watches as Clara gets ditched regardless. Marty becomes her knight in shining armor. In a subsequent scene, the camera glides through the crowded dance floor to find Marty and Clara dancing together, commiserating over their unlucky social lives and finding refuge in each other. “I’m really enjoying myself… you’re not such a dog as you think you are,” he tells her. “Maybe I’m not such a dog as I think I am,” he adds after she tells him that she’s also having a good time.
As they get to know each other over the course of the night, we see that Clara and Marty are both kind, sensitive, optimistic people. The romantic scenes in Marty are humble. They lack the glamour of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach in From Here to Eternity, the Best Picture winner two years prior. Despite being average-looking people walking down a city street and getting coffee in a diner, the vulnerability that Clara and Marty share is more heartrending than the most exquisite locale or best-sculpted cheekbones could ever be. They admit to each other that they both cry easily, with a relief that borders on excitement in having found someone that relates to their experience. Later on, Marty tells Clara about how depressed and directionless he felt after returning home from World War II, and reveals that he thought about ending his own life. “I know,” is her gentle response that tells us everything we need to know about her own relationship with suicidal thoughts. What would be their first kiss in any other romantic movie is discontinued by Clara’s discomfort; where any other romantic lead would react with force or indifference, Marty crumbles into frustration and self-loathing. Instead, Clara expresses her affection for him through her words: “I know when you take me home I’m just going to lie in my bed and think about you.”
The pain their loneliness causes is very real, but seems to be largely due to the opinions of others. Clara is criticized for not being pretty, Marty is criticized for being bachelor. The film does not portray marriage or a family life as intrinsically providing more happiness. Marty’s mother and Aunt Katarina (Augusta Ciolli) lament the life of a widow; his cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) squabble with each other over the wails of their newborn. Marty’s friends focus on women who are “money in the bank” and fill their free time with drinking and trashy novels. However, everyone focuses their pity on Marty, the fat “dog” who is 34 and unmarried, then ridicules him for spending the night with a woman who is too old and unattractive to be considered a worthy mate. Clara’s introduction into Marty’s life reveals that his friends and family rely on him to stay in the state they they ostensibly pity. Although these days it isn’t unusual for someone to be unmarried or even living with family in their 30s (I’m sure this is more true in New York City, considering the high cost of living), the implication for audiences of the time was that Marty is in a state of arrested development. Borgnine plays him with an openness and vulnerability that borders on childlike. I was impressed by the emotional maturity with which Mrs. Piletti was written, expecting her to be a two-dimensional Italian mama, but an early scene of her serving Marty his dinner, surrounding him with serving dishes, suggests that he is smothered by her, and that her smothering is the cause of his fatness.
The film ends on a hopeful, but uncertain note. Initially, Marty gives in to the opinions of his friends and family, and avoids calling Clara. We see the two lovers in their respective spheres, completely miserable. Marty stands amidst a group of his friends outside their neighborhood bar, listening to the same “What do you feel like doing,” “I don’t know” conversation that has apparently reached Pinky and the Brain levels of repetitiveness. The camera slowly zooms in on him, gradually edging his friends out of the scene as they suggest going to the movies or– if my interpretation of the euphemisms of the day is correct– soliciting sex workers. Marty veritably explodes from frustration, breaking away from his friends and rushing to the payphone:
“You don’t like her, my mother don’t like her, she’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is I had a good time last night! I’m gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad!”
Marty dials the phone. As it rings, he sarcastically picks on Angie for being a bachelor, repeating the criticisms his customers threw at him in the opening scene. Closing the phone booth door between himself and his loutish friend, we hear Marty saying, “Hello, Clara?” as the film fades to black. Contrasting with other romantic films of the day like From Here to Eternity, which ends in dramatic heartbreak for Lancaster and Kerr’s characters, the ending of Marty is modest, but that’s what makes it so special. We don’t know if Marty and Clara make a good couple in the long run, but the impact she has on him is enough for him to make two difficult choices in defiance of what he’s being told. He stands up for her worthiness despite being told that she’s a “dog,” and he stands up for his choice to pursue love with her, despite implications that as a “fat, ugly man,” he isn’t capable of finding it.
BitchFlicks’ theme week for October 2015 is Violent Women, including an article I wrote on Misery, which features Kathy Bates’ breakout role as deranged nurse Annie Wilkes. I’m happy to say that this is my third time being part of one of BitchFlicks’ theme weeks, and the subject is a complicated and fascinating one. It probably goes without saying that I adore Kathy Bates, so I’m sure there will be more about her career on CPBS before long.