Always looking for a fresh angle on the really important movie news of the day, Michael Cieply uses his perch at Thew New York Times to ask" what's with all the male movie stars who are porkers? Who does he have in mind, exactly? Russell Crowe and Jeff Daniels, sharing a screen in State of Play ("Two men. One notebook. Four chins."); Denzel Washington, going "cheek-to-jowl with the bulky John Travolta" in the trailer for the remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; Hugh Grant; and "Even Leonardo DiCaprio, the young heartthrob from Titanic"--Photos from the set of Shutter Island, a thriller on tap from Paramount Pictures and the director Martin Scorsese in October, show a little bit more to love." Oh, snap! Are they handing out chocolate bunnies to whoever can be the biggest bitch at the Times these days?
Cieply briefly notes that there's a gender-based double standard regarding the weight and age rules in Hollywood so far as leading players are concerned, but after dropping Kathleen Turner's name, he seems to feel that he's discharged his duty, as if the subject bored even him. He seems more taken with the idea that this is an utterly new phenomenon, but despite the historical examples he digs up, that may be a non-starter. "Photos of midcentury stars — Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Clark Gable and others — show them to have remained rather gaunt at an age when many of the current crop are anything but." Good thing those photos are handy, since it's not as if movie actors left behind filmed records of their performances so we'd be able to remind themselves what they looked like. That said, it seems a little callous to drag Bogart, one of the best-known victims of cancer sticks ever to go down coughing, into a discussion of how movie stars used to keep themselves svelte. (One well-circulated story has it that, when illness had left Bogie too weak to handle the stairs in his own home, he used to navigate from one floor to another by stuffing himself in the dumb waiter.) It's also worth remembering that Gable, who died of a massive heart attack after completing his last film, The Misfits, had lost 35 pounds on a crash diet to get his weight below 200 before shooting began. If there's any less of that sort of thing going on nowadays because more stars feel comfortable about appearing in public looking something other than whisper-thin, surely it's for the better.
It's also true that, as Cieply would have known if he'd put down the "photographs" and spent a couple of days watching Turner Classic Movies, there have always been counter-examples one could offer to his role call of manly waifs. Wallace Beery never looked as if he'd had trouble locating the desert cart, Spencer Tracey rolled into his onscreen middle age looking as if he'd swallowed a tether ball, James Cagney was getting pretty squared-off by the time of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Robert Mitchum often had an amorphous mass surrounding his midsection that he used to abruptly suck up into his chesticological region whenever he was required to take his shirt off, Gene Hackman's weight always flunctuated, sometimes wildly, depending on just how regular his latest "regular guy" character was supposed to be, and as for Jack Nicholson, in his mid-forties when he more or less officially entered his "middle-aged" period with Terms of Endearment--please. Of course, with movies as with everything else, memory can be a great deceiver. Lawrence Turman, "a veteran film producer who is chairman of the Peter Stark producing program at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts", told Cieply that "“John Wayne always looked a bit portly." I find it disturbing that the Peter Stark producing program at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts can do no better for its chairman than a guy who's never seen Stagecoach. It may be a tribute to the lingering effect of the image that Wayne cast from around the mid-1950s until his death in 1979 that even some professionals think he always looked like that, but I would propose that, unlikely though it may seem, that if Wayne had looked in his youth like a guy who was fated to someday look the way he did in True Grit, he never would have gotten the chance to grow into that later incarnation--at least, not on movie screens.
This still leaves the question of whether some of these stars, heavier though they may undeniably be, are as hideous to behold as Cieply seems to be implying they are. I will confess that when I saw Travolta, say, in the trailer for Pelham, I did not catch myself thinking, "Here comes Wide Load." (I did catch myself thinking, "Get a load of Weird Hairline with his Fu Manchu mustache. Each of us has his issues.) One possibility worth considering is that such stars as Travolta, Washington, and Hanks, who came up in the 1980s, when a perfect storm of society-embraced body issues and new technology in the gym led to a new species of Americans who seemed to be armor-plated in their own skin and muscle, some of whom hastened to show off their new packaging on the covers of magazines, such as that infamous shot of Travolta on the cover of Rolling Stone to promote Stayin' Alive, looking as if his abs were about to jump out of his torso and his brains had already leaked out of his ears. Maybe, having fallen for that when you had the energy and free schedule to pursue it all the way, you have to let yourself go a little later on or else you'll explode. But then, in the interests of full disclosure, I should concede that I am from The South, where we deep fry our veggie plates and the lost causes that we love to get misty-eyed about include our own arteries in their pre-clotted state. Because of my own cultural conditioning, if I had my way, every other movie made since 1984 would have starred Joe Don Baker, and the others would have been divided between Randy Quaid and the late Dub Taylor, with the result that Michael Cieply would be even more confused.