Saturday, November 7, 2009

Living Large

Maybe it all began in the fall of 1921. That was when silent film star Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle held a party over Labor Day weekend in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel. Although one of the guests fell ill and died a few days later of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder, Arbuckle was falsely accused of raping bit player Virginia Rappe and killing her with the weight of his body.

The irony is that Arbuckle was an extremely shy man, described by close friends as an extremely chaste person. Eventually acquitted (Arbuckle even received a written apology), the damage to his career was unavoidable. Not only were his films banned, the once beloved comedian was publicly shunned. Publisher William Randolph Hearst claimed that the intense media coverage of the scandal and Arbuckle's trial "sold more newspapers than anything since the sinking of the RMS Lusitania."

Since that event, you'd have to look far and wide to see images of fat men and/or women as objects of sexual desire in American advertising and cinema. Buxom sirens of the day like Mae West may have been considered a bit too fleshy by today's anorexic standards of beauty, but fat men were rarely depicted as anything but clowns, business moguls, or villains.

The stigmatization of fat people has ranged from the popular adage that "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings," to Marcia Millman's book, Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat In America. Despite the fashion industry's obsession with bone-thin models like Twiggy, many a svelte and sexy actress has battled weight problems later in life.
  • Shelley Winters, a former Hollywood sexpot, became the heroic fat woman after her underwater swimming scene in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure.
  • Barbara Cook went from being a slim, trim, Broadway ingenue who could wear a bikini onstage in 1964's Something More! to a much larger woman following her struggles with depression and alcoholism. On January 26, 1975, when she made a comeback with her famous concert at Carnegie Hall, fans were shocked to see how much weight she had gained.
  • Oprah Winfrey has been up and down the scale during her long career on television. On November 5, 1988, she dragged a wagon filled with fat onto her studio set to represent the amount of weight she had lost.
  • ElizabethTaylor, who gained a substantial amount of weight in the 1980s, not only had to cope with the tabloid press, but with Joan Rivers telling audiences that Taylor stood in front of the microwave oven screaming "Faster! Faster!"
  • Kirstie Alley became fodder for the tabloid press after putting on a large amount of weight.
While fat women have occasionally been portrayed as tragic figures who are an embarrassment to everyone around them (think of Darlene Cates as Johnny Depp and Leonardo diCaprio's mother in 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?), things started to change 30 years ago. In 1981, Broadway was shocked and stunned by Jennifer Holliday's gut wrenching performance and display of raw emotion as Effie White when she sang And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going in Dreamgirls.

Although there have been plenty of fat sopranos in the opera world (Linda Kelm, Alessandra Marc, Deborah Voigt, Jane Eaglen, Stephanie Blythe, etc.,) when Montserrat Caballe and Jessye Norman achieved superstardom, their fame made it easier for some audiences to embrace the image of an oversized women as a cultural goddess. In 1985, Percy Adlon's Sugarbaby starred Marianne Sagebrecht as a fat spinster working as a mortician in Munich who falls in love with the voice of fit, thin subway conductor (Eisi Gulp) and sets out to woo and seduce him.

That same year, Paul Bartel's hilarious Western spoof, Lust in the Dust, pitted Rosie Velez (the 300-pound Divine a/k/a Harris Glenn Milstead) against Marguerita Ventura (the voluptuous Lainie Kazan) in a battle to determine which woman would become the reigning sexpot in a small frontier town. Here is Divine's big musical number ("These Lips") followed by Lainie Kazan's equally raunchy "South of My Border":

In 1988, under the guidance of filmmaker John Waters, an obese Ricki Lake created the character of Tracy Turnblad, the daughter of Divine's infamous portrayal of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. In 2002, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein took Broadway by storm in the musical version of Hairspray (which became an Adam Shankman film starring Nikki Blonsky and John Travolta in 2007).

Since then, Winokur has starred in Beautiful Girl and appeared on numerous television programs. Blonsky has starred in Queen Sized and will repeat her portrayal of Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray 2: White Lipstick (due out in 2010). The Hairspray franchise has created invaluable career opportunities for lots of talented fat girls.

In Rob Marshall's 2002 film version of Kander & Ebb's musical, Chicago, Queen Latifah transformed the role of Matron "Mama" Morton into a powerfully sexual lesbian prison warden. In 2006, the film version of Dreamgirls helped make its Effie, former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, into a major star. This year's Precious, starring Gabourey Sidibe, is already generating lots of potential Oscar buzz.

A more recent trend has been for skinny actors to "broaden their horizons" by donning a fatsuit for comedic roles. Just think about Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal, Eddie Murphy in Norbit, Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House, Martin Short as Jiminy Glick, Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends, Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, and Kenan Thompson in Fat Albert. In an article for MTV entitled Rewind: Does The Fat Suit Really Fit Anyone In Hollywood?, Karl Heitmueller suggested that:
"To the overweight person sitting in the audience, the experience must be similar to a black person watching an old blackface minstrel show. When the character is presented as mean-spiritedly as Mike Myers' Fat Bastard character from the Austin Powers movies or as scary-thin Courteney Cox-Arquette's Fat Monica from flashback episodes of Friends, it becomes outright torture.
Some argue that the overweight differ from other victims of discrimination in that they made themselves fat; overeating and not exercising was their decision and they have to live with the consequences, including societal disapproval. And while that may be true in many (but by no means all) cases, few physical attributes invite more open scorn than a lot of extra pounds.
Orson Welles was arguably one of the most talented men to ever work in film. And yet in the final years of his life, he was better known (and mocked) for his great weight than for writing, directing and starring in Citizen Kane. Similarly, Marlon Brando's body of work became irrelevant to many movie fans when he became the object of fat jokes.
When Renée Zellweger plumped up to play Bridget Jones (twice), the celebrity press couldn't stop talking about how "brave" she was to pack on a whoppin' 25 pounds! On TV, while there are many things to ridicule Anna Nicole Smith about, the main source of viewer schadenfreude on her painful 2002 reality TV show was her weight gain. And Kirstie Alley's ill-fated Showtime sitcom, Fat Actress, was a painfully schizophrenic showcase for the former Cheers star's tussle between self-loathing and pride. While the show was purportedly a satire on lookism and the shallowness of America in general, and Hollywood specifically, it usually played to the very shallowness it was mocking."
Whether true or not, the following urban legend has been making the rounds via email.
"Recently, in a large French city, a poster that appeared in the window of a gym featured a young, thin, and tanned woman with the message: This summer do you want to be a mermaid or a whale? A middle-aged woman, whose physical characteristics did not match those of the woman on the poster, responded publicly to the question posed by the gym's management with the following:

To Whom It May Concern:

Whales are always surrounded by friends (dolphins, sea lions, curious humans). They have an active sex life, they get pregnant and have adorable baby whales. They have a wonderful time with dolphins, stuffing themselves with shrimp. They play and swim in the seas, seeing wonderful places like Patagonia, the Bering Sea and the coral reefs of Polynesia. Whales are wonderful singers and have even recorded CDs. They are incredible creatures and have virtually no predators other than humans. They are loved, protected, and admired by almost everyone in the world.

Mermaids don’t exist. If they did exist, they would be lining up outside the offices of Argentinean psychoanalysts due to identity crisis. Fish or human? They don’t have a sex life because they kill men who get close to them -- not to mention how could they have sex? Therefore, they do not have kids. Not to mention, who wants to get close to a girl who smells like a fish store? The choice is perfectly clear to me; I want to be a whale."
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Neil LaBute's beautifully written Fat Pig contrasts a strong, self-confident, zaftig female librarian with a handsome but spineless, health conscious but emotionally immature office drone who lacks the courage of his convictions. When Helen (Liliane Klein) and Tom (Jud Williford) meet at a lunch counter, Helen is quick to joke about her appearance, her robust appetite, and her love of action films. Not used to meeting a fat person with a healthy self image, Tom fumbles all over the place trying not to offend her as he confesses his total lack of redeeming qualities.

Jud Williford and Liliane Klein (Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Barbara Damashek, the Aurora Theatre Company's production of Fat Pig exposes some of the painful truths fat people must deal with when attempting to build a relationship with someone who has issues about physical beauty. It soon becomes evident that Helen's weight is nowhere near the problem posed by Tom's basic cowardice and jockish dishonesty.

Although Tom had been dating Jeannie (Alexandra Creighton), a pretty, self-absorbed woman who works in his company's accounting department, he never got up the courage to tell her that he was no longer interested in their relationship. His weasel-like avoidance of any confrontation is a constant source of comic gold as well as squirming moments of truth.

Jud Williford and Alexandra Creighton (Photo by: David Allen)

Making matters infinitely worse is the annoying presence of Carter (Peter Ruocco), an office gossip who claims to be a friend but whose frat boy mentality will stop at nothing when it comes to sabotaging Tom's budding romance with Helen. Carter (whose mother is obese) insists that he is not fat phobic. However, every comment meant to engender male camaraderie -- every nasty remark about Helen (or other fat people) that comes out of his mouth -- proves that fat people are still fair game for jokes, hurtful jibes, and outright discrimination.

A pure male chauvinist pig, Carter insists that he is merely protecting Carter from the scorn of others while displaying his own prejudices with naked abandon. After making sure that he has Tom's permission to date Jeannie (whom he had previously put down as a potential fatty), Carter warns Tom not to waste his best years clinging to a "fat pig" like Helen.

Peter Ruocco and Jud Williford (Photo by: David Allen)

As a blunt, no-nonsense kind of gal, Helen is all too painfully aware that Tom has been hiding her from his colleagues at work. Although his puppy-like devotion in the privacy of her apartment is endearing, Tom can't hide his embarrassment that people might see them together in public. When he finally gets up the courage to invite his girlfriend to a company picnic at the beach, LaBute's play builds to a dramatic confrontation in which Helen (who can handle the truth) makes a stunning offer in an attempt to save their relationship while Tom (who cannot handle the truth) wimps out.

What makes LaBute's script so rare is the honesty with which Tom acknowledges that he's simply too weak to handle the challenges that accompany dating a strong, plus-sized woman. When push comes to shove, Tom understands that he doesn't deserve all of the wonderful qualities that Helen brings to the table. Not too many men have the mental acuity to reach that conclusion, much less accept what it says about them.

Working with Mikoko Uesugi's flexible set design and Maggie Whitaker's costumes, Aurora's ensemble did a superb job of bringing LaBute's play to life. As always, Peter Ruocco (recently seen as Mephistopheles in the Shotgun Players' production of Faust, Part One) did a masterful job of combining the sleazier moments of office comedy with teasing, slimy villainy.

Alexandra Creighton's tightly wound Jeannie was an appropriately bitchy spurned girlfriend. Jud Williford's physically appealing Tom showed a man who desperately wants to be liked (and avoid confrontations) forced to confront his conflicting emotions, while Liliane Klein's mature and radiantly honest Helen consistently acted from a position of emotional strength.

Liliane Klein and Jud Williford (Photo by: David Allen)

Fat Pig is a beautifully written and emotionally powerful drama that challenges and disturbs its audiences. Society's familiar and extremely shallow putdowns of fat people take on new life when contrasted to the one character in LaBute's play (Helen) who has any integrity. You can order tickets here.

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Because I've been fat for most of my life, as a gay man I was especially curious to see King Of Escape, which was recently screened during the French Cinema Now mini-festival presented by the San Francisco Film Society. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie's unusual hero is the kind of protagonist you would never find in an American film. He's 43, fat, and an openly gay man. As Guiraudie explains:
"Gays in movies are often represented in the same way -- young, goodlooking, dapper if not effeminate, middle-class at the very least and urban, but definitely not farmers or working men. In my films, I admit that the proportion of homosexuals is far greater than in reality. Even so, guys go cruising out in the country! It's a discreet universe of men who love men without necessarily feeling they are part of the gay community. And roadside cruising spots (where you find teachers, farmers, students and salesmen, young and old) are the subject of increasing police surveillance. The repression is low key, but very real. Beyond homosexuality, I also want to show a community of men, like hunters in Southwest France who live together in their hideouts for weeks. I'm not saying they get up to anything in there (I've no idea), but I can fantasize about it."
A middle-aged, middle-class tractor salesman, Armand (Ludovic Berthillot) becomes an unlikely hero when he steps in to rescue pretty 16-year-old Curly (Hafsia Herzl) from a group of toughs by using his ATM card to withdraw enough money to satisfy their demands. As luck would have it, Curly's overly protective and very macho father, Durandot, (Luc Palun) is one of Armand's rivals at work. Curly, who hates feeling imprisoned by her family -- and longs to run away and see the world -- begins to view Armand as her savior and the key to her escape.

Meanwhile, Armand (whose gay life in recent years has consisted mostly of picking up men at a rural rest stop) would like to have a real relationship with someone. Thinking that if he goes straight he might find a woman with whom he could settle down, he responds to Curly's amorous advances with surprise and enthusiasm. When Curly's father accuses Armand of being a sexual predator, the police slap an electronic bracelet on Armand's wrist.

After a series of misfires, Armand and Curly run away, heading into the nearby forest. Although Curly may be thrilled by the adventure, at 16 she is still very much a child. Old enough to know how to give Armand a blow job, she doesn't quite understand that her future includes responsibilities.

Armand, who is surprisingly athletic for a chubby man, eventually tires of running through the woods in his underwear and realizes that a life on the run is not what he wants. After tying up Curly and leaving her by a roadside where he knows she will be found, he turns himself in and seeks out the solace of his gay friends. As the film nears its end, we see Armand making love to a man in his 70s. Moments later, they are joined by two gay friends and the four men bed down for a night of communal warmth. As writer/director Alain Guiraudie notes:
"Gay or not, men all want to meet up in a cabin in the woods, which is how the film ends. For a long time, I thought homosexuality didn't determine the movies I made. I showed a homosexuality that was unthreatening. But it was a form of denial. In fact, socially, it remains a problem. Even if homophobia isn't really an issue for Armand, his homosexuality is a problem for him. He falls in love with a young woman in a kind of reverse coming-out, only to wind up in the arms of an old man. It was crucial that the sex between Armand and Curly should be credible so people would believe that Armand had started batting for the other team."
King of Escape is not so much an adventure or comedy film as it is a coming of age film, for an impetuous young girl as well as for a socially clumsy, middle-aged gay man. Unlike the cock hounds he meets at the local cruising area, Armand is much more romantic. He likes to kiss other men. He really wants to make them feel good. His physique perfectly captures the warm, loving, and safe emotional harbor that certain women (and men) seek out in the company of chubs and bears.

As Armand, Ludovic Berthillot's portrayal of a sexually confused, middle-aged gay man is most convincing. It's also quite refreshing to see an openly gay fat man portrayed as an object of sexual desire in something other than bear or chubby chaser porn. Hafsia Herzl's Curly is at once sexually alluring and annoyingly immature. François Clavier (the Police Captain), Jean Toscan (Jean), and Pierre Laur (Robert Rapaille) shine in smaller roles. Here's the trailer:

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