18 July 2007

A recent argument (some may say "flame war") with a former friend got me to thinking about fat suits, and the ethics thereof.

In short, is it okay for a svelte actor to don a fat suit when there are so many out-of-work fat actors out there?

The actor in question is Travolta, who will shortly be shaking his padded ass in Hairspray. To me, it is fairly obvious that Travolta is a bankable asset in a movie musical. Studios deal in bankable assets -- this is Industry 101. When a studio fronts the money for a big production, they want certain "guarantees" that it is a wise investment. No one can promise a big box office take, but one can put certain elements together that will make a big box office take more likely.

It is no stretch of the imagination to say that Travolta -- whose big screen break was Grease, the highest grossing movie musical of all time -- will make more box office for Hairspray than would be made without him. And if the advance reviews hold true, Edna Turnblad may just be the best work he's done to date.

Is it wrong to put an actor in a fat suit? Maybe. Maybe Nathan Lane or Harvey Firestein (who played the character on Broadway) or even the highly controversial (and John Waters-esque) Chuck Knipp should have been cast.

To me, a fat suit is just another tool in Hollywood's storytelling tool shed. It's make-up; prosthetics. No different from putting a "pregnant belly" on a non-pregnant actress or pointy ears on Mr. Spock. No one expected Guy Pierce to really tattoo himself for Memento, and no one seemed terribly upset by Mel Gibson's facial prosthetic in The Man Without a Face or Kevin Spacey's in Pay it Forward.

You see, Hollywood isn't about reality; it's about creating illusions. The question is not "is this real?" The question is "does it sell?" All that matters is effective storytelling. The tools -- all of them, from how you frame the shot to digital effects added in post -- are there to serve the story. By all accounts, Hairspray is a good story. It sells.

(This is not to say that obese thespians are incapable of carrying a story. What springs to mind is the performance of newcomer Darlene Cates in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. A stand-out performance from a newbie. She moved me to tears. But let's see . . . wasn't Leonardo DiCaprio in that movie as well? Yes, that's right. Playing a mentally handicapped boy in an Oscar-nominated performance. Pity they couldn't have cast an out-of-work mentally handicapped actor, huh?)

Oh well. I expect my former friend to decry the evilness of Paul Giamatti any day now.

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