Actresses call weight a heavy problem

July 27, 1993|By Winda Benedetti | Winda Benedetti,McClatchy News Service

John Candy won Ally Sheedy's heart in "Only the Lonely," Dan Aykroyd got Jamie Lee Curtis in "My Girl," and movie beauties from Cher to Kathleen Turner have fallen prey to Jack Nicholson's charms.

Hollywood: mecca of the body beautiful, land of liposuction, capital of anorexia and the world's largest haven for physical sexists.

Disagree?

Ever see Roseanne Arnold kissing Mel Gibson?

While Mr. Candy, Mr. Aykroyd and Mr. Nicholson regularly woo women far more appealing to the eye than themselves, the American movie industry doesn't seem ready for leading romantic ladies in anything but top physical condition.

But where does this leave heavy female actresses trying to break into the entertainment industry?

For many, it means playing "character parts" like the kooky neighbor, the housemaid or the older lady next door, while waiting for Hollywood to realize that "glamour, beauty, intelligence and strength come from within," in the words of New York comedian Susan Mason. "They're not stamped out on an assembly line."

Case in point: The movie "Frankie & Johnny," starring famous babe Michelle Pfeiffer and that hunk of a leading man, Al Pacino.

The film, based on the play "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," conveniently forgot one minor detail: The leading lady is supposed to be overweight.

Rather than cast Kathy Bates as Frankie, as the movie's $H off-Broadway counterpart did, Hollywood movie moguls pegged a slim Ms. Pfeiffer for the part. And in typical face-lift fashion -- a little nip in character description here, a little tuck in dialogue there -- that weight problem disappeared.

Leave Ms. Bates to mangle unsuspecting authors in Stephen King movies. What the heck, overweight women make great psychos, right?

"When a man is larger than life, he is powerful and aggressive. When a woman is larger than life, she is out of control, a bitch or pathetic," Ms. Mason explains.

In addition to her comedy club performances, Ms. Mason has appeared in two music videos and models for adult greeting cards that feature overweight women.

To help fight discrimination against fat people, she has discussed what it's like to be overweight with the likes of Geraldo and Joan Rivers.

"Most of the things I have gotten are because of my size, not in spite of it," says Ms. Mason, who weighs more than 400 pounds. "I would like to get a role simply because I am good."

Other heavy actresses echo her sentiments. Los Angeles performer Jane Childerhose has been kicked out of Al Bundy's shoe store on "Married . . . With Children" and appeared as an audience member in a "Phantom of the Oprah" episode of television's "Wings."

Even though she is delighted to get the work, Ms. Childerhose is well aware of the realities of the business. As a beginning performer who needs the work, she says, it is sometimes hard to avoid taking parts that are degrading to fat women. But she says it's important to know where to draw the line.

"Some of us are trying to bring respect to heavy women," she says.

"This is the last discrimination barrier to be broken in Hollywood," Ms. Childerhose adds, explaining that heavy women have two roadblocks to overcome: being heavy and being women.

"There are not as many roles for women no matter what your size is. It's the men who have the monopoly on the really hot stuff."

That monopoly seems to be at the center of Hollywood's weight discrimination.

Men make up the majority of writers, producers, directors and actors and like to see "ideal" women in the leading parts, Ms. Childerhose says. Laura Eljaiek, program director for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, based in Sacramento, Calif., agrees.

"I think it really still has to do with sexism, power dynamics and control in Hollywood," she says. "Looks have been used as a way to control women."

Sandy Quen, associate director of the Actors Agency, a Sacramento talent agency, thinks art merely reflects society. She says that, historically, women have been taught to depend on men and therefore feel they need to attract a "protector." Hence, the focus on female beauty.

"I think society in general is more forgiving of men," says Sacramento actress Cynthia Pemberton.

Ms. Pemberton has worked in theater and commercials, and models clothing for large women. She says that because society doesn't place as many beauty restrictions on men, the entertainment industry isn't likely to do so.

But heavy actresses are far from breaking down in despair over their plight.

"I don't walk on stage and say, 'Oh, I'm so fat, I'm a pig, I'm so miserable,' " Ms. Mason says. Instead of self-deprecating humor, she makes fun of the diet industry (and her ex-husband) and gives her comedy routines a flirtatious flavor.

While Ms. Pemberton admits that the discrimination can get frustrating at times, she thinks plenty of good roles are available to someone with her talent and drive, and says the character roles often require more versatility and can even be more fun to play.

But most importantly, she and the other women say self-respect and self-confidence are the most important requirements for success in the entertainment industry.

And, as an increasing number of women become writers, directors and producers in Hollywood, entertainment insiders say they expect to see not only more roles for heavy women, but a greater acceptance of performers who don't fit the stereotypical movie star look.

LTC "I think, in general, the definition of beauty is going to change," Ms. Quen says. "More people are saying it's OK to be black, it's OK to be Asian and it's OK to show your ethnicity . . . and with that will come accepting not only darker skin and slanted eyes, but also different body shapes."

"I just feel really positive about the future of heavy women in Hollywood," Ms. Childerhose says. "It's not going to be perfect but it's going to be a whole lot better."

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