You can't make this stuff up

Gaining, losing weight becoming the price actors pay to play

December 13, 2004|By Craig Outhier | Craig Outhier,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The story, like an old VHS tape, has undoubtedly been distorted by years of repeated use, but here goes:

It's 1975. Dustin Hoffman is on the set of John Schlesinger's Marathon Man, running wind sprints to prepare for a scene that calls for his character to appear flushed and out of breath. Seeing his young co-star jog up and down the street for no apparent reason, Laurence Olivier - the wizened Pharaoh of British theater - haughtily asks Hoffman to explain himself. When Hoffman obliges, Olivier shakes his head and clucks, "Why don't you try acting, my boy?"

Actors - or more accurately, movie actors - don't think that way anymore. You have to remember, Olivier came from a tradition where it was deemed acceptable for a white actor to smear burnt cork on his face and call himself Othello. Call it vanity, call it obsolete classicism, but actors of yesteryear truly believed that all performance - with perhaps a little cosmetic help - came from within. Physical authenticity was of lesser concern.

Today, audiences demand authenticity down to the very last pore, as do actors, which is why movie stars such as Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason) and Christian Bale (The Machinist) submit themselves to sometimes Draconian dietary methods to prepare for roles. The camera conceals little; whether it's a bead of sweat or 60 pounds of flesh, modern actors have fewer qualms than ever about manipulating their bodies for the sake of their craft.

Theatrical lore tells us of actors summoning teardrops by plucking nose hairs or waving onion wedges under their eyes - crude, Bronze-age tools compared to the advanced weaponry employed in today's Hollywood. The current trend may have taken off when non-pneumatic literary heiress Mariel Hemingway signed on to play murdered Playboy model Dorothy Stratten in Bob Fosse's 1983 tell-all Star 80. Reportedly, Hemingway's casting was contingent on receiving breast implants, a claim the actress later denied. Still, she got them, and the role.

Obviously, most cases of scalpel-casting go unreported, but Barbara Hershey came clean about getting collagen injections to give her a more glamorous, full-lipped appearance for Beaches (1988). Robert De Niro plucked his hairline for The Untouchables (1987).

De Niro, of course, is even more famous for his epic bouts of bingeing and purging. No one but his gastronomist in Milan knows how many plates of manicotti were consumed to create his love handles in Raging Bull (1980), but De Niro's fanatical resolve quickly became the stuff of showbiz legend. Impersonating De Niro on a Saturday Night Live sketch back in the 1980s, Sean Penn - something of a fanatical actor himself - joked about having "two vertebrae" removed for his latest movie role.

Some actors have used dieting as a defense against typecasting, often with dubious results. Certain that his career as an action star was in the Dumpster, Sylvester Stallone lobbied hard to win the role of a shlumpy, timid lawman in James Mangold's artsy Cop Land (1997), even promising to fatten up his famous chiseled physique. It didn't really take. Stallone still looked physically menacing, not like the atrophied, half-blind couch potato we were promised.

No actor and filmmaker have streamlined the dieting process quite like Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks did for Cast Away (2000). While production halted for a year so Hanks could lose 50 pounds and grow his hair out, Zemeckis used the same crew to film What Lies Beneath (2000). And though Hanks' transformation was striking, there was also something a bit manufactured-looking about his toned abs and sun-bleached highlights, as if spending four years on a desert island subsisting on crabs and palm fronds was the same as becoming a metrosexual.

Charlize Theron's 2003 Best Actress Oscar for Monster (she gained 30 pounds for the role of convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos) stamped stunt-dieting with the ultimate imprimatur. Look no further than Bale's haunting performance in The Machinist, currently in theaters. Our first glimpse of the actor is like a snapshot from Auschwitz - he is withered, pale and skeletal, nothing like the fit, muscular actor from American Psycho and Shaft. Bale lost 60 pounds in a little under four months by limiting himself to a few bites of food a day. He has told interviewers that the process left him so depleted, he was unable to run more than a block without being overcome by exhaustion.

Bale's near-masochistic methods challenge us to examine our fascination with celebrity stunt-dieting. Movie stars are already larger-than-life figures to us; the fact that they can manipulate their weight, apparently at will, while many Americans wage dietary trench-warfare against themselves only enhances their mystique. And now we have Bale, an actor who would evidently risk massive organ failure to stay on the cutting edge of his craft.

Could it be sheer competitiveness that makes stars such as George Clooney undermine their own sex appeal for choice roles? If so, we appear to have reached some sort of ceiling. Clooney gladly packed on 30 pounds to play CIA analyst Robert Baer in Stephen Gaghan's coming expose Syriana, but he refused to shave his head, for fear his hair might not grow back. Some things, after all, are sacred.

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