Up the Valley: The Skinny

January 24, 2013

Explain-away unwanted weight gain, Hollywood-style. Today’s column in the Star

One of the advantages I’ve always imagined attaches to being a film star is the ability to blame unwanted, unsightly weight gain on the need to “bulk up” for a movie role.

De Niro and Streep can eat all the pasta they want, plus dessert; it’s assumed that they are simply in the midst of another miraculous physical transformation, preparing for an upcoming biopic of Pavarotti or Clooney (Rosemary), respectively. “The Oprah,” herself a film star of sorts, can not only use this particular excuse, she can reuse any pesky holdover post-production pounds as fodder for her latest cookbook, inspirational-coach-turned-TV-host spinoff, or highly rated tear-soaked primetime special. Even chubby opera singers can croon about reaching their “perfect singing weight.”

Yet it seems that Hollywood actresses continue to shrink to unprecedented, unhealthy and unattractive levels.

I had finally gotten used to the modern ideal of movie beauty: impossibly young puffy-lipped females with oversized heads bobbing above sinewy muscular frames onto which two giant breasts had been stapled. Resembling Olympic marathon runners (men’s division), their bodies displayed the benefits of long lunch-less office hours spent at the gym, with a quick stopover at the plastic surgeon’s office on the commute home.

But now the muscles seem to be disappearing, consigned to extinction along with the curvy hip and the plump bottom, leaving only bones and artificial bumps. Picture Popeye’s Olive Oyl in a D-cup.

At a recent film opening, the adorable actress Emma Stone appeared so thin and lollipop-like that comments on fan sites ranged from “OMG” and “This is frightening” to “Somebody please get that girl a sandwich.”

Contrast such actresses with their male counterparts. Other than Daniel Day-Lewis, who could clearly grow a horn if cast as a unicorn, you don’t generally see male movie stars losing weight to an alarming degree. In general, an actor’s only reason to purposefully slim down is to eliminate his gut and reveal six-pack abs, thereby increasing his odds of selection as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, or at least a guest shot on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Yet no one anticipates publication of People’s Skinniest Woman Barely Alive issue, although it would be a page-turner. It simply doesn’t matter how unhealthy actresses appear; the red carpet recap focuses on the svelte wearing a pelt, never mind the pallor.

Of course, this is old news in the fashion world, despite occasional movements to feature “healthy” models who are only slightly emaciated, as opposed to all-out anorexic. That models can appear dewy and bright-eyed despite prolonged undernourishment merely proves that they are either 12 years old, heavily medicated, or are digitally produced holograms.

What would land a normal person in an eating disorder clinic lands these girls the cover of Vogue. I’ve often wondered whether there is a special French fashion cemetery for the European variety of the fast-living gamine, where they can be efficiently stacked for all eternity, like kindling, alongside the black-clad magazine editors and chain-smoking ballerinas.

But back in Hollywood, it’s not surprising to see male actors shrink or expand, since sudden temporary weight gain is one ticket to an Oscar nod, as is playing a character who is physically or mentally challenged (see De Niro and Day-Lewis, above). The equivalent female formula requires a spectacularly glamorous actress to render herself almost unrecognizably unattractive (try serial killer or crime victim), to be imprisoned by Nazis, or to be Meryl (see Streep, above).

But what does this all mean to you and me, we unfortunate many who cannot attribute unwelcome weight gain to our film commitments? Let’s just come up with a few excuses of our own, and agree — as a community — to accept them, no questions asked.

For example, people in the wine industry might try: “My increased body mass helps me more efficiently metabolize alcohol.” Or those involved in tourism could claim a need to “be more relatable to visitors from Kansas City.” The culinarily employed already rely on the reasoning: “Well, I have to taste everything to recommend it, don’t I?” And you are welcome to use my excuse: “I am suddenly sedentary from spending so much time working on my novel.”

Actor Jonah Hill reportedly lost a great deal of weight a couple of years ago, hoping to “age up” so that industry bigwigs would stop associating him with frivolous juvenile roles. This weight loss succeeded in broadening his range of potential parts, raised his salary demands and triggered the inevitable Oscar nomination. But recently, according to photos posted on online gossip sites, he has regained much of the weight he had previously lost. Word is, Hill is bulking up for an upcoming movie role.

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In today’s column in the Star, I ponder our collective affection for Downton Abbey…

I’ve read that transgender females often share the lifelong feeling of being a woman trapped in a man’s body. I’m beginning to suspect that I must be transgentrified, because I feel exactly like a rich person trapped in a not-so-rich person’s life.

Perhaps this explains why I so enjoy a British television program, or programme to be proper, about a fabulously land-rich aristocratic family and the servants who bathe them. Downton Abbey, starting its third season on PBS, has become an obsession, and not just among those for whom a “Shades of Grey” fantasy refers to the color of their servants’ uniforms. This opulent period drama reminds us that people once had real problems, like one’s rightful heirs perishing on the Titanic, causing one’s estate to overlook one’s daughters (obviously) and favor instead a lower form of humanity having the bad taste to actually work for a living.

The series’ popularity in America seems surprising given our purportedly ongoing class warfare, our huddled masses yearning to breathe the rarified air of the 1 percent in whose well-manicured hands the vast majority of the country’s wealth has been placed. Today’s millionaires call themselves middle class, the citizens formerly known as middle class are now just poor people with nicer cars, and media outlets on the brink of bankruptcy are called “the elite.” Insensitive statements by billionaire politicians have only widened the deep divide separating the haves from both the have-nots and the had-it-until-we-were-cheated-out-of-its in our democracy.

And yet, a PBS series about the privileged and pampered in hierarchical old England has set viewing records, simultaneously restoring the fortunes of many a local station peddling boxed sets during the pledge break. If you haven’t seen this show, let me sum it up for you: the rich family upstairs suffers high-class problems while lounging between lavish costume changes, the servants downstairs suffer grittier problems while working themselves into exhaustion, both upstairs and downstairs are adversely affected by wars and by lawyers, downstairs dwellers sometimes kiss upstairs dwellers to the consternation of all, and the most sympathetic character is a head butler who sees the approaching apocalypse in his temporary need to let female servants wait at table. It all makes for ripping good television, with new plot lines appearing quicker than you can drag the naked corpse of a Turkish diplomat from M’Lady’s bedchamber.

Now I lap this up like a saucer of sweet milk, being a shameless trifle-eating, tea-sipping, “Her Majesty the Queen”-worshiping Anglophile. And I am not alone for — much as we Americans like to deny it — we obviously retain a soft spot in our revolutionary hearts for the mother country (many millions watched the royal wedding and the queen’s jubilee). But even those who detest the British on principle, with their wiggy House of Lords, beige food and fondness for fox hunting and grouse shooting, tune in on Sunday nights to see whether Lord Grantham’s dog, trapped in a remote shed by a scheming footman, will be reunited with her master. It’s enough to melt the heart of a Republican seeking to strip Big Bird of public funding.

Perhaps we Americans love the series because we enjoy watching the rich suffer the same troubles and indignities we do. But would we trade places with the dignified housekeeper or even the revolutionary Irish chauffeur? Or is the guilty secret of our capitalist anyone-can-make-it-here mentality really just a deep-seated desire to inherit vast wealth and privilege, like a Windsor or a Walton? At Downton Abbey, now post-WWI, change is coming and inevitable social and financial reversals lie ahead. Our sense of fairness and democracy may temporarily feed off watching the crème de la crème curdle. Still, the lavish surroundings and comfortingly-intractable social order were among the series’ delights, and it remains to be seen whether ratings will suffer as the upper crust crumbles.

One thing is certain: we worship Maggie Smith playing the dowager Countess of Downton, and wish we could turn her loose on today’s dismissive waiters, uppity colleagues and useless legislators so deserving of a good tongue-lashing. Her withering glances and delicious bon mots, always delivered under an opaque veil of politeness, pack more of a punch than hours of vitriolic speechifying. Indeed, the most evocative thing about Downton Abbey may be the pervasive air of civility wafting through its chilly halls, public rooms and private chambers. How lovely to re-live a time when one could disarm an enemy with rapier wit and saucy repartee rather than with expletives, when respect bested rancor, and when an unerring sense of duty prevailed. One thing hasn’t changed, though. It seems that there are still those among us (including some of our elected representatives) who exhibit a most disagreeable disdain toward those having the bad taste to actually work for a living.