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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