I’m sorry. Did I really say that? What I meant to say was: How did I get interested in exploring the cultural divide that exists between the unhappy anorexic woman and the happy obese woman?
“Uh … the section of the film with the … larger woman … and the boy who um … likes her … (pause, then) … um — why?”
To which I often feel like answering: “Why not?” But instead I launch into a completely sincere (but just slightly correct explanation) which goes something like this: the obese are the last openly discriminated-against group in our country. In looking for a secret that the young man can be ashamed to keep, I continually ran up against the “been there seen that” problem: What secrets do today’s youth actually keep?
But the existence of the BBW community — its members and their admirers — is still taboo. The notion that men might prefer fat women to thin ones remains disturbing and — to many — not quite believable. But it’s the truth. Witness the many “fat acceptance” Web sites, dating services and photo galleries you will find on the Internet. Indeed the prevalence of these sites and the pride expressed within them might suggest that the whole “fat people are gross” epidemic is as dead and gone as the “gay people are gay because they had a bad experience with the opposite sex” thing. (Something I was shamefully told in my long-ago youth.)
But it is not so. The obese continue to get passed over for jobs and ridiculed in public for their “defect,” which is widely presumed to be a moral failing. “Why do they weigh so much?” “Why don’t they diet?” “Aren’t they disgusted with themselves?” (Does this sound something like: “Why can’t he/she settle down with a nice girl/guy?”) And alas the answer to the question about self-disgust is often: Yes, the supersized are often filled with shame, self-hatred and self-disgust. How could they not be, given the emphasis we as a society put on being skinny?
On the other hand, there is a sizable (right?) community of obese people who are out in the world proudly proclaiming their right to look like they look. It seems to me that the “fat acceptance community” grew in tandem with the onslaught of the Internet. I think this occurred largely because for the first time the previously hidden, mostly ashamed admirers of super-sized people began to come out of the closet. Once people saw that they were not alone in finding fat people attractive, a cult developed — or a sub-cult, I suppose. Nonetheless, the members began to celebrate their bodies and their selves, giving parties and inviting people to shuck off the sad old notion that women need to be little tiny things to be attractive to men.
How I arrived at this particular secret for the boy to keep and why I inserted it into my movie is the question I’m really being asked by the puzzled ones in the audience. The answer can be found — as so many things can be found — on the Internet.
Do you remember the first wave of the Internet and the pre-Google search engine? The bizarre, hitherto-unknown freedom that came with simply typing in groups of words together and seeing what the “World Wide Web” was going to spit back at you? Much time was spent simply exploring the inner reaches of the subconscious: If I add this word and this thought to that name and this fantasy, what will appear?
Oftentimes not much. But sometimes the frontier opened up onto unexpected vistas.
In my case, it was my extreme and previously unexplored fondness for Elizabeth Taylor, circa late-1970s, that led me to search out pix of fat chicks. Liz, you may remember, had gained a great deal of weight and was the subject of nonstop ridicule from Joan Rivers — then guest hosting “The Tonight Show” more often than Johnny Carson was hosting it. (Best Joan/Liz joke I can remember: “What does Liz Taylor say to the microwave while its heating her food? ‘Hurry! Hurry!’” Second-best Liz/Joan joke: “Liz Taylor is so fat, her thighs are going condo.” Enough.) Liz, the former glam queen gone chicken-bone-choking, fat middle-aged Washington matron, was a symbol of end-of-a-Hollywood-era decadence. If Liz could look like most other women her age, what were we to believe in?
Yet I — pre-adolescent and still pre-sexual — found something lovely and comforting in the flabby, middle-aged Liz. She seemed unashamed, slightly drunk and still quite saucy. When I watched her in, say, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” I felt let down; why, I wondered, was she so thin? Sickness? On the other hand, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (the true beginning of E.T.’s zaftig period) showed me the Liz that I yearned for: slightly frowsy, not delicate, in full ownership of her outlandishly elaborate body. When she stood on the stairs — freshly dressed in her clingiest and least appropriate attire — and casts her dark gaze upon George Segal, I fully understood her allure. It wasn’t about the body. It was about pride.
A formula developed in my mind: Beauty is confidence, confidence is beauty. Liz looking at George Segal was a woman full of confidence in her soon-to-be-accomplished conquest. It was whiny, sniveling Sandy Dennis — too confident of her marriage vows and not at all owning her underwhelming physical and psychic presence — who was going to stand by, helplessly, and watch as her husband was devoured by the plus-sized dragon princess.
And it served Sandy Dennis right. Skinny-ass white bitch.
Seeking clues (and pictures, natch) to this young obsession of mine online led me to discover Dimensions Magazine, an entirely tasteful (in other words, not “Fat Chicks and Plumpers”) celebration of the large female form. And this wasn’t about Liz Taylor-sized fat chicks. This was double all that. Stories, letters and information alternated in Dimensions with photos, paintings and paeans of praise to the full-figured. Strange new concepts were introduced to me through its pages — for instance that there were groups designated as “feeders” and “feedees,” i.e., those who derived erotic satisfaction from fattening another person and those who got satisfaction from being fattened. Well, this wasn’t something that spoke to me, necessarily, but I was suddenly aware of a culture of body worship that seemed incredibly healthy — not in the conventional sense, perhaps, but in the most important sense: It was a culture that celebrated freedom from shame and delight in all things sensuous. Once again, beauty equaled confidence. And vice versa.
And then I had this screenplay to write and needed a secret for the kid to have and so I plugged in the fat-chick stuff. End of story. Except, surprise — I got to make the film. And while it’s easy to envision things from the safety of your office/home/wherever you write, turning them into a reality is sometimes more daunting then you reasonably could expect. One of the first challenges in casting “City Island” was finding the right person to play Denise, our proud BBW. I knew the type of woman it was — I just didn’t know any actresses who were that size. Why not? Because the whole notion of being a professional actress has to do with looking like the way society wants you to look. There are fat actors, of course, and they are either character stars or bit players who get a quick laugh based on their massive size.
But go and find a woman who is beautiful, proud, can act and is double the size of most people who you normally consider overweight? We tried. And we failed.
The first reason being that our casting breakdown people didn’t seem to quite comprehend the severity of our desire for fatness. When I wrote the word “obese” in my script, it somehow got translated to “overweight” to the breakdown service. As a result, we were deluged with photos of women who were, like, 170 pounds. As I poured through them in dismay, I realized that a Hollywood casting director’s idea of obese and what I was writing about were about 200 pounds apart. When I told them that I needed to see people much, MUCH larger, they answered:
“Oh. But you don’t really want to cast somebody that fat, do you?”
To which my answer became a defiant: “Fatter.”
It wasn’t easy. The women who were that size simply weren’t professional actors. My producers and I went to a “goddess” party — a wonderfully over-the-top experience — where we met and mingled with many fantastically proud, sexily got-up supersized women. They’d been told what we were doing and some acted interested in being in a movie. But in the morning, nothing much transpired. Maybe they didn’t really trust us.
And then I got a call from our casting director saying that she’d met, interviewed and pre-screened a woman who she thought might be “just who we were looking for.” She was a professionally trained theater actress from the South named Carrie Baker Reynolds. She lived in New York, found out about the role and came in and gave a great reading.
I was happy, of course, to hear about this — we were only a couple of weeks away from starting and had still had no luck casting Denise. But my first response was cautious.
“Is she just heavy? Or is she really big?” I asked.
“Really big. And very beautiful.”
Hmm. Beauty is confidence, confidence is beauty.
“Can she really act?”
“Yes. And something more …”
“She’s actually the woman you wrote — Denise. A totally life-loving, confident, beautiful woman who’s comfortable with herself and just wants to be accepted for who she is.”
Carrie Baker Reynolds is every one of those things and more. Her love for the role and delight that I even wanted to go to this place where many have not yet ventured, created an incredibly strong and personal bond between us. One that has given her even more confidence than she already has (she really wasn’t in need of much more) but which gave me the greatest gift — that of discovering that what I thought was interesting long ago, in those early frontier days of Internet lurking, was in fact true: the fat acceptance culture is a beautiful, bountiful and entirely necessary thing.
It may still take time for others — not just the skinny but the morally undernourished as well — to fully get on board. Although most people like the Denise subplot, I’ve had a handful of uncomfortable reactions. Strangely they mostly come from women between the ages of 30 and 45 who are really, really thin. Could it be that we are spitting on their religion? Most shamefully, the New York Times — of all places — took the opportunity to snark a bit in discussing the rating of the film: the PG-13, they warned, was in part for “chubby chasing” — a term that will certainly be banished one day to the graveyard of inappropriate prejudicial remarks.
I make no claims for having contributed anything very lasting to social progress — or perhaps just a small claim. Maybe the supersized will begin to appear in movies and literature not as object lessons in what not to become or as simple comic relief, but as people who are simply that … people. Erasing prejudice is a tedious and sadly directionless pursuit. But it does seem to happen eventually.
Who knows? Maybe one day a fat chick will become president.