Julius Caesar was a chubby-chaser. If Will Shakespeare is to be believed, he would stride about the Forum making his predilections known to all and sundry:
Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights.
While fat was where it was at for old Jules, when it came to skinny dudes, he was positively discriminatory:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.
Back in the day, heft was associated with gravitas and power, leadership, and trust. Fat blokes, by their very physiques, projected monumental indestructability. Even when they were rotting with syphilis (Henry VIII) or prone to decapitating their spouses (Henry VIII, again) they were somehow preferable to those malevolent skinny fellows (Richard III). Obese monarchs and porky politicos loomed large on any podium or battlefield, and one imagines that when they delivered speeches their words boomed and reverberated to tremendous effect. Enough to make your jewelry rattle.
It’s hard to imagine a scrawny geezer having the same kind of impact. Imagine if Winston Churchill, instead of looking like Falstaff, were to have resembled Igor Stravinsky, or a Giacometti sculpture. I cannot help feeling his we-will-fight-on-the-beaches addresses to the nation would have been much less comforting.
Today’s landscape is different. Great fat men are thin on the ground. This represents something of a paradox. Obesity rates among the masses are soaring, but there are far fewer rotund bold-facers than there used to be. This is especially true in the world of entertainment. Yes we have Philip Seymour Hoffman—is he fat or just “husky”?—and the incredible James Gandolfini, but that’s about it. Some celebs like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill debuted as fat and then sneakily lost the weight in order to get more roles.
Back when there were fewer overweight people around, being fat was a vaudevillian novelty. Heavyweights like W.C. Fields and Fatty Arbuckle were seen as special and, yes, as a barrel of laughs. As the century progressed, the entertainment industry became jammed-to-bursting with unapologetic tubsters, Hitchcock and Orson Welles among them. The list is a large one: Robert Morley, James Robertson Justice, Stubby Kaye, Rod Steiger, late Brando, y mas.
Here are my top five massively memorable movie moments from the golden age of galloping gourmands:
1. My all-time favorite silver-screen chubster is Sydney Greenstreet of Casablanca fame. No actor today could hold a candle to big Syd, and certainly none are as fat. In addition to being a great character actor, Mr. Greenstreet created a whole new genre: the extremely evil fat man. As the aptly named Mr. Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, he manages to be even more disturbing than Joel Cairo, the perfumed poseur played by Peter Lorre, and was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts. The best scene is shot from in under Gutman’s gut:
2. The fabulously fat Syd occupies two of my picks. As Sheriff Titus Semple in Flamingo Road he sets about destroying honky-tonk-gal-made-good Lane Bellamy, played by Joan Crawford. She expresses her gratitude by—there’s no other way to describe it—slapping the shit out of him.
3. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy’s spastic colon looms large. Burly Burl Ives sang folk ditties most of the time, but that did not stop him from knocking it out of the park with his nasty-ass depiction of a rage-filled cancer-riddled Southern patriarch.
4. Victor Buono was great as King Tut in the original Batman TV series, but his finest fat moment occurred when he played Bette Davis’ sweaty, anxious-but-amused musical arranger in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
5. I see the exploding Mr. Creosote, played by Terry Jones in the movie Monty Python: The Meaning of Life, as a watershed moment. The end of an era. After this, there were no more iconic fat-for-the-sake-of-being-fat actors, unless you count Grizz on 30 Rock.
As I watched these old clips I found myself thinking of an English politician named Cyril Smith. Now deceased, M.P. Cyril was the Gutman/Creosote of the House of Commons. A 400-pounder, he never married, preferring to feast on his mum’s Yorkshire pudding. It was only after old Cyril popped his clogs that we faced the truth: Cyril was in the pocket of the asbestos industry.
Would Mitt Romney’s ratings improve if he packed on a few pounds like old Cyril? Might a little girth give him a dash of much-needed gravitas and halt his downward spiral? It might be worth a shot. His current retro-wholesome matinee idol shtick—I associate him with Rock Hudson’s wooden character in that strangely artificial Douglas Sirk movie The Magnificent Obsession—could use the realness of a beer belly.
However, I am not wildly optimistic that it would help. These days, fat and politics are unhappy bedfellows. Other than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, there are no supersized politicians who spring to mind. The Churchill effect has expired. Now, being fat is associated with addiction and dropping dead. If Winnie were around today he would undoubtedly be found hula-hooping frantically outside Number 10, while guzzling Activia. What gave gravitas and prominence on a distant hilltop in ancient Rome is now merely a one-way ticket to audition for The Biggest Loser.
While I look back fondly at the era of the Greenstreets and the Big Daddies, I will, when the election finally rolls around, be putting my trust in the other bloke, the guy with the lean and hungry look. You know who I mean.