The most moving film performance that I saw a male actor give in 2006 was Richard Griffiths as Hector, the teacher/hero of The History Boys. Yet in a year of relatively undistinguished leading-man performances, Griffiths failed to receive an Oscar nomination for best actor. Maybe Griffiths got overlooked because the academy disdains film adaptations of stage plays (though that doesn’t seem to have hurt Dreamgirls, which got eight nominations). Maybe Griffiths lost the Anglophile vote to Peter O’Toole, nominated for his performance in Venus (though the academy’s use of proportional voting in its nominations, a system beloved by the left because it gives smaller groups greater power, is supposed to minimize such scenarios). I suspect a different handicap. Griffiths is very fat.
My admiration for Griffiths’ performance in The History Boys is not some quirky and embattled opinion. Griffiths has been widely praised for his performance in the film, and when he played the same role on stage he won a best actor Tony on Broadway and a best actor Olivier in London. All major roles in the film were played by the same actors who originated them at London’s National Theater, where I saw the play in 2004, and on a subsequent world tour that finished up this past fall in New York. With the exception of Clive Merrison’s manic turn as the opportunistic headmaster, every performance translated beautifully from stage to screen. Griffiths’ performance acquired, if anything, a deeper resonance when seen in close-up. (On the whole I preferred the film to the stage play, for reasons extraneous to my argument here. I’ve related them in a “Spoiler Special” podcast with Slate film critic Dana Stevens.)
Why no academy nomination? Looking back over a complete list of previous winners in the best actor and actress categories, I can locate only one fat person. That was Charles Laughton, who won playing Henry VIII in 1933. And even Laughton wasn’t all that fat compared both to Griffiths and to the mountainlike presence Laughton would become later in his career. A few other best actors and best actresses might at worst be called “somewhat beefy.” I’m thinking of Emil Jannings, Marie Dressler, Victor McLaglen, Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, John Wayne, George C. Scott, Kathy Bates, Anthony Hopkins, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The categories of best supporting actor and actress are more hospitable to endomorphs, just as they’re more hospitable to the handicapped and members of minority groups. (It’s OK to be fat or black or the wearer of a prosthetic device, apparently, so long as you don’t hog the whole picture.) Consequently you have Jane Darwell fatly playing Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach, Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier, Burl Ives in The Big Country, and Margaret Rutherford in The V.I.P.s. Hattie McDaniel won a best supporting actress award for Gone With the Wind, and she was both African-American and fat! Sixty-eight years later, Jennifer Hudson, also African-American and fat, gave what is said to be a wonderful leading-role performance in Dreamgirls (haven’t seen it myself) but got slotted into the ghettoized category of best supporting actress.
It is well-known that audiences don’t especially like directing their gaze at people who fail to conform to their notions of normality and physical attractiveness. This is nowhere so true as at the movies. But it’s a tad dismaying to learn that even the film professionals who decide on academy nominations are susceptible to this small-mindedness. Hell, even critics are susceptible to it; in his New Republic review, Stanley Kauffman opined, apropos of nothing, that Griffiths had “the most grotesquely obese figure I can remember in an actor.” (Kauffman liked the performance but weirdly downplayed its significance, saying the role was “a piece of cake for Griffiths, as it would be for any competent actor.”) Fat people are subjected to particular scorn and discomfort, because they are often thought (usually mistakenly) to have gotten that way through self-indulgence. This is a particularly inapt view in Griffiths’ case, because his obesity came about as a result of an ill-considered radiation treatment when he was 8 years old—for being too skinny, of all things. Griffiths told Joyce Wadler of the New York Times that within 12 months of the treatment, his body weight increased by 60 percent. Of course, Griffiths’ weight is entirely irrelevant in any case. Alan Bennett, who wrote the play and the movie, included in his text no reference to the size of Hector, the teacher whom Griffiths plays. (The fellow currently playing Hector on London’s West End is of average size.) What matters is not the size of the actor, but the size of the performance. In that sense, Griffiths is, I believe, too large to ignore.