08 December 2009

Fat people as background characters in film

I went to see Der Blaue Engel last night. It's a great film, eh? Marlene Dietrich, Joseph von Sternberg, Emil Jannings, obsession and madness, creepy clowns, show people, sex, gutter life; it has it all.

There's something else it has too: a cast of fat actors. Dietrich herself is pretty chunky in the earlier part of the film, much fatter than a leading lady would be allowed to be nowadays, though still normal-sized. What I'm talking about is the protagonist, Professor Immanuel Rath, who is a very stout fellow, not to mention Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert the conjuror, and the actor who plays the owner of The Blue Angel. These guys really fill up the screen.

It's not just the men either, Rosa Valetti, who plays Guste, corrals a group of fat women performers who share the stage with Dietrich. They are clearly background, they don't have names, but they are unforgettable. It's possible that their fatness is an allusion to their low rent status as performers and maybe sex workers, or to their general degeneracy. These women are not curvy, they're barrel-shaped fatties and they wear skimpy clothes and sit on the stage drinking beer after beer, some of them are old. They get in the way, they sulk, and one of them has an act that involves something saucy that is kept well out of the frame, all we ever see is her rolling her eyes suggestively. These are the kind of gals that I dream of hanging out with.

I'm developing a fascination with fat characters in film, not the stars, the ones who appear in the background, the secondary or tertiary characters. I want to know more about them. I wonder if being background means that film makers can get away with more, in a cultural climate that denigrates fatness, than if such fat characters were placed in the foreground. Their presence is so fleeting yet they stay with me.

I think this phenomenon has roots in the work that Vito Russo did with The Celluloid Closet. Russo identified queer characters in films, the sort of characters and actors whom you might pass over unless you knew the signals, codes and stereotypes that outed them. If you have The Eyes, that is, a certain queer sensibility, you can see these characters, Russo used this way of seeing to shine a spotlight on them.

Being in the margins of film, and culture, is a depressing reminder of fat people's secondary status in general. Looking out for fat people in the background is like begging for crumbs of recognition from an uncaring culture. But Russo showed us that these crumbs can add up and become something more substantial, and that in some circumstances the margins can eclipse the action centrestage.

Here are three publicity stills from the same scene. Don't look at Dietrich, check out the women behind her!


ltl said...

Thanks--- I haven't seen that movie in a long time, and now aim to go look at it with new eyes.

You remind me here too of Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman. The curiosity, the longing to know more about the "bit" players representing something an old way that we're trying to get a sense of. Who were those women?? I want to hang out with them too.

- Lisa/'Ff'lo

Charlotte Cooper said...


Jeremy Dennis said...

There's a ringletted house dancer in Cabaret (the movie) I find similarly fascinating.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Oooh, good to know.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen the old HBO show Carnivale? There are some very sexy fat ladies on there- very memorable performances indeed :).

Charlotte Cooper said...

No. It's not so much the sexiness that I'm talking about here, it's the way such background characters are brought into the foreground. Is that what's going on in Carnivale?

Jessie said...

Carnivale is interesting in that it doesn't desexualize or deintellectualize (is that a word?) fat women and middle-aged women, but there's a fat, sad teenager in it who gets literally the most horrible fate imaginable.

It does bring background characters into the foreground pretty often--unfortunately it's often to torment them somehow. Then again, no one escapes untormented.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading a fantastic biography of Dietrich at present - at the point in history when The Blue Angel was filmed, Germany was just coming out of a horrific postwar famine in which over 700 000 people died. At that particular moment in history, fat was DEFINITELY sexy. I think fashion favors the unattainable. (In the book, Dietrich's schoolmates relate anecdotes about her sneaking out and getting ahold of cream cakes and other verboten sweets - hence the curvy figure. Good for her, I say!)

I know this comment's not exactly on-topic, but that part of the book's fresh in my mind and I thought the point was salient to the general discussion. Really interesting post!