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.