Anne Bancroft’s Fatso and weight in film.
Amongst pop-culture films about weight issues like Heavy Weights and Shallow Hal sits Anne Bancroft’s Fatso. Fatso is a lighthouse within a sea of the tired and drab. Fatso is a deep cut of Bancroft’s (her singular writing and directorial outing) and an aside in Mel Brooks’ producing credits. That said, it isn’t the “Cinema” that film students watch piled into ruddy dorm rooms like sardines. It doesn’t get passed along because it is a highlight of filmmaking. Someone hands you the ratty VHS (or it gets a name drop in an episode of Gilmore Girls), and you watch it. Weight Watchers rates the film as one of the best films dealing with weight loss, as does this diet program, as does this diet blog. People watch Fatso because it goes there. It’s the type of film that finds its own audience.
The film centers around Dom DiNapoli (Dom Deluise) who sets out to lose weight. He is urged ahead by his sister Antoinette (Anne Bancroft) and older brother Frankie (Ron Carey) following the death of their beloved cousin Salvatore. Antoinette is fearful for Dom’s overall health. At her urging, Dom visits a diet doctor and receives a list of forbidden foods. Dom then joins the Chubby Checkers, a diet program which functions practically somewhere between Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. In addition to his struggle to lose weight, Dom has another goal. He wants to ask Lydia (Candice Azzara) on a date. The film’s subplot revolves around his courtship of Lydia and his desire to live a full life that he has deprived himself of due to his weight. He wants a life. He wants romance. He is trying to help himself. Dom is a man of insecurities. He has low self-esteem, and he lets himself down and holds himself back. His weight loss journey is as much about the weight as it is his inner turmoil over his weight. Through the tension between Dom’s emotional turmoil, Fatso shows that the physical transformation is as important as the mental one. What Fatso does is acknowledge the human aspect of weight loss. Although it farms it’s subject for laughs, it does not do so without recognizing its main character’s humanity.
While the film does share some laughs regarding the struggles of weight loss, it does not shy away from the fragility and emotional aspects that underpin many weight issues. Perhaps this is the underlying reason behind the uneven tone that Roger Ebert referenced in his 1980 review: “[Fatso has the] unique distinction of creating in its audiences an almost constant suspense about how they’re supposed to be reacting.” He’s not wrong. At one moment the voracious binges are played for laughs while at another point it’s seen as tragic. A fatal flaw of an amiable, sweet Dom. That is part of the overall charm within the circles in which the film is passed around. Dom succeeds at being likable despite the fact that he is at once his worst enemy and strongest asset. Dom wants to lose weight, but he also has deep seeded emotional issues. These problems threaten to undermine his successes.
At one point Dom, overcome with depression, has broken his diet and eaten a large pepperoni pizza. On the perspicuous of another food binge, Dom’s called his fellow Checkers for support. After the men arrive, they sit in a semicircle sipping hot water to dissuade their appetites. Dom describes his lapse of willpower. After a brief discussion of Dom’s deceased cousin, the conversation soon shifts to the pizza he ate. The men swap food stories like some men swap sexual exploits in a locker room. Sonny (Richard Karron), the lead Checker, swoons: “Did you ever suck the jelly out of a jelly doughnut and then fill it with chocolate swirl ice cream?” Soon each Checker requests lemon for their hot water. The descriptions of food get more graphic, and the foods themselves more decadent until, finally, Dom calls to his brother, “Get the honey, junior!” The scene is off to the comedic races as the gaggle of overweight men descend upon the kitchen. Donuts ordered. Pasta cooked. It is a binge.
Contrast this to depictions of obesity in a film like Nocturnal Animals. The opening scene plays out with obese women dancing and then laying motionless on slabs as Amy Adams walks around introspective and actor-y. They are meant to paint an image of excess. They are gluttony devoid of meaning (for a more in-depth analysis of the use of fat bodies in Nocturnal Animals, Athena Talks recently published a lengthier piece). Or, if Nocturnal Animals got away from you this Oscar season, instead focus on Wall-E and its gluttonous depiction of a spaceship inhabiting humanity. They’re soft and squishy, Pixar’s bubbly animation gives their zaftig features a doughy quality. Worse yet, they spend their time on the futuristic equivalent of Rascal scooters. Both these dancing women and the space cruise goers are meant to symbolize the excess of American lives. As Jean Baudrillard put it America has “lost the formula for stopping.”
Fatso is not reductive. Dom is not some abstract symbol. Rather, Dom is a whole person just like any fully developed character. The audience knows what motivates him: the death of his cousin, Salvatore. The audience knows what he wants: to pursue a relationship with Lydia and to lose weight. The audience knows what stands in his way: his insecurity. They have an intimate look at his personal drives. Dom’s problematic relationship with food is discussed not at his expense but as part of his overall characterization. Like any other protagonist, Dom’s tragic flaw is his relationship with food, and like any challenge in life, he can meet it laughing or with trepidation. Further, as images depict Dom’s life with Lydia following their marriage, Dom is happy in himself and his marriage fat and thin. His weight is not the total sum of his happiness nor the source of his despair.
“I cannot make you understand,” Kafka wrote in Metamorphosis, “I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.” What Fatso does with weight and weight loss, is an attempt to bridge that understanding between what happens in the innermost thoughts and feelings of a person with the exterior appearance of that person. It’s holistic in its discussion of weight and the result is one of the most honest portraits of weight and self-esteem issues on screen.