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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Why can’t Gabourey Sidibe play any role that a thin white actress might play?

Radio idiot Howard Stern engaged in some vile fatbashing of Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe the other day — I won’t repeat it, but you can listen here, if you must — the upshot of which is that she’s kidding herself in thinking she’s ever gonna get another role after Precious. She already has gotten more work, of course.

A piece at ABC News about Stern’s comments and Sidibe’s Hollywood prospects includes some comments from industry professionals that are far more insidious and revealing about Hollywood’s predjudices, under the guise of concern:

New York casting director Bernard Telsey said Sidibe’s size is both a plus and minus.

“It’s going to make her not right for the new ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but it’s going to make her right for the role that needs her for that specificity,” Telsey told ABCNews.com. “There’s room in Hollywood for someone who looks like her,” Telsey said. “Sure, there will be fewer roles, but there’s always less of everything for people who are unique and original and different.”

Greg Kilday, film editor for The Hollywood Reporter, said Hollywood will have to think creatively to find roles for Sidibe. “And Hollywood isn’t always creative,” he told ABCNews.com. “To try to find roles that she will fit well in is going to be tricky. She may, in some senses, find herself competing with Jennifer Hudson, who already has an Oscar under her belt. Hudson hasn’t done much in the way of film work since ‘Dreamgirls.’ I think Gabourey might face the same challenges.”

Do you see what they’re saying? Thin white actresses can play anything — cop, criminal, lawyer, mother, lover, victim, doctor, patient, and certainly romantic leads — but a fat black actress can only play a part that is specificially about being fat and black! Because when someone is fat, black, or both, that is the entirety of their lives! Fat black young women have no other concerns outside of the color of their skin or the number on a scale: not about love, about work, about family, about the giant mess the world is.

Why couldn’t Sidibe fall in love with a vampire? Or play an intern at a Fortune 500 company who uncovers evidence of corporate crime? Why the fuck couldn’t Sidibe play Juliet?

Why can’t Gabourey Sidibe play any role that a thin white actress might play?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • LaSargenta

    Actually, I’d like to see a remake of The Good The Bad and The Ugly with Gabourey playing Eastwood’s role.

  • Jan Willem

    I used to act in a student theatre company that carried on for a while after everyone had graduated. For our production of As You Like It, we cast a big girl as Rosalind. She was ecstatic to get the part and it gave a whole new slant to the play.

  • Sarah

    Gabourey Sidibe in The Women:

    “Oh for fuck’s sake, he’s an asshole. Dump him and let’s go get hot wings.” The end.

    Gabourey Sidibe in The Seagull:

    “You, young one, your poetry sucks. And you, old dude, you’re creepy. Screw you both, I’m going to Moscow.” The end.

    Gabourey Sidibe in Hamlet:

    SLAP The end.

  • Sarah

    Gabourey Sidibe in The Women:

    “Oh for fuck’s sake, he’s an asshole. Dump him and let’s go get hot wings.” The end.

    Gabourey Sidibe in The Seagull:

    “You, young one, your poetry sucks. And you, old dude, you’re creepy. Screw you both, I’m going to Moscow.” The end.

    Gabourey Sidibe in Hamlet:

    SLAP The end.

  • Magess

    Is being black as big a limiting factor as being female and being fat? I see black lawyers, black cops, black doctors, black action heroes. Probably not as many as there should be, but they’re there.

    How many fat women can you think of that exist on TV or in movies for reasons other than being fat? Of any skin color?

    Now eliminate the ones who are comedic sidekicks.

    They don’t get to be romantic leads because “no one would ever reasonably love that”. You’d think they’d be likely to be cast as villains, but you usually get “pretty bitches” if women are going to be evil. Same with victims, except it’s more tragic if the dead woman is also thin and pretty, because then it’s more a waste that she’s a corpse. Doctors and lawyers seems possible…

  • Part of the problem is that women are still cast for 99% of roles, including one-liners and minor characters – if they are considered “traditionally” pretty. Now I know and you know that fat women date, can be considered sexy, fall in love, get married, etc as often as thin women and fat men, but whoever makes the casting decisions feels that this is untrue and will not cast them as love interests. The general sexism of our culture also demands that non-traditionally attractive women should not be portrayed at all.

    When Camryn Manheim started out, she begged her agent to send her on “Cop” or “Doctor” calls, for roles involving only one or two lines. These usually go to men.

  • mortadella

    I always wonder about the motivations of people who need to convince others that they will be failures.
    In Stern’s case, I guess he doesn’t want to believe he may be forced to watch actresses that don’t resemble the models in his porn collection.

  • tomservo

    Besides, all the roles calling for a large black woman will be given to Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry.

  • isobel

    That radio commentary was so offensive in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. They way they kept pretending to forget her name, as if ‘fat black chick’ is all anyone would ever need to know about her, even the fact that she’s talented enough to get an oscar nomination is apparently an insult to trained actors. God forbid a fat woman should be a talented actor! Of course, if she looked like Charlise Theron it’d be a whole different matter.

    Sometimes I despair, I really do. This kind of crap is so pervasive.

  • Mo

    MaryAnn, I think the implications of that ABC article are a lot more disturbing than what you mentioned:

    Do you see what they’re saying? Thin white actresses can play anything — cop, criminal, lawyer, mother, lover, victim, doctor, patient, and certainly romantic leads — but a fat black actress can only play a part that is specificially about being fat and black!

    What the guy is saying is that most roles are flat placeholders that go to interchangeable forgettable people.

    It’s like in the fashion industry. Most of the sample sizes are a zero or a two. If a girl doesn’t fit the dress, they get a different girl. They are hired to be walking clothes hangers not people wearing clothes.

    What he’s implying is that most minor roles fit in similar ways- the actress (or lets face it male actors who aren’t leads have the same problem) needs to be just pretty and bland enough to be remembered as a role rather than as an actual character who has any long term affect on the plot- pleasant, but completely interchangeable and forgettable. Which explains why I can’t tell those Hollywood girls (and guys) apart.

    Put someone like Gabourey in a cop’s uniform to speak a few lines and even before taking the weight issue into account the size of her personality and talent is going to steal the scene. Which is a bad thing if you’re paying your narcissistic lead actor 20 million bucks.

    Maybe this is old news, but it just hit me and it makes me really sad.

    …As for Gabourey’s chances in general, I think if she keeps at it with a personality like that, there’s a substantial Latifa-like place for her that has been waiting for the right person to show up.

  • That radio commentary was so offensive in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin.

    Well, it is Howard Stern.

    And it’s been obvious to anyone paying attention during the last two decades that Howard Stern isn’t exactly Mr. Sensitive when it comes to matters of race and gender.

    So should I be surprised that a notorious twit/asshole/whatever talks like a notorious twit/asshole/whatever?

    Not really.

    Put someone like Gabourey in a cop’s uniform to speak a few lines and even before taking the weight issue into account the size of her personality and talent is going to steal the scene. Which is a bad thing if you’re paying your narcissistic lead actor 20 million bucks.

    And yet once upon a time, Hollywood did have room for such great character actors. No one ever said they shouldn’t bother casting a scene-stealing character actress like Thelma Ritter in the same movie as Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly because she might distract attention from the real movie stars.

    Of course back then, you didn’t need a press release to figure out who the real movie stars were, either.

    In any event, didn’t they say the same thing about a certain black actor who starred in The Green Mile that they’re currently saying about Ms. Sidibe? And isn’t that guy still making movies? Granted, they aren’t necessarily good movies but still…

  • “there’s always less of everything for people who are unique and original and different”

    That’s my favorite line. The perfect condemnation of the entertainment industry. Besides, being over weight isn’t exactly “different.”

    @Sarah: LOL – ain’t it the truth? A critic once wrote that if Othello had been the star of Hamlet, the play would have been half as long, and if Hamlet had been the star of Othello, it would have been twice as long.

  • stryker1121

    Tonio, don’t know if you can compare Michael Clarke Duncan to this girl. Duncan can do action movies for the rest of his career b/c he’s a big, huge dude who happens to be black. Sidibe is big, black and female. Those latter two traits are more defining for her movie career in the eyes of casting directors. They don’t know what the hell to do w/ her beyond Precious-type roles…and like as not she will be pigeonholed into roles that reflect those characteristics unless she loses weight and ‘pretties up’ Hollywood style. Sad but true.

  • Isobel

    @ Tonio. I’m not American and hadn’t come across Howard Stern before (the name rang a bell, but that was it), so I didn’t know to expect that sort of thing. At least I’m warned now and I’ll know to stay away!

  • I’m not American and hadn’t come across Howard Stern before (the name rang a bell, but that was it), so I didn’t know to expect that sort of thing. At least I’m warned now and I’ll know to stay away!

    Fair enough.

    I was a bit surprised the first time Stern started broadcasting to the Dallas radio audience back in the mid-1990s. I had heard rumors about how bad he could be but I was still shocked by how much he got away with when it came to sexist and racist cracks. (And I don’t consider myself the type of person who is easily shocked by radio commentary.)

    The guy has a pretty large following though. And he tends to blow his own horn at every opportunity so I’m glad you managed to get by this long without having to listen to him.

  • A Guy

    MaryAnn: Imagine you’re producing a rom-com and financing it with your life savings. You can either cast Gabourey Sidibe or Zoe Saldana.

    Who would you pick?

    Gabby absolutely can play any of the roles you mentioned. And likely play the hell out of them.

    But no one will go. Except you. “Oh, you feminists are SO superior, aren’t you?” Everyone’s very impressed.

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn: Imagine you’re producing a rom-com and financing it with your life savings.

    Nice straw man. That is not how Hollywood movies get made. But thanks for playing.

    You can either cast Gabourey Sidibe or Zoe Saldana.

    Who would you pick?

    It would have to be an extraordinarily original rom-com for me to do so. If I had life savings. So chances are excellent that it would make more sense for someone like Sidibe to star in it.

    But no one will go. Except you. “Oh, you feminists are SO superior, aren’t you?” Everyone’s very impressed.

    It’s “superior” to ackowledge that people are human? That movies that embrace the full range of human experience are more interesting than those that don’t?

    You know what, A Guy? You’re wrong. A character that made full use of Sidibe’s bubbly personality and apparently boundless enthusiasm for life could have wide appeal. That is, if Hollywood had an iota of creativity and was able to see beyond the end of its own rhinoplastied nose.

  • Nathan

    She can play any role a thin, white actress can play, but many fewer people would pay to see it.

    It’s kind of like asking why McDonald’s doesn’t serve broccoli instead of chicken McNuggets. It might be healthier, but they would lose a lot of money.

  • Arco

    I don’t see how those people (apart from Stern) are being ‘insidious’. They’re not saying they feel it want it to go this way, just that it IS that way. I think we need to make the distinction her in two ways of saying ‘Sibide can or can’t play a role’.

    1- Can or can’t in terms of convincingly act.

    2- Can or can’t dealing with ugly facts of ‘how things are.

    Obviously she has talent and who knows what roles she would be great in. But the ability for any actor to get roles is simply not limited to the amount of your talent. Looks are a part of it. Always have been. We can say how it shouldn’t be till we’re blue in the face but that doesn’t change it. Averagely speaking, audiences want to look at pretty people when they go to the movies.

    Generally these days, physically unattractive people are only tolerated when they’re old. Or funny. Or scary (even that one only sometimes. Usually only in horror) Things have always been bad for women, but even for men there is more and more emphasis on looks. Are there even that many not-handsome male actors out there who have a great career and NOT specialize in being the ‘funny guy’? (Black, Sandler, Stiller, Schneider, Myers, etc.) I doubt people like Dustin Hoffman would get very far if they had to start out today.

    Guys like Phil Seymour Hofman get lucky and land a role like Capote once in a while. Paul Giamatti gets lucky and play Adams. But they kinda struggle too otherwise. They will never be cast as Romeo either.

    Sibide might do a great job as Juliet, but mainstream audiences want pretty Romeos and Juliets because they all want to fall in love with the characters. And most people in society will not find Sibide attractive. Just like most women don’t find Giamatti attractive either. James Bond will never be played by a morbidly obese man. Anyone seriously tell me they would’ve hired Dom DeLuise to be Indiana Jones way back when? Because it would have bombed. Unless it was comedy.

    Audiences want to look at pretty people. Sad. But also simply a fact and that’s all Telsey and Kilday seem to be talking about. They weren’t saying it SHOULD be that way. They were simply realistically predicting. And sadly, they’re probably right.

  • I think James Bond is a bad example. You legitimately would have to be in great shape to be an assassin running around the world fighting the forces of evil; by that standard, only the first and most recent Bond actors were actually physically fit enough to be believeable.

    I think a typical John Cusack role would be better. Imagine “High Fidelity” if John Cusack and Jack Black switched roles and tried to imitate each other. Black would tone it down and Cusack hype it up.

  • Lisa

    There are so few roles for women, even male extras outnumber them, so there are even fewer roles for you, if you don’t fit the mould. Look at how Brittany Murphy and Christina Ricci struggled and they fit the skinny,white and pretty requirements. So I’d imagine there’d be less opportunity if you are black and fat. There are not a lot of high profile black or fat actresses out there, either.

  • Arco

    To Paul: Good point. But you agree that for Jack Black to get the lead in Hi Fidelity, it would’ve had to’ve been a silly comedy like School of Rock.

    Fat doesn’t do well in the theaters unless you’re funny. John Candy and Chris Farley only got to be funny too.

  • Dave

    Just feel like making a small point. Are there any male actors her age that are as overweight as she is? I can’t think of any. As you get older it seems to start to be ok to be overweight (more so for men) but even then it severely limits any roles you might get. Focusing on the black woman thing is missing the point.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s bullshit to say that “audiences don’t want this” and “audiences don’t want that” when we never see movies that deviate from the narrow perceived norms of Hollywood. There is no evidence at all that audiences would reject someone Jack Black in a role that isn’t “funny” or Gabby Sidibe in a romantic role when we never get the chance to see such things.

    Of course audiences want to see attractive people onscreen. But attractive encompasses a helluva lot more than Hollywood thinks it does.

  • @Arco: that is the reality of how Hollywood works, yes. But I would be interested to see if Jack Black has the acting range to act like John Cusack and carry the lead in High Fidelity. I know Cusack could play Jack Black, but how often does Jack get the chance to be John?

  • although not a great movie, The Holiday, with jack black, cameron diaz, jude law and kate winslet *did* show jack black as a charming, talented and amusing romantic possibility. as a matter of fact, he was rather “john cusik-y” (used as a reference to a type of male romantic figure, not that he was imitating JC). he also did not do “fat funny guy” in his role in King Kong either and he gave it far more complexity than another actor might have. he might have a real future in indie romances… would an actress of Sidibe’s physical appearance have the same chance whether black or white?

  • Psychic Secretary

    I don’t think putting Sidibe on a horse is going to work.

    People seem to be ignoring the fact that extremely fat people can’t move as easily, they get out of breath quickly, they have to be careful where they sit. When they sit, sometimes they have trouble getting up.

    Some of the limitation of roles for Sidibe is not the result of prejudice but of literally what a large body can and cannot do.

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