When I was young, a diminutive sports instructor named Dorf fascinated me. Dorf was no typical golf or fishing teacher: In spite of his many bestselling golf-instruction videos, he did not appear to be a very capable golfer. I found Dorf to be entertaining, edifying, and inspirational. Even though he was born a little person, he nevertheless became a world-class, internationally known and respected athlete and teacher. He was the living embodiment of the American dream, and one of society’s greatest heroes, though in retrospect, it was a little curious that this titan of sports instruction was never seen walking, and that raucous laughter from an unseen source accompanied his every pratfall.
So perhaps I shouldn’t have been quite so shocked to discover that “Dorf” was nothing more than a creation of comic actor Tim Conway, a normal-sized man who achieved the astonishing illusion that he was a midget by standing in a hole and affixing shoes to his knees in a bit of visual trickery worthy of Georges Méliès or Ricky Jay. I was shattered. Was all the inspiration I’d gleaned from Dorf a lie as well? Who could I trust? My eyes had deceived me. With that revelation, the very cornerstones of my existence and belief system were rocked to the core.
By 2008, the fine art of little-person impersonation had advanced to the point that R. Kelly’s lawyers were able to posit Little Man’s ability to pass off normal-sized funnyman Marlon Wayans as a little person as evidence that anything could be achieved through editing and post-production, from making the most talented Wayans look 3 feet tall to creating the illusion that R. Kelly enjoys urinating on underage girls.
In the technological backwater of 2003, however, filmmakers who wanted to make movies about little people were faced with a stark choice: either hire an actual little person, or use camera tricks and prosthetics to create the illusion that a normal-sized actor is a midget or dwarf. Though a painfully earnest testament to the dignity of little people, 2003’s semi-notorious Tiptoes obviously couldn’t cast an actual dwarf or midget in a lead role when there were plenty of more famous normal-sized actors willing to endure incredible discomfort just to steal a job from a struggling minority actor.
So Tiptoes nobly and not at all hypocritically gave Gary Oldman the central part of a little-person writer whose brother (Matthew McConaughey) wrestles with the prospect of having a little-person child with fiancé Kate Beckinsale. Amusingly, the film’s trailer heralds Oldman’s part as “the role of a lifetime.” Considering that his lifetime includes playing Sid Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Orton, Sirius Black, Jim Gordon, Beethoven, and Drexl Spivey in True Romance, that seems a tad bit hyperbolic. Oldman has had at least five roles of a lifetime. His dour Tim Conway homage here isn’t one of them.
Ah, the Tiptoes trailer. It was the hilariously misguided trailer that transformed Matthew Bright’s 2003 drama from a forgotten direct-to-DVD oddity into an Internet sensation of the “Can you believe this exists?” variety. As others have noted, there’s something a little redundant about those clever user-concocted fake trailers positing, say, The Shining as a heartwarming family comedy-drama, since movie trailers regularly take insane, borderline-criminal liberties with the films they’re promoting.
Trailer editors take it upon themselves to summarize and sell the most commercial possible product, whether it bears even a fuzzy resemblance to the film it’s ostensibly promoting. Oftentimes, that means cutting different trailers for different demographics. Consequently, the same film can be marketed as a raunchy teen sex comedy, a heartfelt romance, or an earnest coming-of-age drama.
The trailer for Tiptoes takes this to comic extremes. It’s a wacky comedy about dwarfs! No, it’s a sensitive, thought-provoking exploration of the existential angst of little people, featuring Gary Oldman’s finest performance! It’s a wacky comedy about dwarfs and a sensitive, thought-provoking exploration of the existential angst of little people, featuring Gary Oldman’s finest performance!
Dig those crazy sound effects! Marvel at the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts! The narrator begins the trailer with the kind of zany, can-you-believe-this-tomfoolery lightness that voiceover artists generally reserve for comedies about teens trying to get laid, or animals with magical powers. But then he makes a startling transformation into Hallmark-card sappiness by the time he utters the immortal line, “When the going gets tough, it’s only the size of your heart that counts.”
Judging by what the editors came up with, it’s doubtful they even saw Tiptoes. Like so many trailers, it’s selling a movie that doesn’t really exist, a broad comedy that’s also apparently deeply moving, socially relevant Oscar-bait.
In Tiptoes, McConaughey plays a tragically fully clothed firefighting instructor who has been keeping a secret from fiancé Kate Beckinsale: Everyone in his immediate family is a dwarf. Somehow, this never came up. Maybe it didn’t seem important. Apparently, Beckinsale never asked him personal questions, so he never had to give a response like, “What’s my family like? Nothing too unusual. Middle-class. Love board games. All about 3 feet tall. Same old, same old.”
That changes when Beckinsale becomes pregnant and meets McConaughey’s twin brother, Oldman. Stand back from the computer while playing this clip, or risk being scalded by the explosive chemistry between McConaughey and Oldman. Boy, do these two seem like two people who couldn’t possibly have emerged from the same womb. I don’t want to suggest that the film lacks verisimilitude, but during his first appearance, Oldman reminded me of the Mr. Show sketch with David Cross as a heavy-metal fan who flung himself into a vat of acid, and now has a body that looks like a flesh-colored giant eraser with legs.
How did the filmmakers accomplish this incredible feat of cinemagic? Beckinsale told MTV:
[Oldman] was basically on his knees with a prosthetic part of his head and face and a hump and different kinds of harnesses to strap his arms back to make them short, and special clothes. They had various different effects, like if he was sitting in a chair, his legs would actually be inside the chair and he’d have these little fake legs sticking out on top. It was amazing what they did with him.
It really is amazing what they did with him. Not “Marlon Wayans in Little Man” amazing, but amazing all the same. It should be noted, however, that casting Oldman as a little person is only distracting, irritating, and unconvincing every moment he’s onscreen.
Becoming pregnant with the progeny of a man born to little people invites many questions. This ushers us ever so gently into the section of the film devoted to answering commonly held questions about dwarves: Tiptoes is practically FAQ: The Movie. It reminded me of the many scenes in Gran Torino where Clint Eastwood learns about Hmong culture. Its as if the screenwriter looked up the Hmong people on Wikipedia and decided to implement everything on the page by having every other line of dialogue that comes out of Eastwood’s mouth be something to the effect of “Tell me more about these colorful robes and garments used in Hmong ceremonies. I’d like to learn more about the history of your native land and its unique traditions and holidays.”
In this scene, Beckinsale learns about the joys and hardships of being or raising a little person by visiting McConaughey’s family. It’s a scene of breathtaking, almost inconceivable awfulness, from the stilted, woodenly delivered dialogue to the terrible jokes greeted with laughter so forced, it seems to rip its way out of the actors’ lungs. In moments like these, Tiptoes is less a movie than a brochure, the film version of So You’re The Parent Of A Little Person: What Now?
After reading all the relevant information, consulting with experts, and doing some soul-searching, Beckinsale decides to have the baby anyway, though she feels McConaughey has a lot of ambivalence about his family being little, and would benefit from psychological help. Artfully, she conveys this sentiment by saying, “I think you have a lot of ambivalence about your family being little. It’s not healthy, and I think you should consider getting some help.”
Sure enough, McConaughey loses his shit when Beckinsale gives birth to a dwarf, and he’s forced to confront his ambivalence about his family being little. At this point, his performance segues from laconic smiles (when he’s being “charming”) and concerned looks (when he’s being thoughtful) to bug-eyed craziness, as in this clip where he angrily demands that Beckinsale call their newborn a dwarf:
Tiptoes reportedly debuted in a two-and-a-half-hour version at Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-A-Thon before being slashed to 90 minutes. Fired early in post-production, director Matthew Bright—the eccentric soul behind Forbidden Zone, Freeway, and Ted Bundy—disowned the film publicly after a screening at the 2004 Sundance film festival.
Accordingly, huge chunks of Tiptoes seem to be missing, leading to a never-ending string of unanswered questions. How can Oldman and McConaughey be twins, when Oldman is clearly a decade older? How could Beckinsale not know about McConaughey’s entire family being dwarfs? For the love of God, why on earth is Oldman playing a dwarf?
The casting of a full-sized actor undercuts the film’s noble intentions. Tiptoes wants us to believe that little people can do anything—except, apparently, play a key role in Tiptoes. Casting Oldman as a dwarf is like a well-meaning liberal producer making a film version of A Raisin In The Sun in the early ’60s with Peter Falk in blackface in the lead role. Tiptoes awkwardly recalls painfully earnest message movies of the ’50s and ’60s. Think of it as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (Here’s A Hint: He’s Really Fucking Short).
Oldman's casting is even more egregious and hypocritical considering his character's best friend is played by the great Peter Dinklage. So if the producers were genuinely on the hunt for a little person actor with the presence and charisma to carry a movie they didn't need to look far. Adding insult to injury, the infamous trailer doesn't even mention Dinklage as one of the actors delivering command performances even though he has a central role.
Then again, maybe I’m just looking at this the wrong way. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I’m sure that little people were honored that an actor of Oldman’s stature would waddle around on his knees for weeks to play a dwarf, just as African-Americans were secretly flattered that minstrel-show performers would slather on burnt cork and indulge in crude caricatures of their culture and speech.
Tiptoes feels like a random assemblage of scenes that drag on interminably with little sense of rhythm or timing. Even after watching Tiptoes, I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s a real film, and not an elaborate practical joke. When I posted about the film on Twitter, I was told that the film is something of a joke in the little-people community. So Tiptoes did end up performing a valuable service after all, by giving little people and the full-sized folks who love them something to laugh at together.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success? Fiasco