Dignity, Always Dignity: Case File #21—Fat Actress
Sometimes I think women of the world should file a massive, gender-wide class-action lawsuit against the sum of pop culture (and, to a greater extent, culture as a whole) for perpetrating a massive, generations-long conspiracy to generate an epidemic of eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression by promoting impossible beauty standards, then viciously punishing women who fail to live up to them.
But the truth is the parasites over at Us Weekly and its ilk aren’t organized or ambitious enough to plot and execute that kind of massive undertaking. Instead they channel the ugliness, warped values, and institutional sexism that plague our culture and encourage it to flourish via countless dispiriting articles and photo spreads where impossibly beautiful women with nearly perfect bodies are pilloried for allowing cellulite to accumulate on frames we demand be as smooth, svelte, and free from imperfections as a Barbie doll’s. It is a sick and sad and strange world when pot-bellied middle-aged editors can hide behind anonymity to write unconscionably cruel things about the Jessica Simpsons or Christina Aguileras of the world for the unforgivable crime of gaining five pounds or taking a whole month to lose their baby weight after giving birth.
We tell ourselves that men are beginning to wrestle with the same impossible demands to be beautiful and thin and fit, but, as with just about every facet of life, men have it infinitely easier; contemporary men may care more about their appearances than their fathers and grandfathers did but they simply aren’t judged through the prism of their appearance the way women are.
This toxic double standard has hit Kirstie Alley particularly hard. The actress’ career can roughly be divided into two periods. For the first half of her career, Alley was an old-fashioned sexpot who combined Lauren Bacall’s smoky sensuality with Lucile Ball’s comic chops, gift for spastic physical comedy, and refreshing lack of vanity. On Cheers, Alley masterfully played a driven businesswoman whose ice-queen exterior and movie-star good looks just barely masked raging insecurity and a soft, squishy center. She was falling apart on the inside but put up a good front.
When Alley replaced Shelley Long on Cheers and in the hearts of Americans everywhere, the show was already a massive hit en route to becoming one of the most popular and beloved television shows of all time. Alley’s winning streak continued when the high-profile Scientologist was paired with another of L. Ron Hubbard’s minions, in this case a comeback-hungry John Travolta, for the surprise blockbuster Look Who’s Talking and its two sequels.
After Cheers went off the air Alley starred in 66 episodes of Veronica’s Closet, which she also executive-produced. Then Alley did the unthinkable for a female Hollywood sex symbol: She gained weight. By human standards, Alley had only gotten a little chubby, but by Hollywood’s Draconian standards she was morbidly obese. Alley stopped being seen as an actress or a sex symbol or a television icon and became—for tabloids, talk-show hosts, and the culture at large—a sentient fat joke. (I love Conan O’Brien, but for years he was unable to resist the low-hanging fruit that is the Kirstie Alley fat joke.) Good, juicy lead roles in television shows and movies dried up. When Alley popped up on the cultural radar, it was almost invariably within the context of her struggle to lose weight.
This had to be painful for Alley, so she did what people often do when something becomes too much to bear: She made a joke out of it. If the whole world was going to laugh at the femme fatale turned walking punchline, then dammit, she was going to laugh longer and harder than anyone else. Harry Shearer famously said the reason people become comedians is because they want to control the reasons why people laugh at them. I suspect Alley co-created, executive-produced, and co-wrote the ill-fated 2005 Showtime vehicle Fat Actress for the same reason. Alley couldn’t keep people from making fat jokes, so she figured she might as well be the one making them.
She was not successful. On the audio commentary for Fat Actress’ first and only season, Alley and her co-stars talk extensively about plans they have for a second season. But that second season never materialized; Fat Actress lasted a mere seven episodes, a victim of low ratings and scathing reviews.
Alley, playing a grotesque caricature of herself, begins Fat Actress sitting on the toilet in her bathrobe before lurching onto a scale, then crumpling onto the floor in a dispirited heap with soul-shaking horror at the results, moaning and wailing in disgust before crawling purposefully to her cell phone, whining and crying the whole way there. Fat Actress begins by throwing down the gauntlet. Alley is not afraid to look pathetic, ugly, or self-loathing. The problem is that the tone of the scene is so broad and over the top that it makes us wonder if she’s willing to look anything but pathetic, ugly, and self-loathing. This fear isn’t exactly alleviated when Alley answers the phone and tells her agent that her new diet is going well and the “pounds are just melting off” while still half-crying.
Alley’s spirits are not lifted when her agent (Michael McDonald, of Mad TV rather than “What A Fool Believes” fame) tells her that a job offer has come in for her: from Jenny Craig (Alley herself was a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig from 2005 to 2008). The “fat” part of the title doesn’t just dominate the title: It all but negates the second half. The world of Fat Actress, like the less-cartoonish world we inhabit, sees Alley as a fat woman first and an actress a distant second. Alley writhes on the floor and moans to her agent that she’s dying; the accompanying music is ironically majestic and tasteful, but the emotions on display are ugly and unvarnished.
Fat Actress posits Kirstie Alley as a show-business schemer whose self-delusion and misguided ambition aren’t just laughable they’re pathological. She’s like a psychotic version of Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, only she aspires to fuck Kid Rock to boost her self-esteem and land her own television show, rather than finagle her way into her perpetually apoplectic husband’s nightclub routine. In “Big Butts,” the regrettably if tellingly named pilot, Alley sets out to get her career back on track by scoring a development deal with her old bosses at NBC. Alley is intent on landing her own show, but everywhere she goes people are mortified by her appearance. A drinking game could be constructed around Fat Actress where players take a shot every time someone says something both cruel and unfunny about Alley’s looks, though alcohol poisoning would eliminate all but the heartiest drinkers somewhere towards the end of the first episode.
Fat Actress is nothing if not ballsy. The problem is it’s pretty much nothing but ballsy. Alley is all rampaging, uncontrollable id and rapacious hunger—for food, for sex, for roles, for the approval and validation of a community that treats her like a freak. Within this context, her character’s heroic quest to seduce Kid Rock solely for the purpose of having him tell her that she has the single best body of anyone he’s ever been with represents her at her most dignified.
In “Big Butts,” Alley and her assistants (Rachael Harris and Bryan Callen) decide that Alley’s zaftig frame will boast particular appeal to black men so they go to a soul-food restaurant where Alley thinks she’s being checked out by a handsome black man at the counter (Phil Morris). But when Callen tries to suss out Morris’ feelings about Alley by following him into the bathroom and asking Morris if he thinks she’s hot, Morris replies, in a variation on words that reappear over and over throughout the show, “Hot? She’s fucking fat.” Fat Actress constantly crosses the line separating self-deprecation from self-laceration. By making Alley the butt of nearly every joke, the show ends up letting a viciously sexist, weight-obsessed celebrity culture off the hook. Alley’s character is too much of a grating, demented cartoon character for us to be able to feel her pain when her predicament should be eminently relatable.
“Big Butts” depicts Alley’s life as an endless gauntlet of professional and personal humiliations, many of her own devising: The only gig offered her is with Jenny Craig; she strikes out looking for love at a soul-food restaurant; after some over-the-phone braying to John Travolta that she’s dying (metaphorically, I suppose), she’s visited by the cops and Travolta. In one of the show’s few genuinely funny moments, she begs Travolta to make another Look Who’s Talking movie with her (“Let’s do Look Who’s Talking Four. We haven’t explored all the possibilities. We’ve never done talking cats!” she pleads hopefully) and tells Travolta she wishes she’d married him. When Alley does land a deal with NBC, it’s only because she had slept with a network executive (Mark Curry of Hanging With Mr. Cooper) in a bizarrely dated, brutally unfunny parody of the food-as-foreplay montage from 9 1/2 Weeks and is ready to file a sexual-harassment lawsuit if the network doesn’t play ball.
When Alley succeeds in Fat Actress, it’s invariably for the wrong reasons. In the next episode she scores a role in a Charlie’s Angels sequel because McG believes she’s pregnant with Kid Rock’s baby and is worried about the fallout of offering a role to an actress, then rescinding it upon learning she’s pregnant. In the episode’s B-story, Alley tussles with explosive, uncontrollable diarrhea and a dearth of nearby toilet paper in a subplot that is not overly conducive to the actress’ embattled dignity. Then again, nothing is conducive to Alley’s dignity in Fat Actress. Dignity is tricky when it comes to comedy: Too much can be a comedy killer. If an actor or actress is pathologically averse to looking silly or stupid or desperate or classless, then they’re probably never going to be that funny. But if a character has no dignity, then there’s nothing at stake if they flail and fail and humiliate themselves the way Alley does here.
Alley is not just desperate: She’s also unbelievably dense and naïve. In the episode “Holy Lesbo, Batman” Alley doesn’t realize that a screamingly flamboyant ex-boyfriend is gay even after he calmly, patiently tells her that he’s gay using the same tone of voice a kindergarten teacher might employ to explain something to a particularly slow child.
Tonally and otherwise, Fat Actress is essentially a massive knockoff of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The shows share defiantly unlikable protagonists, ironic upbeat music cues, free-floating misanthropy, and guest stars happy to play the worst possible versions of themselves. But where Curb Your Enthusiasm depicts a world where the thin veneer of civilization is perpetually in danger of eroding via some faux pas or social blunder, Fat Actress depicts life as one long playground screaming match. Those are about as fun to watch as they are to participate in, even if the participants are Kirstie Alley and Mayim Bialik calling each other, at deafening volumes, “fat” and “Blossom” respectively.
Sometimes Fat Actress pushes the craziness and desperation of Alley’s character so far that it reaches a crashing comic crescendo, as when a quack played by Wallace Shawn tells Alley that she can lose weight by surrounding herself with smaller things. Alley takes this advice literally, surrounds herself with little people, and begins talking like a munchkin from The Wizard Of Oz when Leah Remini stops by to apologize for using the phrase “Kirstie Alley fat” while discussing her own battle to lose her baby weight. This scene succeeds by virtue of loopy audaciousness, but too often the show’s ugliness is a dead end, like when Alley’s bug-eyed crackhead brother (Christopher McDonald) shows up at Alley’s house to try to convince her to lose weight by smoking crack. That’s a premise ripe for satire, but the show’s comic compass instead invariably points in the direction of the cheapest, easiest fat jokes.
In the series’ penultimate episode, an uncharacteristic note of hope enters Alley’s life when Alley’s pal Merv Griffin introduces her to a billionaire who’s crazy about her (Bill Smitrovich), but that goes predictably awry when Smitrovich turns out to be a blubbering lunatic who sobs uncontrollably for no discernible reason. In what turned out to be the series finale Alley gets a $2 million deal with NBC, but only because she ends up having sex, or some variation on sex (it’s purposefully unclear) with Zucker, the executive who, in “Big Butts,” talks at length about how repulsed he is by her body. But the show can’t even allow her an untainted moment of ironic triumph: Alley then learns that the nasty weight-loss consultant who has functioned as the demon on her shoulder (Kelly Preston, Travolta’s real-life wife) is getting married—wait for it—to Kid Rock. As it stumbles to a close, Fat Actress indulges in an ironic montage of Alley’s struggles that only underlines the flailing, desperate nature of the series.
Fat Actress is audacious and fearless in its willingness, no eagerness, to make its star look as awful as possible in every conceivable way: physically, morally, professionally, personally, sexually. There is both laughter and poignancy to be gleaned from our culture’s obsession with thinness and cruelty towards those who come up short, but all Fat Actress is after is laughs, the cruder and cheaper the better. Fat Actress lurches past characterization, depth, emotion, and subtlety in its mad lunge for laughs that never materialize. It radiates potential, which makes its failure to realize that potential all the more unfortunate.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure