People usually think of movie stars as young, slim and gorgeous. But not all stars fit the mold.
Somehow, the rough-looking Humphrey Bogart became a romantic leading man in, among other movies, the beloved Casablanca. The old, fat and bulb-nosed W.C. Fields gathered an enormous fan base. Today, a fat woman in her 40s is a superstar: Melissa McCarthy.
Why? What do these people have that grabs the world?
Comedians, obviously, can be funny-looking. The Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello don’t generally inspire steamy romantic fantasies, but we love to laugh at them. (By the way, if those comedians do spark sweaty urges of lust in your loins, I don’t want to know you.)
In addition, tough guys aren’t supposed to resemble a cover model from the latest issue of Seventeen. You have to look as if you’ve been through some rough years to play the roles that made Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson into big stars. Still, tough guys (and so far, they’re only guys; we haven’t seen a female action superstar since Pearl White in the silent-era The Perils of Pauline) have often had beautiful bodies: strong, lean, and muscular.
“Everyman” stars depend more on likability than beauty: Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, and Tom Hanks are examples. This is another sexist category, though. Women who play similar roles (Sandra Bullock, Janet Gaynor) are at a minimum cute and often gorgeous. A guy playing everyman roles can look like an everyman, but a woman, it seems, has to look like America’s sweetheart.
Performers who have extraordinary skill, particularly musical skill, don’t necessarily need conventional beauty. Fred Astaire wasn’t much to look at until he danced, and then he was mesmerizing. Barbra Streisand’s nose has been the punchline of a thousand jokes, but when she sings, the laughs stop and the love begins.
Some stars benefit from snobbery along the lines of “I’m no sucker for a pretty face. I respect talent.” The more un-pretty these stars are — I’m thinking of Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, and Dustin Hoffman — the more their admirers can pat themselves on the back for seeing the beauty of their thespian gifts and ignoring their outer shell.
A few performers embody one or more of these types. Wallace Beery was ugly, fat and old for a movie star — in his late 40s and early 50s at the height of his fame in the 1930s. But he could play funny, he could play tough, and he was a hell of an actor, with an Oscar nomination for the prison drama The Big House and the Oscar itself for The Champ.
One of Beery’s frequent co-stars, Marie Dressler, was older and arguably uglier than Beery — and for a while was even more popular, although her film career was shorter. She too could play funny, tough and dramatic. She still shines in her most famous moment: the last scene of Dinner at Eight, alongside Jean Harlow.
Closer to the present day, there’s the rotund, unpretty and very short Danny DeVito. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, he was starring or co-starring in hits such as Batman Returns and Twins.
Around the same time, a nearly middle-aged and not conventionally pretty black woman with a bizarre name — Whoopi Goldberg — helped to make hits out of Sister Act and Ghost, among other movies.
And today, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren, both attractive but old enough to be grandmothers, are beloved and bankable.
So yes, it helps to look like Charlize Theron or Ryan Reynolds. But it’s nice to know that if an actor can embody something that people love, whether it’s comedy chops, a tough persona or sheer acting ability, he or she can look like you or me.