So there I was, enjoying my post-Sundance vacation, when Rex Reed decided to re-enter the national conversation.
This was a shock to many people, who had thought that Reed — the acidic movie critic and occasional participant in movies (including a leading role in the weirdly awful “Myra Breckinridge” and a cameo in the 1978 “Superman”) — had been dead for a decade.
Then people read what Reed wrote — and concluded that his brain had been out of commission at least that long.
At issue was his New York Observer review of the comedy “Identity Thief.” Reed hated the movie — a sentiment shared with a good many movie critics, going by the lowly 24 percent score the movie received on Rotten Tomatoes. (I am agnostic on this point, since I didn’t see the film. I was on vacation, remember?)
His zeal against the movie didn’t stop with the film itself, but included some personal attacks against the movie’s leading lady, Melissa McCarthy.
As anyone who has seen McCarthy in her Oscar-nominated performance in “Bridesmaids” or her regular stint on the sitcom “Mike & Molly” knows, she is not a size 2. She’s short and fat; she uses her shape as part of her comedy.
To Reed, though, McCarthy is “tractor-sized,” a “female hippo” and “a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success.”
Other critics railed against Reed for his harsh and personal attack. McCarthy was also defended by her cousin, the actress Jenny McCarthy, and by her “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig — a man so gentlemanly he wears a suit on the set, but who was prompted to go on Twitter to say this: “For his catty and school bully name-calling of the supremely talented Melissa McCarthy, I cordially invite Mr. Rex Reed to go f--- himself.”
Reed went on the defensive a few days after the review was published, appearing on New York’s WOR-AM to tell host Mark Simone, “Don’t make me the villain.” Reed blamed the controversy not on his insults but “the big publicity machine called Universal Pictures.” (“Identity Thief” did win the weekend, with $36.6 million.) He also claimed he was trying to raise the issue of obesity, arguing “I object to using health issues like obesity as comedy talking points” — which is a crass revisionism of what he originally wrote.
As a critic, I defend Rex Reed’s right to say whatever he wants — even something as callous and just plain mean as what he said about McCarthy. It’s up to Reed to live with himself for being such a jerk to a truly funny comic actress.
The real problem is that his attitude toward McCarthy — and most overweight people — is not an aberration. It’s standard for many of the people who decide how movies get made in Hollywood.
Hollywood has produced a long string of comic actors whose humor was predicated on being fat. Think of Oliver Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle, Lou Costello, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, Kevin James — the list goes on and on.
Note that this list is all men. McCarthy is one of the few female comic actors who haven’t starved themselves to fit into a (usually male) Hollywood executive’s stereotype of beauty. (Check out Margaret Cho’s concert film “I’m the One That I Want” for a hilarious screed about her encounters with weight expectations in Hollywood.)
That’s the other half of the issue: the double standard. Kevin James, to use a recent example, can be cast with attractive leading ladies — such as Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Rosario Dawson and Amber Valletta — and no one takes notice of the mismatch. (To be fair, James’ real-life wife, Steffiana De La Cruz, is a stunner.)
(By the way, I searched for a Rex Reed review of a Kevin James movie to see if his descriptions of James’ girth matched what he wrote about McCarthy. I couldn’t find an instance of Reed reviewing James in any of his movies.)
So when is Hollywood going to cast Melissa McCarthy in a romantic comedy opposite some hunky funny guy? McCarthy easily could hold the screen opposite, say, George Clooney or Jon Hamm — and with the right script, create something funny and sweet.
A movie like that would be something so original, in a market glutted by cookie-cutter rom-com stories, that it would be sure to be a hit. To break through Hollywood’s prejudices about female body image, all it takes (in the words of “Jerry Maguire”) is to show them the money.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.