In the world of the internet and sensational journalism, it’s easy for the line between constructive criticism and outright bullying to be blurred.
This past week, long-time film reviewer Rex Reed decided to forego being an actual fair and discerning film critic and became a bully when he fixated on Melissa McCarthy’s weight in a pan of the film Identity Thief.
In his review, Reed calls McCarthy “a screeching, humongous creep”, a “female hippo” and “tractor-sized”. By the way, “tractor-sized” appears not to describe the character McCarthy plays, but as a descriptor for the actress herself. Like how I would use “British” or “charming” before the name “Idris Elba“.
Look, it’s not unusual for an actor or actress to be criticized for their appearance in reviews. It’s not. Film is a visual medium, after all, and casting directors, costume designers and hair and make-up artists are tasked with finding performers who not only can perform a role the best, but to help them physically embody it.
Take for instance the actors in Thor. No, seriously. Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth were both up for the part of Thor, but Hemworth’s towering height, Scandanavian-esque looks, and muscular physique make him look like the paradigm of a bone-crushing Norse warrior. Hiddleston is also tall, but more slender and languid in his movements. He has an intelligent brow and deft tongue for delivering dialogue. He probably could have done an outrageously good job as Thor in the acting department, but physically he fits the mythos of Loki more. Send the two actors to the gym for a few months with different training programs, suit them up in superhero suits and give them wigs of glory and you have two very different Norse gods.
What I’m saying is that in major motion pictures, the looks of the actors do matter. A film critic has every prerogative to point out if someone’s look–either natural or envisioned by the director–makes the story suffer.
The thing is Rex Reed wasn’t doing that with Melissa McCarthy. Moreover, Reed was making a very cruel exception of McCarthy. If you read his other recent reviews he doesn’t say much, if anything, about the way the lead actresses physically look and how that does or doesn’t affect the story.
In his Hansel and Gretel review, he calls Gemma Arterton “one of the dullest of all Bond girls“, but that’s a stab at her perceived on-screen charisma and not of her waistline in comparison to the likes of Naomi Harris or Eva Green. In his Parker review, he doesn’t say a single thing about the way Jennifer Lopez looks on screen. He criticizes Catherine Zeta-Jones’s “mannish suits” in Side Effects, but he doesn’t criticize Zeta-Jones for her looks. He’s criticizing director Steven Soderbergh and his costume design team for taking a simple and stereotypical route in painting the “delectable” heterosexual star as a “believable” lesbian.
So, it’s not just that Rex Reed didn’t like the aesthetic look McCarthy brought to the character in terms of telling the specific story. And it’s not as though he’s critiquing her talent onscreen, either. He’s purposely fat shaming Melissa McCarthy for having the audacity for being an overweight female comedian in a major motion picture.
Of course, Reed would probably argue that he is in fact critiquing her talent. After all, he does put in a dig about how McCarthy “is a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious.” While it’s his right as a film critic to look unfavorably on “gimmick comedians” or “obnoxious” performers, this specific criticism is hands down untrue.
If Rex Reed had done his research – that is to say, “his job” – he would have discovered that Melissa McCarthy has not had a “short career” at all.
First of all, she started her career in the 1990s by doing stand up in New York and studying acting at The Actor’s Studio. Also, she’s a Groundling, which means, that like Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman and Lisa Kudrow, she worked her way through The Groundlings’ improv and sketch training center and has spent decades honing her comedic craft. She met her husband and producing parter, Ben Falcone, in an improv team they were in for years together. Basically, she paid her dues the hard way. So far, there’s no gimmick here or an emphasis on her looks. It’s just hard, patient, creative work.
Her on-screen work started in 1997 when she worked behind the scenes and had a bit part on The Jenny McCarthy Show. Then she got bit parts for a few years until she landed the role of Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls. I love Gilmore Girls. I’m guessing you love Gilmore Girls. We’ve all seen Gilmore Girls. Sookie St. James was the opposite of gimmicky or obnoxious. She was layered and sweet. Then she plugged away on Samantha Who and Mike & Molly before finally winning her breakout role as Megan in Bridesmaids. Again, nothing gimmicky or obnoxious.
What Melissa McCarthy proved in Bridesmaids and her Saturday Night Live hosting gig is that she is the equal of Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in terms of comedic brilliance. In a Splitsider review of her SNL hosting gig, McCarthy is compared to Chris Farley not in terms of appearance, but in the value that her unwavering physical courage and emotional commitment brings to the success of any sketch.
Rex Reed’s review of Identity Thief is disgusting because it proves that women are still not valued by their professional contributions, but by whether or not men perceive them as conventionally beautiful. Melissa McCarthy has proven herself to be an exceptionally talented comedian and even if Identity Thief isn’t her best showing, there’s no reason to criticize her weight as an actress. Simply say, “this isn’t McCarthy’s best role.”
If there is a silver lining to this horrific review it’s that a lot of people are mad about it. A lot of people, including myself, see the outright injustice of it. Which means, that even though people like Rex Reed exist with their patriarchal viewpoints on a woman’s worth, the tide is most definitely changing.
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