Is Puffiness the Reason Tom Berenger Can’t Get Work?

This is a post that I will likely come to regret, should it and I survive for 30 or so more years (both equally questionable possibilities, frankly). I can see it being faxed to me on my 67th birthday, with a note from one of Tom Berenger’s great-grandkids scrawled across it: “Not so funny now, is it?” And I’ll remember back to a time when I was a trim thirty-something, obnoxiously musing about the cruelty of declining bodies back when getting old was barely a thought experiment. I won’t be old by then, but I won’t be young. Still, God and metabolism willing, I won’t be puffy.

I mention Tom Berenger specifically because in one of those uncanny metaphysical coincidences, he’s been popping up randomly in my life this week. Okay, only twice. But still, twice in one week is more than Tom Berenger has appeared in my day-to-day for at least twenty years.

Because Oliver Stone has a new film (Snowden) coming out this fall, and because I want to be a Real Man who watches Manly Movies, I figured it was time I finally took in Platoon[1] While watching it, I was forming an uneducated theory of Tom Berenger. My proposed thesis: Tom Berenger must be a bit of a dick. I have no proof of this, except that seemingly every other actor in the film, including a very young and hatless [2] Johnny Depp, is still visibly working [3] today. But Mr. Berenger hasn’t been in anything theatrical since Inception, and Training Day before that. It’s not like he was a bad actor (Platoon actually brought him an Oscar nom). And it can’t be that he aged out of acting, since his co-star Willem Defoe is still getting work. [4] So, it must have been that, for whatever reason, working with Berenger wasn’t worth the heartache.

One doesn’t often stop to consider the actors one doesn’t remember. How could one? But, it’s interesting to realize that in the span of one’s lifetime, certain famous people will completely drop from pop culture consciousness. Not flash in the pan, one hit wonder type of celebrities—that’s occurs with some frequency. But, people with careers, that were in the zeitgeist: we take for granted that these people who we think about, follow, watch and critique will one day be as un-considered as our high school vice principals. Think Val Kilmer. Or Rebecca De Mornay. [5]

Then I saw what Berenger is looking like these days, and I realized I had it all wrong. I’ll never know how he is to work with, but I can tell you that sometime in the past decade he got puffy, and Hollywood doesn’t care for puffiness. Especially in men.

It’s not that we can’t deal with actors being fat — we like our big leading men — it’s that we aren’t good with change. But it’s not the predictable change that comes from aging that bothers us. We can accept that Bruce Willis will get more grizzled, and that George Clooney will get more grey (and probably more handsome). But, if John Goodman somehow swapped bodies with John Waters, we would never allow him to work again. Look at the aging actors out there: the ones that remain relevant are the ones that remain close to the size they were when we first accepted them as celebrities. Arnold can get softer — understandable, the man was a two-term governor, now pushing 70 — but his form hasn’t radically changed.

With women, it’s obviously a whole other story, one that is so unbalanced that it hardly bears mentioning. But for all the breaks men get in Hollywood just by virtue of their gender, puffiness is a bridge too far. It’s as though we create a signifier for what a ‘Val Kilmer’ is, and when Val Kilmer shows up, shape radically inflated, we can’t process it. Like being told purple is actually green.

There’s a chicken and egg component to all this, of course. Do these actors stop getting work, and then get puffy? Or does the puffiness contribute to their inability to get good work? [6] But more important than that, there’s the moral factor that should be addressed, the stuffed elephant in the room.

Celebrity or not, society attaches an unfair moral stigma to fatness. Fat people [7] are lazy, or lack discipline, and as such are an unfair burden to society and a danger to themselves. Obesity is still a permissible basis for prejudice in a lot of ways. Is this wrong? Of course it is. Weight is a complex, personal issue, and whether someone’s waistline is a reflection of their lifestyle or their genetics, or both is really none of anyone’s business. But puffiness is different than fatness. We can see obesity as a medical issue, or at the very least, not define it as a moral one, but when men get puffy (and it’s always men here) there’s seemingly only one way to interpret it.

Puffiness seems to be the physical manifestation of over-indulgence, karma for being pampered by wealth and privilege. We look down on these actors—or worse, forget about them—not because they gained weight, which we see as reversible (the way Channing Tatum, Chris Pratt, or Leonardo DiCaprio will kind of let themselves go between films) or got old, but because the kind of weight they gained, or how they carry it, seems somehow soft, proud, and decadent. Their skin is as smooth as butter, glowing and ruddy. And their bodies, presumably, are similarly whipped, peaked, and buttery. Like regular weight gain, puffiness results from caloric intake and an outgunned metabolism, only with an element of preening obliviousness. Puffiness, we’ve decided, is permanent.

Is this also unfair? Of course it is! But, no one said being famous was fair. But also, it actually isn’t permanent, despite our assumptions. For example: if there’s one thing to celebrate about the return of Guns and Roses this year, it’s that puffiness can be fought. Axl Rose, once a tragic poster child for the dangers of puffiness-related obscurity, [8] is now singing nearly as well as he did in his svelte heyday. He’s also starting shows on time, and being kind to audiences, and avoiding controversy. And with that newly discovered humility, it might be my imagination, but I think he’s looking a bit deflated, too. In a good way.


[1] It seemed that every dude had either Platoon or Natural Born Killers poster on their wall when I was growing up. Having now seen both, I can honestly say I’m puzzled by their ubiquity. Platoon is fine if you can ignore Charlie Sheen’s melodramatic voice over… and actually the existence of Charlie Sheen altogether. Natural Born Killers was actually better as a poster.

[2] It’s basically a contractual thing that if you want Depp to appear in your film, his character better have a silly hat.

[3] Including Charlie Sheen, who is a known and admitted dick, which kind of undermined the premise of my hot take.

[4] Except in another blow to my overly-simplified premise, Willem Dafoe is seven years younger than Berenger!

Two things about that:

1) It’s a shame when a little thing like research ruins a perfectly good hot take. If were writing about politics, I could ignore facts, but this is important stuff.

2) Dafoe is clearly in the Patrick Stewart school of aging: if you look 50 when you’re 30, you will never stop looking that age for the rest of your life. It’s a blessing and a curse.

[5] I hesitate to use a woman as an example here, since obviously beauty and age standards are completely different for men and women. I mention her for two reasons though. 1) Because I think if you were to ask a typical teenager, for whom pop culture exists, they would not know who she is, and 2) I also recently watched Risky Business for the first time, and like all other red blooded straight males who have seen that film, fell instantly in love with her. Especially because, thanks to the cyclical nature of fashion, she pretty much looks like a contemporary woman. You don’t feel like you’re watching an old movie when you’re watching her.

[6] Also, one can’t rule out that some actors are, in fact, kind of dicks to work with. And, though it’s by no means universal, it’s possible there’s at least a connection between dickishness and puffiness. Val Kilmer, after all, never seemed all that pleasant in interviews. Ditto, say, Chevy Chase.

[7] And according to Lindy West, I’m allowed — even supposed — to use that term.

[8] Also a dick.