Of the many things the Hollywood machine cannot be accused of – fairness, equality, consistency – basic logic is near the top of the list. Take this year's Academy-Awards-nominee gift bag, which is worth about $125,000 (U.S.). It contains a Haze portable vaporizer, "the first dual bowl aromatherapy vaporizer that allows two different materials to be inhaled through vaporization … [the goal is] to fit every possible need for its users." Munchies, however, are not included – unless the enclosed $800 gift certificate for a candy and dessert buffet counts.
Last year, Oscar swag included an assortment of Hydroxycut weight-loss aids, presumably for those roles when time in the makeup chair is not enough. Actors might also want to keep I'll Have What She's Having, Rebecca Harrington's adventures in diet journalism, at hand. In it, she tests the ease and efficacy of a slew of ridiculous celebrity diets. Notably, they're almost all the diets of women. Also notably, they're seldom regimens undertaken for specific acting roles – they're just the price of everyday role as glamour icon.
The fact that there are different expectations for women as opposed to men was evident in the cacophony of consternation that resulted over Birdman actor Zach Galifianakis's recent slim-down, which, according to the tabloids, have rendered him "nearly unrecognizable." Had Harrington asked the comic actor what he "was having" before his switch to healthier habits, he would have told her "a lot of vodka with sausage." Neither the before nor the after is likely to affect the funny man's ability to get roles.
Transformations of the male body on-screen, though, have become an important aspect of a performance: Mark Wahlberg's 40-pound muscle bulk for Pain & Gain was followed by a much-discussed liquid diet and jump-rope regimen to lose 60 pounds for the role of a slender professor in The Gambler. We'll no doubt soon be hearing details of his planned size for his upcoming turn as Steve Austin in The Six Billion Dollar Man. Metamorphosis in the name of verisimilitude? The body manipulation starts to feel less about acting the part and more like just another angle to headline the marketing campaign.
If the female examples are fewer – Charlize Theron's weight gain to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster comes to mind, as does Anne Hathaway's turn as the miserable Fantine in Les Miserables – on-screen talent still seems less important than off-screen image. Actresses have been the chief sales agents of Hollywood's fantasy since the silent era – and have been scrutinized accordingly, from gym parking lot to red carpet.
This is striking when viewing the historic photographs in the show Burn with Desire: Photography and Glamour, on now at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. Whereas today stars and their stylists practice outfits and step-and-repeat poses with test photos, the chief difference between then and now seems a certain voyeuristic frisson – several of the circa-1950s photos, for instance, gaze upon actresses, often with their backs to the camera, who are seemingly unaware they're being observed. There's Sophia Loren's spine in a silk party dress, its zipper visibly straining to cinch and contain her figure. There's Natalie Wood in a backless frock, a rope of pearls tossed over the shoulder. The actress, in other words, as modern odalisque.
Burn with Desire also assembles the covers of Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood Issue, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. The inaugural edition, in 1994, featured actresses in various states of undress – think brassières, chemises, bustiers, panties.
According to film studies professor Mary Desjardins, "the narratives of stardom and self-starvation have similarities."
"They are about the construction of an image as a fantasy ideal; they involve struggles over agency and control," she writes in the book Recycled Stars. "They involve the subject's discipline, especially discipline of the body to achieve the ideal image."
Consider the braggadocio of a Bradley Cooper bulking up with 30 pounds of muscle for American Sniper or Jack O'Connell going gaunt as a POW in Unbroken. There is also Hollywood's history of rewarding extremes such as Robert DeNiro's ballooning for Raging Bull and Matthew McConaughey's dramatic weight loss for Dallas Buyers Club.
For the men of Hollywood, these are considered disciplined achievements in the name of craft. For the women, it's just another night on the job.