Issue 47 2008
Danny DeVito's Body
By MICHAEL TAVEL CLARKE
A 1987 profile in Newsweek meditated on the unlikely early success of
Danny DeVito in Hollywood: "DeVito has...becom[e] one of Hollywood's
hottest—and most unlikely—success stories. In a town of pretty-boy
leading men, he has triumphed despite being typecast as five-foot and fiendish"
(Reese, 72). An interviewer for People registered similar surprise: "The
odds against a short, balding actor being more sought after than Mel Gibson can
make a guy feel like a lucky star" (Stark, 83). A reporter for Time
graciously attributed DeVito's success to the liberalism of Hollywood and to
He stands 5 ft. tall, on point. His face has the canine
cantankerousness of a mutt on David Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks. He secured
TV fame playing a gnomish cab dispatcher with a heart of gunk. Not, you might
say, Hollywood's idea of a leading man, unless for a Muppet remake of Rumpelstiltskin.
But in today's Hollywood, anything is possible....This tiny terror with the big
raucous talent has earned his stardom, and he is savoring it. (Corliss)
The incongruity between the insulting tone and the intended praise of DeVito is
intriguing, but it is the reporter's dubious argument that I find especially
striking. DeVito's talent is undeniable; he has proven his skill as an actor
and director in numerous films, including Living Out Loud, Tin Men,
Romancing the Stone, Hoffa, Batman Returns, Ruthless
People, The War of the Roses, and Get Shorty, to name a few.
Talent, however, has rarely been essential to an actor's success in Hollywood.
I am suspicious, moreover, of the claim that Hollywood was more inclusive and
tolerant in the final decades of the twentieth century. For me, the question
remains unanswered. Why did Danny DeVito achieve such success? This essay attempts
to answer to that question, focusing on the decades of his greatest fame, the
1980s and 1990s.
As all the journalists indicate, the odds against it were tremendous. The
discrimination against short men, prevalent throughout America, was especially
intense in Hollywood. DeVito admitted in published interviews that a Hollywood
casting director told him he was too short to be an actor. The incident reaffirms
the findings of sociology studies on the treatment of short people in the
United States. Researchers have found pervasive evidence of hiring and wage
discrimination against short men and women, a preference among voters for
taller political candidates, significant discrimination against people with
dwarfism, and a demand for extreme height among high-fashion models. The U.S.
Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of growth hormone for
cosmetic purposes despite controversy surrounding the ethics and effectiveness
of the drug (Clarke, 7). In light of this information, and considering the
consistent patterns of his roles, I suspect that DeVito succeeded as an actor,
not in spite of his appearance, but because his body and image played a vital
function in Hollywood films and in the American psyche at the close of the
Danny DeVito's success depended in part on his unique position in a border zone
of contemporary Otherness. Like differences of race and sex, height is a
difference that is visible—perhaps even more reliably visible than racial
and sexual differences. Yet unlike race and sex, differences in height are not
generally thought to make a difference. With the exception of Little
People in America (LPA), there have been few outspoken groups clamoring for
equality and fair treatment for short people, and even LPA has received scant
attention in the popular press. In the popular mind, an unusually small actor
like Danny DeVito is consequently both inside the dominant order and outside
it. DeVito's difference is obvious; media articles comment on it incessantly
and films accentuate it by pairing DeVito with the unusually large Arnold
Schwarzenegger. Yet the difference is rarely mentioned as a phenomenon
connected to any pattern of discrimination; only one of eight randomly-selected
published profiles of DeVito mentioned the discriminatory treatment DeVito
faced in his acting career (see Linderman). As an analogue to other visible
differences like race and sex, therefore, height can be used comfortably either
to comment on the insignificance of visible differences or to address visible
differences covertly without provoking charges of racism or sexism.
DeVito's border position is consistent with the inherent contradictions
reflected in the roles he plays. He has played victims and villains, the
powerful and the powerless, paragons of domesticity and destroyers of
domesticity. These contradictions are reproduced in media representations.
Interviewers have reacted to the lechery and vulgarity of his most famous
roles, for example, by emphasizing his domesticity, charm, and
While the trademark lechery of his early career suggests that he represented a
threat to women, DeVito's characters most often represent threats to power
relations and normative masculinity. Anxieties about the erosion of white,
heterosexual, male power found their perfect articulation in DeVito's body. As
such, his body was also a site on which to enact a restoration of the status
quo. Thus, DeVito has been confined for the most part to comic roles, where the
threat that he represents is mocked in a carnival of inverted power relations
signified through his body.
As with recent studies on the representations of gay, black, Jewish, and other
men, this study participates in contemporary writings about the body by focusing
on a previously ignored, marginalized male body. Early studies of the male body
focused primarily on images of men that conform to dominant norms of masculinity.
One of the assumptions guiding these studies was that images of men in film and
other popular visual media reflect and reproduce social hierarchies by
bolstering the association between the male body and power. One can see this
assumption at work, for example, in Richard Dyer's seminal essay "Don't Look Now: The
Instabilities of the Male Pin-Up." Examining the emphasis on muscularity in
male pin-up posters, Dyer writes:
is a key term in appraising men's bodies....Muscularity is the sign of
power—natural, achieved, phallic....The potential for muscularity in men
is seen as a biological given, and is also the means of dominating both women
and other men who are in the competition for the spoils of the earth—and
women. The point is that muscles are biological, hence "natural," and we
persist in habits of thought, especially in the area of sexuality and gender,
whereby what can be shown to be natural must be accepted as given and
inevitable. The "naturalness" of muscles legitimates male power and domination.
If images of men are often used to reinforce a male-dominant social order,
Danny DeVito represents a deviation from this pattern that presents both unique
possibilities for the representation of men and unique problems for Hollywood image-makers
who often rely on conventional strategies of representation. If power is
traditionally represented through a man's size and musculature, stocky,
five-foot DeVito defies such imagistic conventions. Directors and photographers
who wish to represent him as powerful have to encode his power in alternative
ways, therefore. A photograph accompanying Time's 1986 article
"Tinseltown's Tiny Terror" shows DeVito seated in a director's chair with his
name written on the back. Positioned to face away from the camera, DeVito turns
nonchalantly to frown at his viewers. In a poster for Other People's Money,
the camera is positioned at DeVito's feet as he stands in an opulent,
three-piece black suit. Behind him looms a tall, glass-and-steel Wall Street
building. In both photos, DeVito is alone, a common strategy in images
portraying him as powerful, suggesting that any depiction of his relative size,
according to the comparative rhetoric of measurement, destroys the illusion of
Because DeVito's size defies the conventions of white male Hollywood
protagonists, his popularity and success raise a number of intriguing
questions. When a male body is not a sign of power under the reigning symbolic
order, how is such a body deployed? Is there any anxiety apparent in the use of
such a body? How is this anxiety dealt with?
This essay makes two major claims, both intimated already. First, I argue that
DeVito's Hollywood success in the last two decades of the twentieth century depended
on his distinctive position as a border Other. As an analogue to other visible
differences like race and sex, DeVito's shortness was used to address covertly
a variety of visible differences that could not be addressed directly through
comedy. This was possible because discrimination on the basis of height was
(and is) not widely acknowledged. DeVito was cast as a comfortable, comic site
for addressing and resolving the tensions surrounding a variety of social
inequities rooted in bodily politics.
Second, DeVito's rise in popularity came at a time of shifting gender roles and
increasing pressures on white masculinity. Unlike traditional images of men
that reinforced a male-dominant social order, the presence of DeVito's small
body in film reflected anxieties about the erosion of white male power. As a
double signifier of power and the absence of power, DeVito's body was used as a
site on which to first challenge and then restore the status quo, a process
that served to alleviate anxieties surrounding threats to white patriarchy.
Film and media representations of DeVito accomplished this in two ways.
Sometimes they placed him in positions of power for which he was portrayed as
unsuited, then comically undermined that power and shifted it to men who were
portrayed as more fit for the role. At other times, film and media
representations shifted negative masculine characteristics away from male
protagonists and onto DeVito, thus cleansing normative masculinity of its
publicly proclaimed deficiencies. In both cases, DeVito was used in a kind of
shell game that acknowledged the problems of contemporary masculinity and power
relations while simultaneously leaving fundamental power structures intact.
Crownings and Uncrownings: DeVito and the Carnivalesque
From the beginning of his career, Danny DeVito was cast in roles that reflect
inherent contradictions. In the sitcom Taxi, where he earned a
reputation for his brilliant performance of Louie DePalma, DeVito plays a
mid-level manager in a New York cab company. DePalma is obsessed with power and
money in a powerless, impoverished world, and it was this role that began a
long-term connection between the display of height and preoccupations with
power and wealth in DeVito's acting roles. In Taxi, he is simultaneously
the most powerful character in the station, represented by his position in an
elevated platform divided from the rest of the station, and the smallest worker
in the Sunshine Cab Company. He is both a part of the Taxi family and
apart from it. His excessive, threatening lechery is a comic mockery of the
threat of male sexuality, contained as it is in a body that, according to the
show's rhetoric, poses no threat: in spite of his frequent propositions and
lewd innuendoes, Elaine (played by Marilu Henner) effortlessly deflects
Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the carnival as "a place where everything is
inverted in relation to the outside world[, where] all who are highest are
debased, all who are lowest are crowned" (383) accurately captures the
spirit of Taxi. The carnival atmosphere is continuously invoked through
DeVito's body. A sight gag on DeVito's size was one of the major jokes of the
program's first episode. DePalma is confined to his elevated cage throughout
most of the episode, where his height is concealed from the audience.
Meanwhile, the show establishes his character as a tyrannical and malicious
overseer. Viewers are afforded a satisfying revenge, according to the show's
rhetoric, when DePalma is finally dethroned—literally and figuratively
cut down to size—by emerging from his platform late in the episode.
The visual "joke" of DePalma's shortness is played upon endlessly in Taxi.
Whenever he senses a threat from his workers—a threat that is never real
in the congenial, domestic arena of the station—he retreats to his
enclosed, elevated space. His paranoia is visually reflected in the wire that
surrounds his platform. On one hand, the enclosure serves to protect him from
the imagined threats posed by his employees; it represents his anxiety about a
(literal and figurative) uprising. On the other hand, it turns him into a kind
of caged pet, the station mascot, and it serves to further contain the
potential threat of his lechery. Within the station, DePalma represents both
absolute authority and the utter lack of it. Real authority in the station is
most often shouldered by Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch), who supports and nurtures
the others. DeVito's role in the sitcom initiated a pattern in which DeVito
inappropriately occupied a position of power or authority for which he was
unsuited, a pattern that presumes viewers' recognition of DeVito's small male
body as a double signifier of power and the absence of power. (Let me clarify here that
Taxi is not the best example of the
shifting of power from non-normative masculinity to normative masculinity. To
suggest that would be to claim that Alex Rieger represents normative
masculinity. Certainly with regard to height Rieger conforms closely to
hegemonic norms, but he is also represented in the sitcom as poor and visibly
"ethnic." The important element of this early role by DeVito is that it
established him as an inappropriate wielder of power.)
DeVito's success in Hollywood after Taxi suggests how deeply the
character of DePalma struck a chord in the American psyche. It also suggests
how useful the rhetoric of Taxi was to Hollywood. DeVito's early sitcom
role became the basis for many of the later characters he played. Subsequent
roles have relied on viewers' recognition of DeVito's earlier characters in two
ways: through repetition of familiar patterns or as material for additional
comic inversions. Films starring DeVito have continued to employ the rhetoric
of the carnival, and they often rely on DeVito's presence as a border Other,
using his body as a safe, displaced arena in which to play out power relations
involving recognized American Others.
Consistent with the inherent contradictions in DeVito's part on Taxi,
his subsequent roles can be classified along sharp divisions. He is either a
down-and-out victim of an oppressive system (Twins, Tin Men, Renaissance
Man, Jack the Bear, Hoffa, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
or a fiendish villain (Other People's Money, Ruthless People, Batman
Returns, Matilda, Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile).
He plays rich, influential, or greedy characters (Get Shorty, Matilda,
Other People's Money, Ruthless People, War of the Roses, L.A.
Confidential, Junior) and poor, desperate ones (Twins, Tin
Men, Rainmaker, Renaissance Man, Jack the Bear, Hoffa,
Throw Momma from the Train). He is either ruthless (Ruthless People,
Other People's Money) or tender-hearted (Jack the Bear) or both (Romancing
the Stone, Twins). He has played the consummately domestic man (Jack
the Bear, War of the Roses) and the destroyer of domesticity (Ruthless
People, Other People's Money).
Offscreen, the contradictions and carnival inversions persist. Media images of
DeVito often reinforce the patterns in DeVito's films. The titles of magazine
interviews reflect the verbal play on height that parallels the visual play in
DeVito's movies. A 1986 interview in People is titled "Walking Tall with
Danny Devito" (Stark). An article in Ladies Home Journal from 1990 bears
the title "Danny DeVito: Reaching New Heights" (Bandler). The subtitle of a Playboy
interview refers to him as "the five-foot giant of the movies" (Linderman).
Reacting to the lechery of characters like DePalma on Taxi, interviewers
often emphasize DeVito's domesticity. He is "nearly fanatical about the
importance of family life," writes a reporter for People (Stark, 81).
With his sexuality normalized through domesticity, the author of a 1988 Cosmopolitan
interview is able to concede that he has romantic appeal: "Okay, so he's bald,
about as statuesque as a fireplug, has played almost nothing but sleazebags.
Yet the minute you meet him, you want to scoop him up and take him home. That's
what Danny DeVito, Jr., does to a girl. Go figure" (Markey).
It is tempting to explain the contradictions in DeVito's image according to
John Ellis's theories. In Visible Fictions, Ellis argues that
contradictions, inherent in images of movie stars, serve two primary functions.
First, they act as a kind of marketing tool. Images of the star in subsidiary
circulation, which often contradict the film image of the star, create
curiosity among viewers, and they promise synthesis of the contradictory
elements of the star image in the film performance.
While the first explanation is undoubtedly true of DeVito's image, the second
explanation is less convincing. Assuming that all stars are objects of desire,
Ellis argues that contradictions in the star image help maintain viewers'
desire by making the star seem simultaneously accessible and inaccessible. "The
film performance of a star both animates the desire that plays around the
star's published image, yet holds that desire in place," Ellis writes. "Desire
is both permitted and encouraged, yet knows it cannot achieve any tangible form
of satisfaction, except the satisfactions of looking" (Ellis, 98). Ellis's
assumption that stars are always objects of desire is questionable with respect
to DeVito—not because it is impossible to imagine DeVito as an object of
desire, but because DeVito's roles characteristically assume that he lacks
romantic appeal (and they simultaneously encourage us to view him this way).
A different and perhaps more accurate explanation of the function of the
contradictions in DeVito's star image is to remind us that DeVito is a
borderline figure, simultaneously inside and outside the dominant order. The
contradictions encourage us to view him as both threatening and harmless. It
seems to me odd that DeVito would be viewed as threatening in the first
place—a peculiarity that I explore later in this essay—but however
odd the premise, the pattern of using comedy to defuse a potential threat is a
common one in movies starring DeVito. The author of a Newsweek article
from 1987 makes this pattern explicit:
"Like all great actors, there's a sense of danger about
Danny—a sense that anything could happen," says actress Barbara Hershey,
who plays DeVito's wife in "Tin Men," his latest box-office hit. "But mostly,
acting opposite him meant holding my sides laughing." That combination is just
as seductive on screen, moving audiences to embrace rather than recoil from
him. "Audiences know that with all the craziness, there's a gentleness in this
strange little person," says actor Billy Crystal, who stars opposite DeVito in
the upcoming "Throw Momma From the Train." Joe Piscopo, costar of "Wise Guys,"
one of DeVito's few box-office disappointments, agrees: "Audiences see right
through the screen into his heart. People see Danny." (Reese, 72)
What may be most threatening about DeVito is that he reverses traditional
hierarchies. In his classic discussion of the carnival in Rabelais and His
World, Bakhtin argues that medieval carnivals created a utopian realm
outside the official, hierarchical world in which people lived their daily
lives. In this "second world," this "world inside out," all were equal
according to Bakhtin; social rank was temporarily suspended as
everyone—audience member and carnival participant, king and peasant and
clown—commingled and became the potential target of humor and parody. Medieval
carnivals were, in Bakhtin's view, liberatory and revolutionary, and they
produced a special idiom that survived into the Renaissance, as testified by
the literature of Rabelais. This new idiom had a characteristic logic, the
"peculiar logic of the 'inside out,' of the 'turnabout,' of a continual
shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and
travesties,...comic crownings and uncrownings" (Bakhtin, 11).
Others have questioned Bakhtin's claims about the liberatory role of the
carnival (Stallybrass and White, 12-14). For the purposes of this discussion,
it is enough to point out that, however liberatory they may have been, the
logic of the carnival links particular individuals with specific comic roles.
Even Bakhtin admits that the fools and clowns, who performed so essential a
role in the carnival and were often played by dwarfs and giants, "remained
fools and clowns always and wherever they made their appearance....They stood
on the borderline between life and art" (Bakhtin, 8). The effect of the idiom
created by the carnival is that it extends the signification of bodies into
ordinary life. DeVito's short male body is a sign of inverted power not only
while his image remains on screen but afterward—and not only for him but
for others as well.
Published interviews of Danny DeVito in the 1980s and 1990s often emphasized
the inappropriateness of his recently acquired Hollywood clout. Power,
according to the rhetoric of these interviews, is simply not compatible with a
small male body, and the association of the two invariably produces comedy. A
1989 profile in Rolling Stone claims, "The sight of the scrappy
five-footer settling into his director's chair and yelling, 'Action,' may
strike some as funny. But no one's laughing behind his back" (Ressner). Time
magazine makes a similar remark. Its profile, coupled with a photo of DeVito in
a director's chair, refers to him as "tinseltown's tiny terror" and immediately
reassures readers that "offscreen...Danny DeVito is a hardworking pussycat."
Behind this rhetoric is an anxiety about the appropriate use and positioning of
power, and DeVito's body is both the target and source of this anxiety.
Consistent with this anxiety about power, oblique references to the Napoleon
complex are common in magazine and newspaper interviews. "DeVito insists he's
not a Napoleon behind the camera," writes the same Rolling Stone
journalist. A New York Times article uses DeVito's own voice to reassure
readers that his power is not misplaced:
Mr. DeVito has been associated with a string of
box-office hits, and in Hollywood big box office earns big power. Yet he
retains a "good guy" reputation in the movie industry....Mr. DeVito says, "I'm
sure there are ways to abuse any power you have or become a total prima donna.
I just hope I can continue to be true to what I believe." (Corman)
Later movies explicitly incorporated this growing rhetoric of power and its
comic inversion in DeVito's body. Get Shorty is virtually a direct
adaptation of the 1991 New York Times article cited above. The article
jokes about DeVito's increasing prestige, which supposedly allowed him to get
any script produced:
DeVito is the new Robert Redford. In Hollywood, where you're only as big as the
speed with which people return your calls, nobody calls Danny DeVito "later." A
gag originated in the movie business describing Robert Redford's power. Now,
you can add a new player. "In Hollywood, a good script is a script Danny DeVito
likes, a bad script is a script Danny DeVito doesn't like, a script that needs
work is a script Danny DeVito is thinking about." (Corman)
Get Shorty, DeVito plays the part of Martin Weir, a Hollywood actor and
producer whose influence is so great that Chili Palmer (John Travolta) and
Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) try desperately throughout the movie to win Weir's
approval on a script. It is a virtual biography of Danny DeVito as told by
recent journalists. It is also a clear example of John Ellis's arguments about
the workings of star images: "the film performance of the star," Ellis writes,
"takes up and furthers the star image from other media" (99). Images of Martin
Weir appear throughout Get Shorty and precede the actual appearance of
Weir in the movie; his power is represented symbolically as a pervasive and
usually massive presence that haunts the background of the screen. In the movie,
Weir's inescapable presence is a comic parody of the power of Hollywood itself.
It is a power rooted in narcissistic ambition, played out extensively through
the main plot involving Chili Palmer, a hit man who fancies himself a
scriptwriter. Appropriate to the themes of narcissism and ambition—as
well as the media image of DeVito as a contemporary Napoleon—the first
image of Weir is a poster from a movie in which Weir has played the part of
Napoleon, and throughout Get Shorty there are visual inversions that
play on DeVito's height: his face looms immensely on billboards, in an enormous
portrait in Weir's home, on book jackets filling up complete shelves of a
Along with reinforcing enduring stereotypes of short men via the Napoleon
complex, all of this visual play works to displace male desire for power onto a
border Other, a white male whose masculinity is represented as deviant,
un-natural, simultaneously constituted by deficiency and excess. This
displacement serves to sanitize normative masculinity, to cleanse it of its
proclaimed deficiencies—most especially its pernicious desire for power.
It was an intriguing rhetorical move in a climate of backlash against feminism
(as explored by Susan Faludi in her bestseller Backlash) and retrenchment
of white power (seen most clearly in charges of reverse racism made by white
men against affirmative action programs and in the controversial rejection of
affirmative action programs in the U.S. at the end of the twentieth century, including
California's Proposition 209). It was a covert response to contemporary
anxieties surrounding the perceived erosion of white, heterosexual male power.
And DeVito was, in this rhetoric, a comfortable comic Other, a safe zone for
playing out contemporary fears surrounding power, simultaneously an insider and
outsider to the dominant order.
The clearest example of this pattern is in the film Twins, where
DeVito's body is loaded with the "garbage" (literally the discarded, the
disavowed) of masculinity (and, to the extent that men stand for all people,
the "garbage" of humanity as well). The story is about a pair of twins (played
by DeVito and Schwarzenegger) who were the product of a genetic experiment
designed to produce the most perfect human possible. Sperm from six of the most
gifted men—all white—were mixed and used to fertilize the egg of a
single woman (her virtues are considered more or less irrelevant in the movie).
The experiment accidentally produced twins who were separated at birth.
Schwarzenegger plays the part of Julius, who was raised on a secluded, idyllic
island and grows to be educated, athletic, virtuous, and honorable. DeVito
plays the part of Vincent, raised in an orphanage until he was ejected for
sleeping with a nun. In contrast to Julius, Vincent is a womanizer and a
criminal—uneducated, temperamental, self-centered.
In a pivotal conversation between Vincent, Julius, and Dr. Travin, the
scientist who helped "create" the two of them, Travin explains how Vincent and
Julius were formed and why they are so different.
Julius.] You came out first, of course. [Pointing to Vincent.] We weren't
Vincent: [Pointing to scientific
equipment.] This must be where you made the milkshake [i.e., the semen mix].
weren't making milkshakes. We were making the most fully developed human the
world has ever seen.
Vincent: Well, instead of just one
perfect kid, mom had the two of us. Way to go, mom!
The embryo did split in two, but it didn't split equally. All the purity and
strength went into Julius. [Looking at Vincent.] All the crap that was left
over went into what you see in the mirror every morning.
Vincent: Whoa, whoa. You're telling me I'm the crap?
Julius: This is not true, Vincent.
Vincent: Wait a minute, Julius. I want
to hear this. You're telling me that I'm the leftover crap, that I'm no good?
Julius: He's wrong.
Julius, pointing at Vincent.] Look at him.
Vincent: You're saying that I'm a side-effect?!
haven't got the brain power to understand this, and I haven't got the time.
I'm genetic garbage.
Forget the bad science for a moment. What this scene reveals is that DeVito's
body is capable of standing as a legible sign of all the "crap" of humanity.
The scene depends on the audience's recognition of that logic, regardless of
the extent to which the movie deconstructs the idea (and one would be
hard-pressed to find evidence for any deconstruction of it, notwithstanding
Julius' unconvincing arguments about the differences between Vincent and Julius
being due to environment and upbringing). To borrow a term from Althusser,
Travin's statement "Look at him" interpellates both Julius and the viewer,
encouraging us to participate in a sign system in which DeVito's body signifies
"genetic garbage" and Schwarzenegger's body is DeVito's golden opposite, the
sign of perfection.
Tania Modleski has argued that big men and small men, however divergent they
may seem as types of masculinity, are really "two ends of the same concept."
"Both the phallic male and the pee-wee male may avail themselves of the
'cultural privileges' denied women in patriarchal society," she writes. "A film
like Twins, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito,...closes
the circle of the divergent images of masculinity characterizing contemporary
popular culture" (95). Modleski seems to be unaware of the fact that short men do
suffer from discrimination in the United States. The passage above makes it
clear that a small man like DeVito does not enjoy all of the "cultural
privileges" that a larger man like Schwarzenegger does, at least in terms of
representation. Dismissing the discrimination against short men (a
discrimination which is no doubt compounded by differences of race, class, sex,
and sexuality) by comparing it to the discrimination against women veils the
discrimination that short people as a group face.
On the other hand, Modleski is probably right that, however much contemporary
representations of masculinity in popular culture resist traditional
patriarchal images, they often nevertheless still entail a degree of misogyny.
The pairing of DeVito and Schwarzenegger in Twins was an attempt to
address contemporary social debates in a way that continued to make women
irrelevant. Robyn Wiegman makes a similar argument in American Anatomies,
where she suggests that interracial male buddy narratives of the 1980s
simultaneously offer deceptive fantasies of the end of racial divisions and,
because these narratives depend upon the exclusion of women, reinforce
patriarchy at the expense of women, especially black women.
The movie Twins follows a pattern initiated in Taxi in which
DeVito's body acts as a comfortable comic Other in a world in which recognized
Others like women and African-Americans are conspicuously absent. The often
bitter debate surrounding nature versus nurture, or genetics versus the
environment, which has played a conspicuous part in controversies surrounding
the position of blacks in the United States (revived in the 1990s by the book The
Bell Curve), is here played out through the bodies of two white men. The
conversation among Julius, Vincent, and Travin from Twins would have
been politically impossible if an African-American actor had played the part of
Yet the movie covertly indicates that DeVito's character Vincent might be
standing in for blacks in a scene shortly following this one. After their
encounter with Travin, the two decide to search for their mother, and Vincent
convinces Julius to buy some new clothes so that he'll be more presentable.
They buy identical suits, and in the next scene the two are shown walking down
a crowded street, where Vincent decides to educate Julius in how to walk
properly. "You look a little stiff," Vincent says. "You see, when you walk, you
gotta walk like you're moving to music. And I don't mean a military march. I
mean like, you know, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett." They put
on dark sunglasses, and Julius imitates Vincent's walk. "Do I look cool now?"
Julius asks. "Mr. Ice," says Vincent. The scene is a direct reference to a
similar scene in the 1976 comedy Silver Streak. In the earlier movie,
Richard Pryor helps Gene Wilder disguise himself by painting his face black
with shoe polish. Pryor then teaches Wilder how to walk like a black man in a
scene that Twins copies almost verbatim. Thus, Twins offers
viewers the resolution that even those who seem most different—Danny
DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger—may actually be brothers after all and
come to depend on each other. The implication of the narrative is that the same
may be true for other differences as well, especially differences of race. As
Robyn Wiegman writes, in much of contemporary popular culture "the question of
race and racial equality can only be answered through a struggle posed between
and for white men" (122).
In Romancing the Stone, DeVito also functions as a comic Other, in this
case a man who participates intimately in a narrative of contemporary power
relations yet stands outside the contest, acting as a facilitator who brings
about a comfortable resolution. The movie begins as a parody of conventional
romance plots. The heroine Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) lives a lonely life
with a cat named Romeo. By day she spins out best-selling romance novels about
heroic, daring women who always find the perfect man; by night, she waits
expectantly for her own Mr. Right. When a phone message from her kidnapped
sister takes her on a sudden, wild trip to Colombia, she stumbles into the man
who eventually turns out to be Mr. Right: Jack Colton (played by Michael
When Colton first appears, however, he seems a rude, self-centered, filthy,
penniless gun-slinger chasing a pipe dream. The two are ultimately brought
closer together by their efforts to evade two sets of villains: a violent,
dark-skinned Colombian military leader named Zollo who will stop at nothing to
get the treasure map that Wilder is carrying, and the two cousins Ira and Ralph
(the latter played by DeVito) who have kidnapped Wilder's sister and are
demanding the map for her freedom. The villains represent the two threats that
men bring to romantic relationships: violence and betrayal. The potential for
both is evident in Jack Colton from the moment he appears on the screen. When
Wilder and Colton first meet, Colton arrives firing a rifle haphazardly at
Zollo in order to protect what he thinks is a threat to his bird collection
while Wilder cowers beneath an overturned bus that presents little protection
from the chaotic firefight. After driving off Zollo, Colton begins scheming to
betray Wilder by stealing her treasure map.
As the romance develops between Wilder and Colton, however, both
threats—violence and betrayal—are displaced from the male romantic
lead to the villains, Zollo and Ralph. The first of these threats is more
serious, the second is parodic. Zollo is always entirely outside the romantic system,
the shadowy threat against which the hero and heroine must constantly defend
themselves. He is the dark-skinned Third World man, a recognized Other in a
Reaganite America obsessed with maintaining its economic position in relation
to the Third World and vexed by growing violence from disenfranchised racial
minorities within its own borders. Ralph, on the other hand, is the comic
border Other, the threat from within. Ralph's role as a border figure is
represented in part by his position as an American (like Colton and Wilder) who
is living in a "Third World cesspool" (as Ralph calls it) that he desperately
wants to escape. It is also represented by the fact that he gets physically
closer to the couple (sharing part of their journey hidden in the back seat of
their car) than Zollo, who follows them from a distance throughout the movie.
During the course of the film the parody of romance initially enacted between
Wilder and Colton shifts to Ralph. The steadily erupting passion between Colton
and Wilder is solidified during a festival in a small town, where the two dance
and then end up in bed together. As they dance, the camera shows Ralph crawling
beneath tables looking for Wilder's purse, which contains the map. When he
disturbs a heavy woman eating her dinner, she assaults him, and shots of Wilder
and Colton dancing are juxtaposed with scenes of Ralph and the fat woman
wrangling. Thus, at the moment that the romance between the main characters is
solidified, the humor that began in the parody of romance between the two has
now shifted to two stigmatized people. According to the rhetoric of the movie,
the combination of a short man and a taller fat woman represents a parody not
only of Colton and Wilder but of romance in general. As the film continues,
Ralph more explicitly takes on the negative traits previously ascribed to Colton.
He tries to swindle the treasure from both Colton and Wilder, for example, and
he tries to convince Wilder that Colton still intends to betray her.
Romancing the Stone effects a restoration of the romantic order that
began in parody by transferring both the parody and the negative masculine
characteristics of violence and betrayal to Others. Colton's violent tendencies
are transferred to a recognized Third World Other, who is fittingly swallowed
up by the reptilian violence he adhered to while alive: in the end of the film
Zollo is eaten by crocodiles. Colton's potential for betrayal is transferred to
Ralph, whose fate is to be betrayed and abandoned in the end of the movie by
his own partner and cousin, Ira. As opposed to the absolute Otherness represented
by Zollo, a character treated grimly and seriously in the movie (in his first
appearance in the film, for example, he brutally and randomly stabs a mail
carrier), Ralph is a comic figure, a parody of masculinity rather than its dark
opposite. Thus, while anxieties surrounding threats to the dominant order are
relieved through abjection of the absolute Other, the anxiety represented in
Danny DeVito's body is relieved through parody and carnival.
Viewed in relation to the representation of other minority male bodies, short
male bodies (if DeVito is any indication) are used in ways that both resemble
and differ from the deployments of other marginalized male bodies. Critics have
argued that images of minority male bodies are often used, not to challenge
patriarchy, but to refurbish it during periods of social change or unrest (Solomon-Godeau). One of the primary devices by which patriarchy
refurbishes itself is by shifting popular notions of masculinity. "Patriarchy
is constantly reforming masculinity," Andrew Ross writes. "The reason why
patriarchy remains so powerful is due less to its entrenched traditions than to
its versatile capacity to shape-change and morph the contours of masculinity to
fit with shifts in the social climate" (Ross, 172).
Often these shape-changes occur in conjunction with increasing visibility of
minority men, a technique used to distract attention from the entrenchment of
traditional forms of power. This was arguably happening in the United States at
the close of the twentieth century, where minorities were becoming more and
more visible in TV commercials, print advertisements, movies, and other media,
a development that coincided with the solidification of power among
multinational corporations, a growing rift between the rich and poor, a
shrinking middle class, the feminization of poverty, and continuing high rates
of unemployment and poverty among minorities. Robyn Wiegman has argued that
pairings between white and black men in U.S. movies and TV programs increase
the visibility of black men while simultaneously extricating white men from the
role of oppressor. "Through the representational framework of bonds with black
men," Wiegman writes, "the white masculine is cast as an oscillating and at
times indeterminate formation." One of the consequences of this oscillation is
that white men can be cast "as both victim of the social order and its
potential hero" (123). In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France,
images of ephebic or feminized men served to repudiate "a previous model of
masculinity that was not only experienced as oppressive, but...no longer
appropriate to the needs of a new or changing collective imaginary and symbolic
order," according to Abigail Solomon-Godeau. This repudiation, however, did not
necessarily constitute "any particular quarrel with patriarchal law and order"
(73). Both writers are suggesting, in other words, that an increasing presence
of marginalized masculinities might seem to subvert patriarchy and other
axes of power (like the dominance of whites and heterosexuals) but in fact
actually reinforces the status quo.
I began this essay with a meditation on the success of DeVito in late-twentieth-century
Hollywood. The presence of a small man like DeVito—coupled as it was with
the increasing presence of other minority figures in film and the media—might
suggest that DeVito was also being used in a way that appears to widen the
possibilities for masculinity and subvert patriarchy. The function that DeVito
often played in movies, however, suggests that something else was occurring.
Instead of undermining contemporary power relations, his role was more often to
Male bodies are sometimes used, not as signs of power, but as comfortable, safe
sites on which to enact scripts of power contestation. Danny DeVito's body has
been such a site. His position as both an insider and outsider to the dominant
order—signified by his size combined with his sex and Hollywood
clout—has made him an appealing, safe figure for dealing covertly with
anxieties surrounding the perceived erosion of white male power. Such anxieties
were apparent in attacks on affirmative action programs, and they originated in
apprehensions about the state of masculinity in a feminist age, as well as in
fears of dwindling economic opportunity for white men in an era noted for
increasing global economic competition (including the movement of many U.S.
industrial jobs overseas) and increasing domestic competition from women and
minorities. Films characteristically resolved these anxieties by first
comically inverting power relations—an inversion often signified through
Danny DeVito's body—and then restoring those relations. This is
especially true in Twins and Romancing the Stone. DeVito's body was
a comfortable—indeed comic—site for enacting this restoration because,
as a border Other, he did not clearly represent the actual threats against
which white, heterosexual, Christian male power was defending itself: namely,
women, blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, and so on. At the same time, this
refusal to see DeVito as a legitimate Other concealed the social discrimination
faced by short men and women in the United States.
In many ways little has changed since DeVito's success. While DeVito may have
indirectly expanded the possibilities for the representation of short men in
the media, a quick perusal of recent films and TV shows suggests that an
increasing visibility of small male actors and characters has not fundamentally
or consistently altered conventions of height representation. The role of Lord
Farquaad in Shrek, for example, closely resembles that of DeVito: a
short man inappropriately and comically occupying a seat of power from which he
is ultimately ejected by a bigger male character represented as more suited to
the role (even if he, too, is depicted as deviant in other ways; size and
strength, in Shrek's case, seems essential to mitigating other masculine
deficiencies). A growing presence of little people in Hollywood productions and
TV shows has similarly recapitulated some of the most conventional and
offensive stereotypes, from the Mini-Me character in the Austin Powers movies
Acuña in the MTV series Jackass (one of Acuña's best-known skits
involved posing as an Oompa Loompa while skateboarding down city streets).
In an essay on the unlikely recent success of another short male actor (at
least by Hollywood standards)—Jackie Chan—Mark Gallagher has
suggested that Chan's films defy Hollywood conventions surrounding both masculinity
and small size. Unlike many action heroes, for example, Chan does not conceal
his small size in his films and even uses it to his advantage in narrative
terms to evade enemies or fit into confined, protective spaces. Camera
positions also resist making Chan appear bigger than he is or larger than his
environment or other characters—an unusual tactic in the action genre. Smallness,
according to Gallagher, becomes a positive signifier in Chan's films for
flexibility, mobility, and humility—all of which defy Hollywood action
film norms (both in terms of bodies and in terms of cinematic techniques) that traditionally
valorize rigidity, stasis and large size. Gallagher
concludes that Chan represents a distinctive alternative to the depiction of
Western action heroes, and his films represent a critique of Western male
heroism. Yet a closer look reveals surprising similarities between the
depiction of Chan and DeVito. As Gallagher points out, Chan's roles
disavow overt sex appeal (an uncharacteristic move for action heroes), and they
depend on comedy and the grotesque as vehicles for inverting social norms and
power structures. Chan's roles also, at times, reinscribe conventional
assumptions about body size. When a little person (Tyson, played by Teddy Robin)
appears as a sidekick for Chan in Twin Dragons, the pairing allows Chan
to slough off characteristics normally associated with smallness (victimization,
romantic failure, and inappropriate claims to male power). Intriguingly, in
this pairing Chan loses his comic role and becomes the straight man to the
dwarf's comedy. A different reading of Chan's roles might suggest that
Hollywood uses his flexible, mobile body to signify its own flexibility and
mobility: its capacity to absorb and appeal to global audiences, its capacity
to adjust the conventions of its genres while retaining their basic structures,
its capacity to appear humble in the face of increasing global competition from
foreign film industries like the Hong Kong and Indian industries while still
aggressively vying for dominance. (Gallagher himself
notes that Hollywood's absorption of Hong Kong film talent, including Chan, in
the late 1990s was motivated by profits and the desire to maintain global
dominance and has not coincided with substantially new treatment of Chinese
characters in Hollywood films broadly.) I would suggest that Hollywood
uses DeVito in a similar way: to accommodate to changes in masculinity and
patriarchy, principally through inclusion of more diverse male characters,
while simultaneously leaving more normative male characters in positions of
power and authority. One might reasonably conclude, therefore, that all of the
tactics of Chan's films might be seen as primarily shoring up social norms and
power structures at the same time as they marginally defy
them—particularly norms and conventions surrounding the meaning of body
 If an increasing visibility of minority men
was used to distract attention from the entrenchment of traditional forms of
power at the end of the twentieth century, it is arguably still happening today.
I am indebted to Richard Meyer, whose essay "Rock
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TAVEL CLARKE is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Calgary
in Alberta, Canada. His recently published book, These Days of Large Things:
The Culture of Size in America, 1865-1930 (Michigan 2007), addresses the American obsession
with bigness at the turn of the twentieth century and its relation to changing
conceptions of the body. He is currently working on a new book on the cultural
history of an American icon, the little guy.