Little people, sometimes known as dwarfs and once derogatively referred to as ‘midgets’, did not always get a fair deal from the cinema industry. Generally portrayed as figures of fun, or cast as clowns, and sometimes relegated to sitting inside small machines to play robots, or strange alien creatures, their lot was not a happy one. There are many examples of the blatant exploitation of these actors, but I would like this article to focus on the positives, so I intend to show appreciation for their better roles, and some outstanding performances.
With our modern sensibilities, it is easy to forget that much of what we now regard as exploitation was once considered entirely reasonable. Before the days of the welfare state, charitable trusts, and medical relief organisations, disabilities were likely to mean a life of misery and poverty for those concerned. In many cases, the chance to work in travelling freak shows attached to fairs and circuses was the only way for those affected to earn a living for themselves and their families.
And the sad truth is, this phenomenon has not gone away. An examination of TV schedules will provide numerous examples of modern-day freak shows, thinly disguised as informative documentaries, or medical investigations. Some examples are; The Boy Without a Face, and The World’s Fattest Man (or woman), as well as many shows featuring detailed accounts of surgery to separate conjoined twins, correct various defects, or examine those happy to live with their afflictions. We can recoil with revulsion as carers roll around with gigantically obese people, attempting to wash them, as outside, firemen remove walls from their house, so they can be taken to hospital. The only difference from the freak shows of old, is that we don’t have to go to a muddy fairground and stand inside a draughty tent to gaze at these oddities. We can do it from the comfort of our sofas.
Produced and directed by Tod Browning, this was marketed as a horror film by MGM. It was never released in its original print, which was considered too distressing to be seen, and had to be extensively cut for acceptance by cinemas. I find this to be very strange, given that millions were still flocking to see shows exactly like the one in the film, and would continue to do so, until long after the Second World War.
The cast is made up of real little people and disabled people in the main. Coming from the background of the carnivals and freak shows just like the one in the film, they are essentially playing themselves. They are characters deserving of our sympathy, as they are manipulated and conned by the film’s true freaks: able-bodied characters who believe that it is perfectly acceptable to take advantage of those less fortunate. We get to see the film’s protagonists as real people, with the same fears, emotions, desires, and ambitions as anyone else. They also get to exact revenge on their tormentors, using all their unique attributes to carry out their plan of vengeance.
Perhaps it was the triumph of these rejects from society over the able-bodied villains that made the authorities so sensitive about showing it. The cuts reduced the film to a running time of just 64 minutes, and most reviews were harsh. The film lost money, and was not widely distributed, almost disappearing. It enjoyed some revival during the 1970s, but was hard to find on VHS, and rarely shown in the UK, where it had been banned for thirty years after release.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the cultural and historical significance of ‘Freaks’ began to get due recognition, and the film later became available to buy on DVD. Many still abhor it, but I am firmly in the camp of those who consider that it presents the characters with sympathy and understanding, as well as giving them the chance to get even, for a change.
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Almost ten years after Browning’s death, the young director Werner Herzog released his second feature film. This film was comprised of a cast in which every actor was a dwarf, and a story set in a fictional institution, a home to ‘social misfits.’ It is not the dwarfism that makes them misfits, just their errant behaviour, and strange antics. The inmates and the staff are all played by dwarfs, a cast assembled by Herzog with the intention of making an impact. And it worked. Critics and audiences alike were divided. Surreal imagery, including the mock crucifixion of a monkey, and the tormenting of blind dwarfs, made the experience of watching this film sometimes difficult, but always unusual.
The inmates rebel, and take control of the institution. They wreak havoc, throwing food around, smashing all the crockery, and stealing a car. In scenes bordering on farce, Herzog piles on the allegory, always looking for the next shock, or outrageous sequence. After watching for a while though, something important happens. You forget that the cast are dwarfs. Their size and shape becomes irrelevant to the story, and you find yourself watching a strange film about the inmates of an institution in rebellion, not a film about dwarfs. This is the most important thing about this film. They are just the cast, and they play their parts, the same as the cast in any other film. Despite the hidden messages, the not-so-hidden allegories, and the obvious low budget, Herzog has freed the dwarfs from caricature. They are just actors.
The Tin Drum (1979)
The film adaptation of the complex novel by Gunter Grass was always going to be a tough project, as the book was famous and had been highly acclaimed. German film-maker Volker Schlondorff delivered this masterful interpretation, which rightly won both the Palme D’or, and an Academy Award.
It could be argued that the film hinges on the portrayal of the main character, Oskar. In the story, young Oskar is given a tin drum as a gift for his third birthday. He has already been born with the unusual gift of an adult mentality, and vows that he never wants to grow up. He decides to stop his growth by throwing himself down some stairs, ensuring that he will never develop physically.
The Swiss actor David Bennent was cast in the role, and he suited it to perfection. Aged eleven at the time, he had a very different physical appearance, with wide eyes, low-set ears, and an unusually shaped head. He also suffered from developmental difficulties that had caused him to have growth problems in real life. Rarely has anyone been so ideally suited to play a particular part.
Oskar soon discovers that his voice has also changed, and he can now emit a high-pitched sound capable of breaking glass. Despite his small stature, he develops mentally into a young man, and soon has sexual desires. He has liaisons with various women, including a sixteen year-old girl.
Events take place around the rise of the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s. Oskar sees the persecution of the Jews by Nazi brown-shirts, and when war finally breaks out, he once again meets up with a female dwarf Bebra, who he had once encountered when he saw her perform in a circus. She is now in a travelling show, all of whose members are dwarfs, entertaining troops at the front. Oskar decides to join her, and takes his drum along, using his glass-breaking voice in the act too. He meets Roswita, another member of the troupe, and also becomes attracted to her, finding some companionship and purpose in his life, in the company of all the small performers.
The film covers events up to the end of the war, until the time that Oskar decides he must now grow up, and throws away the drum that signified his decision to remain a child. Hit by a stone and knocked down, he finally develops as he should have done many years before.
There are some controversies surrounding the sex scenes in the film. The eleven-year old Bennent is seen apparently performing oral sex on a sixteen year-old girl. (The actress was twenty-four at the time.) Oskar also has relationships with older women, and fathers a child. These depictions also appear in the print version.
This is a truly mesmerising performance by an incredibly talented child actor, in a part where he is supposed to be small. It is a marvellous film,and I recommend it unreservedly.
Time Bandits (1981)
Terry Gilliam is well known for his forays into fantasy. This film again concerns a child, and the events are seen through his eyes and imagination. One night, young Kevin is amazed when a group of dwarfs suddenly fall out of the wardrobe in his bedroom. They have a stolen map. And it allows them to pass through time. A huge disembodied head appears, the face of the Supreme Being, demanding the return of the map. They discover a passageway through one of the bedroom walls, and use it to escape with Kevin joining the group.
They arrive in Italy during the early 19th century at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Kevin discovers that the group were supposed to be using the map to repair holes in time, but instead decided to use it to travel to different locations and steal treasure. This is a great historical adventure, more comedy than drama; a fantasy for children and adults alike. Kevin gets to meet many famous characters from history, all part of a star-studded cast. Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood, (John Cleese) Agamemnon, (Sean Connery) and lots more. He finds himself on the Titanic before it sinks, helps Agamemnon kill the Minotaur, and eventually travels to the fantastic land known as ‘The Time Of Legends,’ before returning home, to wake up in his own bed once again.
Despite a creditable performance from Craig Warnock as Kevin, and the numerous amusing cameos from well-known stars, it is the group of dwarf actors who steal the film; including stand-out performances from the marvelous Kenny Baker, (the man who was inside R2-D2) and David Rappaport. This bickering gang of scoundrels could be any size. They just happen to be small.
The Station Agent (2003)
By the time that the 21st century arrived, you might expect the treatment of little people in films to have become very different. This was not the case. In 1999, we had seen Mike Myers having great fun at the expense of a dwarf, with the character of Mini-Me in the Austin Powers Films.
In 2003, Bad Santa had Billy Bob Thornton playing a drunken Santa with a dwarf sidekick, robbing the shops where they performed their Christmas shows. There were other unappealing events featuring small people. Dwarf-throwing at stag parties, and firing dwarfs from cannons, all enjoyed popularity during this period.
Fortunately, we had The Station Agent. This small indie film from Thomas McCarthy stars Peter Dinklage, a distinguished and accomplished actor, who just happens to be a dwarf. He plays Finbar, who keeps himself to himself, and has a distrust of outsiders and strangers. He works in a shop selling model railways and lives a solitary life, but is content enough. Then one day, the kindly shop owner dies, and Finbar discovers that the shop is to be sold, and his life is about to change completely.
The old man has left him some land, containing a deserted station, alongside an old railway. It is away from the city, in a quiet countryside location. Finbar decides that he will go there and start a new life, living in the former station and keeping away from people. That doesn’t prove to be so easy.
He soon encounters the amiable Joe, (Bobby Cannevale) who is running a mobile snack bar in the nearby car park. Joe just wants to be friendly, and Finbar being small is not an issue for him. He also meets Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an artist, still distraught over the death of her child, and unable to cope. There is Emily (Michelle Williams) the local librarian, caught up in an abusive relationship, who turns to Finbar for comfort and help. A young schoolgirl Cleo, (Raven Goodwin) who also loves trains, and eventually manages to get Finbar to talk to her school class about them. His size again is unimportant, the fact he is the same stature never takes away from his presence as an adult.
Through his interaction with this disparate group, Finbar learns that the outside world is not at all how he perceived it. Despite their normal size and development, the group that surrounds him needs him to help solve the loneliness and problems in their life. They do not associate with him because of the novelty of his size, but because they see him as a determined and mature individual. Ironically, he is someone that they can look up to.
In this film we finally get to see the small person as the star, and a worthy performer in that role. His part is not about his size, but rather how dealing with that issue throughout his life has made him better balanced, and stronger than those around him. In helping them, he emerges from his self-imposed exile, and becomes complete.
It will undoubtedly be a long time before actors of smaller stature are cast in films just because they are good actors. Public acceptance of their perceived disabilities will take a significant change of attitude to overturn current prejudices. Only by showing the positive side of small people will this ever be possible. I know that there are many other examples that I could have used, but these were the ones that I wanted to write about, and I did not want it to be too long. I hope that you will try to see some or all of these films, if you haven’t already. They each empower the small actors in their different ways, and give hope to others that may be considering roles in entertainment that are not dependent on their size.