Thursday, 19 April 2018

The long and the short of Hollywood actors and actresses - did you know that Sylvester Stallone is 5'8" and Judy Garland was 4'11"?

Boy on a Dolphin
I watched Jean Negulesco's 1957 romance-adventure film Boy on a Dolphin the other night. It's not a good film - but it's not terrible, either. What makes it bearable is a terrific performance by Sophia Loren as a Greek peasant who, while diving for pearls, discovers an ancient statue of - yes - a boy riding a dolphin, and spends the rest of the film yawing between noble archaeologist Alan Ladd and dapper crook, Clifton Webb. The sun-drenched Greek islands - filmed in Cinemascope and vivid DeLuxe Colour - look spectacular, but they're no match for Ms Loren's ravishing beauty (the opening sequence, which features the luscious Italian lovely in wet, bosom-hugging, skintight shirt presumably ensured the film's commercial success). 23-year old Sophia was 5'8" tall, while 44-year-old Alan Ladd (looking closer to 60 - booze will do that to you) stood somewhere between 5'4" and 5'7" - most likely 5'5". And yet this never becomes disconcerting ...

...because film-makers were used to ironing out this type of discrepancy (this is the film where they reputedly dug a trench in the sand so they could film the two stars strolling along a beach without it looking odd).

Ladd, it's said, was treated unkindly by film crews in the latter part of his booze-wrecked career - particularly on this film - because of the mismatch between his lack of stature and the sort of two-fisted, he-man roles he specialised in. I'm not sure why he came in for such treatment, given that fellow Hollywood tough guy James Cagney was 5'4", and George Raft and Edward G. Robinson were both a tad under 5'6" - sure, Bogart was 5'8", but he was only really a tough guy as far as middle-class audiences were concerned: Cagney, Raft, Robinson and Ladd were the actors revered as real hard cases by most cinemagoers and their  kids. Could it be that film crews were disappointed to find that their boyhood hero didn't measure up to their image of him - or did Ladd have one of those unfortunate personalities which seem to invite bullying?

I saw James Cagney in Torrid Zone (1940) the other day. It's a fast-paced delight, an insanely enjoyable mash-up of any number of genres, including comedy, action, adventure and romance. Pat O'Brien (5'9") is Cagney's brutal boss at a tropical fruit company somewhere in steamy Central America. Anne Sheridan (5'4.5") is the sassy minx O'Brien tries to stick on the next boat home in case she overagitates his employees' hormones. Cagney has to choose between feisty, frisky Ann, and his more upmarket mistress, the wife of a dull company manager. And here's the thing - Cagney is absolutely convincing as a tough-guy babe-magnet. He always was: his lack of inches and his unconventional looks simply weren't an issue - perhaps it's because he floods every scene he's in with sheer, exhilarating energy, and partly, one suspects, because he'd been a tough little New York street-fighter in his youth.

When I was looking up Ladd's and Cagney's heights to compare them, I stumbled on various lists of the shortest and tallest Hollywood actors and actresses. Most of the entries aren't in the least surprising - Dustin Hoffman always looks around 5'5". just as it would be a surprise to learn that John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Liam Neeson and Clint Eastwood weren't 6'4". But some were surprising, because the height simply didn't fit my mental image of the actor - here's are some of those surprises:

Stellan Skarsgård - 6’4.5” (I'd have gone for 6'1")
Rupert Everett - 6'4" (hardly Hollywood, but I'd have guessed 6'00" max)
Ben Affleck - 6'3.5"
Ernest Borgnine - 5'9" (6'1" at least!)
Emilio Estevez - 5'4"
Spencer Tracy - 5'9" (I thought he was much shorter)
John Cusack - 6'2.5" (5'10" tops)
Warren  Beatty, Hugh Jackman, Timothy Dalton, John Travolta - 6'2" (5'10" - 5'11",  I'd have said - all of them are supposedly two inches taller than Nicholas Cage, Lee Marvin, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Hanks, and they're same height as Sean Connery!)
Tyrone Power - 6'0" (I'd have gone with 5'9")
David Thewlis - 6'3" (!!!!)
Frank Sinatra - 5'8" (oh, come on!)
Charles Laughton - 5'8" (5'11", I'd have said - but that might be because of his massive onscreen presence)

And were Dick Powell and Robert Donat really 6'0" tall? Seemed shorter to me - while Robert Mitchum seemed a lot taller than 6'1.5"

There are fewer surprises on the female front. I recently watched the first 30 minutes of an atrocious Ernst Lubitsch society "comedy", That Uncertain Feeling (1941), in which the director's famous "touch" seems to have totally deserted him. It starred the lovely Merle Oberon, who, despite playing a rich, young Manhattan socialite wife, looked and sounded Indian (she was Anglo-Indian, born in Bombay, but I'm sure they weren't trying to stress her origins) - and she was so weirdly dressed, made-up and lit that she looked tiny, much shorter than 5'1.5". Greta Garbo always gave the impression of being much taller than 5'6.5" - just as I'd have guessed Cyd Charisse was around 5'10", rather than 5'6", whereas I'd never have guessed that Lauren Bacall was a relatively lofty 5'8", or that Ingrid Bergman was a towering 5'9, so, while she would have looked up to lofty co-stars such as Gary Cooper, Robert Donat, Gregory Peck (6'2"),  George Sanders (6'2"), Joseph Cotten (6'1.5"), Anthony Quinn and Robert Montgomery (both 6'0"), some adjustments would have been necessary when she appeared alongside Bogart, Bing Crosby (5'7") and Yul Brynner (just under 5'7").

At the other end of the height scale for actresses, Jean Harlow was just under 5'1" (I'd expected more), while I'd imagined Audrey Hepburn to be much shorter than a shade under 5'6" - a smidgin taller than Grace Kelly - and Vivien Leigh to be taller than 5'2". While I knew that Veronica Lake's centre of gravity was fairlyclose to the ground (she was 4'10" or 4'11", depending on who one believes), I hadn't realised that Mae West was considerably shorter than she looked - again, opinions vary, but she seems to have been around 5'0" tall.

Does any of this matter? Of course not - Dolph Lundgren is 6'6", and I wouldn't watch any of his films if you paid me - but for some odd reason, I find it fascinating! And I can't help feeling sorry for Alan Ladd, who deserved more respect.

One final observation: watching Discovering Alec Guinness on Sky yesterday, I remembered seeing Guinness on stage in the West End playing Jonathan Swift in Yahoo, in the mid-70s. I was surprised by how big he was - broad-chested and at least six foot tall, with a booming voice to match. But, of course, he was 5'9", and slight. It's called acting.


  1. Oh the magic of film.
    Sonny Corleone looked every inch the elder brother towering over his siblings - at least
    Nope James Caan 5'9.5".

    1. It's all a matter of context - Brando was only 5'9", while Al Pacino is 5'5". (I must watch the scenes involving Pacino and Sterling Hayden again - Hayden was 6'5"!)

  2. Context is all. Francis Ford Coppola could be forgiven for thinking he had strolled into a remake of The Terror of Tiny Town.
    Mind you how tall was FFC?