Originally published in the November 2005 issue of Fra Noi.
This being the month of November when Americans gather together to give thanks for our abundance of blessings by setting aside a special day to eat and eat and eat some more until the tryptophan in our chemically-enhanced turkeys finally lulls us to sleep, I thought this was the perfect time to celebrate one of my favorite films ever made by Italian Americans about Italian Americans. The movie, entitled “Fatso,” deals with the Italian American love of food.
Whether we like it or not, much of Italian American culture is inextricably linked with food. Traditionally the social interaction among Italian American family and friends has taken place around the dinner table. It’s during the ritual of sharing our meals that we also share our hopes and dreams, our fears and frustrations, and perhaps most of all, our love and laughter.
In an Italian family, food provides more than the excuse to get together and show our love. Food becomes a very real sign of that love. Many a mother and grandmother have showered their offspring with the loving preparation of traditional family recipes. And this practice by no means excludes fathers and grandfathers. For example, every Saturday night, my three children anxiously await the homemade pizza I prepare for them. There are many Saturdays when I just don’t feel like doing it; I may feel too tired or too busy with other things. Nevertheless, I try to make it as often as I can because I realize the importance of the ritual I’ve begun. It has become our family tradition. My ten year old daughter Jennie is starting to express curiosity about how to make it. My son Frank just showers me with compliments about my superiority in pizza preparation and my youngest, Nick, is mainly concerned with picking the onions off his piece of pizza. Long after I’m gone, my children will have warm memories of their Saturday night pizza dinners. And part of that memory will be their realization that going to the trouble of doing that every week was a way for me to show them how much I loved them, and of course, they’ll be right.
In many ethnic cultural traditions, food becomes representative of the safety, security, and contentment of our youth. Our memories of family become linked with certain foods or holiday traditions. However, we need to be careful because sometimes food can be used, unconsciously, as a substitute for communication. We’ve all heard the term “comfort food.” In some traditions and families, food in general becomes the friend we turn to when we want comfort and security. Instead of dealing with our feelings, we retreat to the safety of food. This is one of the underlying messages in “Fatso,” one of the most hilarious, poignant, and authentic films ever produced about Italian Americans.
“Fatso,” made in 1980, was written and directed by Anne Bancroft. As we learned in our September tribute to this marvelous actress, she was born in the Bronx as Anna Maria Italiano. Like many of us, she came from a large and traditional Italian American family that celebrated all occasions with feasts of wonderful Italian food.
The star of the film is Dom DeLuise whose performance shines like the egg white glaze on a loaf of stuffed pepperoni bread. While Bancroft is credited as screenwriter of the film, DeLuise either made numerous contributions to the script or, at the very least, served as the primary inspiration for the lead character, Dominick DiNapoli. In the late 1980s DeLuise published a cookbook of his favorite family recipes and called it “EAT THIS . . . It’ll Make You Feel Better.” In the book he tells how his mother would cure all his childhood ills with food. That sentiment serves as the genesis of the plot for “Fatso.”
The opening sequence of the film shows us flashes of Dominick’s childhood. If he fell down and scraped his knee his mother gave him something to eat. If he suffered a disappointment she gave him something to eat. If he had a nightmare and woke up scared she gave him something to eat. Food became the way he dealt with any and every difficult situation.
It is not until his obese 39-year-old cousin Sal dies, that Dominick finally begins to face his own weight problem. His sister Antoinette, played by Bancroft, harangues him into making an appointment with a diet doctor. At the end of the appointment, the nurse reads him a short list of foods he’s allowed to eat and a seemingly endless list of foods he’s not allowed to eat and you see a tear in his eye and realize he’s thinking, “I’d rather be dead.”
The strength of the film’s humor comes from our ability as humans to relate with the plight of Dominick’s character. It’s funny because it’s believable - especially if you come from an Italian American background. Is it exaggerated? Yes. But great comedy comes from taking everyday human problems and exaggerating them just enough for us to see ourselves in a humorous light.
After struggling with the “do’s and don’ts” handed down by the doctor, Dominick joins a support group called “Chubby Checkers.” Similar to AA and other Twelve Step types of programs, the group assigns a buddy to call every time you feel the urge to eat something you shouldn’t. One of the funniest scenes of the film focuses on Dominick calling in help as he begins to weaken. Ultimately, his “Chubby” pals and he fantasize about the joys of their favorite foods and this leads to disaster. As funny as the scene of reckless abandon that follows is, the sadness and despair of the morning after is truly heartbreaking.
To add to Dom’s despair is the fact that he has met a lovely young woman who has opened an antique shop in the neighborhood where he and his sister run a greeting card shop. He falls in love with Lydia (played by Candice Azarra) and fears that his weight may come between them, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Instead, he finds out that Lydia doesn’t care about his weight. She likes him because he’s a kind, sensitive person. A romance blossoms between the two and before he knows it, Dom begins to lose weight without even trying. Obviously, Lydia has filled a void in his life that he previously masked with food.
Dom decides to propose marriage to Lydia but the night of their big date Lydia disappears. She doesn’t answer his calls and when he goes to her apartment she’s not at home. He begins to worry. He calls the police, the local hospitals and even the morgue. Lydia’s nowhere to be found. In his time of fear and anxiety, he turns to the friend that has always offered aid and comfort to him in his most vulnerable moments. He volunteers to pick up a take-out order of Chinese food for his sister’s card party and ends up eating two full bags of Chinese food.
In the film’s moving climactic scene, Dom and his siblings must confront the roots of his problem. Throughout the film Dom has tried to lose weight for other people but he never felt like he had a problem. He just loved to eat. However, by the end he realizes that it’s not a black and white issue. His love of food is an integral part of his personality and he tells his brother and sister that they must accept him and love him for who he is, thin or fat. Nevertheless, we’re also left with the impression that he realizes that at times he lets the food control him and so he must struggle to control his intake whenever he can unless he wants to end up like cousin Sal.
Ironically, although the movie debuted 25 years ago, obesity is a more serious problem in the United States today than ever before. We know that maintaining a healthy body is a matter of life and death. Yet in a broader sense, the film is not just about weight. It’s about our ability to understand and accept the weaknesses we all struggle with as human beings. None of us are perfect. We all wrestle with our own demons. The question is how we deal with our problems and the first step is always recognizing that we have a problem.
In the years since the movie first appeared it has gained something of a cult following among movie lovers. The respected author and educator, “Fra Noi’s” own Fred Gardaphe has used the movie in a course he’s taught at SUNY Stony Brook about the images of Italian Americans in film. Regionally syndicated national radio talk show hosts Don Geronimo and Mike O’Meara have talked about the film along with their own weight battles many times on their program. They regularly feature an audio clip from the “gorging scene” where one of the “Chubby Checker’s” asks “Didya ever suck the jelly out of a jelly donut and then fill it with chocolate swirl ice cream?”
Stylistically, the film is a little rough around the edges with a few uncomfortable edits and camera shots. It was, after all, Bancroft’s first directorial effort. Sadly, it was also her last which is too bad because technical skills are easy to learn. It’s much harder to learn the gift of storytelling which, judging from this movie, she certainly possessed.
The other talent Anne Bancroft showed in making this film was her casting many friends in the business who shared her Italian American background. This film is bursting with some of the most talented and wonderfully idiosyncratic character actors ever to work in front of a camera. Most notable, is Ron Carey as Dom and Antoinette’s younger brother Frankie, otherwise known as “Junior.” Carey is probably best known as the diminutive but strong-willed police officer Carl Leavitt in the long running sitcom “Barney Miller.” Junior is nowhere near obsessed with food in the way his brother Dommy is. In one scene Dominick explains to Junior that he needs to eat his breakfast omelet with enough bread to make it come out even. Junior explains to Dom, “You love bread. I don’t love bread. I like bread.” Later in the film Dom makes Junior a pan of Lasagna while Dom begins his diet with some broiled chicken and Kale. When Dom starts gives Junior a big piece of Italian bread to eat with his Lasagna, Junior throws it on the floor.” The trio of DeLuise, Bancroft, and Carey work so well together that by the end of the movie you’re willing to believe that they might actually be siblings off screen as well.
There is a strong “Barney Miller” connection running through this film. The great strength of “Barney Miller” was also the use of great character actors so it’s not surprising that many of them show up in “Fatso.” Candice Azzara (Lydia), Sal Viscuso (Vito), and Robert Costanzo (Johnny) all appeared in multiple “Barney Miller” episodes. Sal Viscuso has appeared in countless television and movie roles through the years and his funniest moment in “Fatso” comes at the cemetery as family and friends say their final farewell to Cousin Salvatore. Robert Costanzo, who plays Antoinette’s husband Johnny, has also enjoyed a prolific career in film, television, and voice-over work.
Then there is the Mel Brooks connection. The film was produced by Brooksfilm which is the production company of Bancroft’s widower, Mel Brooks. In addition to Mel Brooks’ comedies, Brooksfilm has been responsible for some very serious dramatic films over the years such as “The Elephant Man,” and “Frances.” Two minor roles in “Fatso” are played by men with strong ties to mel Brooks. Rudy DeLuca appears in “Fatso” as Cousin Salvatore’s brother, Pat. DeLuca was a co-screenwriter on four different Mel Brooks films including “High Anxiety” and “Life Stinks.” In addition, Arnold Soboloff who plays the diet doctor, Dr. Schwartzman, appeared in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” and “High Anxiety.” Sadly, “Fatso” was one of Soboloff’s last roles. He died in the fall of 1979 at the age of 48 before “Fatso” was released.
In short, “Fatso” is a personal little film made by a small group of actors, many born and raised in one of the five boroughs of New York during the Depression or shortly thereafter, about their individual, and more than likely their collective, pasts. The movie is as much about food and family as it is about self-awareness and self-esteem. It may not be the slickest film you’ve ever seen as it was not made with a big budget. But the story is one with lots of heart, lots of love, and LOTS OF FOOD!