MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now, a pop quiz. What does Stefan and Tom Cruise have in common? Well, among other things, they're about the same height. I happen to know that about Stefan because he is my husband, and lately Tom Cruise's height has been the focus of some jabs. In his new movie, "Jack Reacher," he plays a tough guy who is 6 foot 5. Cruise himself is said to be 5'7 or 5'8 and that gives our critic Bob Mondello a chance to ponder the pressing issue of celebrity height.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You've had this conversation.
(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) You know, you should have been an actor.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) He's tall.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) All the great ones were tall.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) Alan Ladd wasn't tall.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Character) Marshall Dillon was 6'5. John Wayne was tall.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) Dustin Hoffman was 5'6.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) Would you want to see Dustin Hoffman save the Alamo?
MONDELLO: And there's the rub, right? Hollywood can make any actor look imposing shooting from a low angle, building sets with short door frames. But like these characters from "While You Were Sleeping," we want our heroes big and our villains bigger, while the average male actor is about the same size as the average American male, roughly 5'9-1/2". Some very big stars have been a good deal less than that.
(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "STAR WARS")
FRANK OZ: (as Yoda) Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you, hmm?
MONDELLO: Yoda's a special case, obviously, but action movie heroes often loom larger onscreen than in person. Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and even the Governator are described by journalists as being well under 6 feet. And in the old days, stars of shorter stature were everywhere. Alan Ladd, who sat tall in the saddle as Shane, was later cast opposite Sophia Loren. And though she's barely 5 foot 8, their director had to dig trenches for her to walk in when they were arm-in-arm.
In "Casablanca," Humphrey Bogart sat on an extra couch cushion to keep audiences from noticing he was shorter than Ingrid Bergman. And in another film, Bogie reportedly set something of a Hollywood record by wearing 5-inch elevator shoes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Character) You're not very tall, are you?
HUMPHREY BOGART: (as Character) Why, I try to be.
MONDELLO: Some actresses, meanwhile, must try to be short, not easy when you're a member of the 6-foot club that includes Sigourney Weaver, Brooke Shields, and "Glee's" Jane Lynch. Uma Thurman and Nicole Kidman are right up there with them. So who plays 6-footer Julia Child in the movies? Meryl Streep, who is barely 5'6", but is a towering talent.
Which gives the lie to this whole notion, really. We associate height with strength, power, dominance, and of course, height has very little to do with any of those things. What it does have to do with is how we see relationships, and movie heroines are expected to look up to their leading men.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "POPEYE")
SHELLEY DUVALL: (as Olive Oyl) (Singing) He's tall, good looking, and he's large.
MONDELLO: This is Olive Oyl in the movie "Popeye," but it could be almost any leading lady.
(SOUNDBITE FROM "POPEYE")
DUVALL: (as Olive Oyl) (Singing) He is large.
MONDELLO: Women over 5'8" rarely get to wear heels on screen, though some of their leading men do. Film cowpokes have cowboy boots to give them an inch or two head start on mere mortals, and modified cowboy boots can do a lot more. Kirk Douglas reportedly hid some pretty substantial lifts in his boots and was miffed one time when practical joker Burt Lancaster swiped them just before they shot a scene together. Lancaster was a good half a head taller so the tech crew improvised standing Douglas on a box, which is nothing compared with what the tech crew had to do in "Lord of the Rings."
(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "LORD OF THE RINGS")
DOMINIC MONAGHAN: (as Character) You're the short one.
BILLY BOYD: (as Character) Please. You're, what, 3-foot-6 at the most? Whereas me, I'm about 3'7".
MONDELLO: Hobbits are about as diminutive as movie heroes get, dwarfed even by dwarves, for heaven sakes. But fantasy movies are a bow to the triumph of the little guy, a storyline that some observers think resonates in Hollywood because the entertainment business attracts persons of slight stature. The theory is that to avoid being overlooked, they learned early to present themselves and be forceful and expressive, all useful in show biz.
Folks who grow up taller might not feel that need. Just a theory, obviously. And happily, casting directors need all shapes and sizes, from 2-foot-8 Verne Troyer in the "Austin Powers" movies...
(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "AUSTIN POWERS")
MIKE MYERS: (as Dr. Evil) I shall call him Mini-Me.
MONDELLO: To 7-foot-3 Peter Mayhew in "Star Wars."
(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "STAR WARS")
MONDELLO: A website called celebheights.com, you knew there'd be one, right, has assembled records for more than 5,000 performers and the guy who runs it, who says his own height is 5'8", by the way, reports that the average actor in Hollywood is 5'10", the average actress is 5'5", and the average Oscar winners, wouldn't you know, a little taller, 5'11" and 5'5-1/2". Clearly unfair. Neither their shoes nor their careers need lifts. I'm Bob Mondello.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.