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Walking Tall – The secret of small actors

The movie’s reaching its climax — a man is being led through a filthy jail to see his friend who’s been incarcerated for two years; our hero is about to volunteer to serve his own sentence to save his friend’s life — and the only question in my mind is how tall is Vince Vaughn?

This clearly wasn’t the sentiment the makers of Return to Paradise wanted to evoke in the audience, but soon I was away on a height jag. If Vaughn’s about 6’2”, then Anne Heche must be pocket sized, because she’s clearly a foot shorter than he is. And that means Joaquin Phoenix is tiny as well.

So what about Tom Cruise, who we all know is famously short? When David Letterman asked the recently-divorced Nicole Kidman (5’10″) what changes she was going to make in her new life, she shot back, ‘Well, I’ll start wearing high heels again.’

Tom, at 5’7”, is perhaps better suited to his new squeeze Penelope Cruz, who as well as looking like him, and having almost the same name as him, is about the same height as him.

In real life, you know how tall people are because you automatically measure them against yourself and nearby objects.

But after seeing the great effects employed in The Lord of the Rings to make the hobbits suitably squat, how can you trust any actor’s height when they’re on screen?

The rule of thumb seems to be that leading ladies are taller than average (Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts . . . ), except for the ones that aren’t (Meg Ryan, Sarah Michelle Gellar). Leading men on the other hand, are shorter than average (Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino).

So why the diddy men? One argument I’ve heard (admittedly in the snug of The Stag’s Head) is that it’s all down to relative size of head to body. Short men have proportionally larger heads, and since they tend to do most of their acting using their heads, there’s less body to clutter up the screen, giving a more powerful performance.

More specifically, what’s crucial in the head department is the surface area of face that’s made up by the space between the eyebrows and the bottom lip — the facial golden rectangle (or FGR). A big slaphead’s not going to help you any, since you can’t emote with it (unless you’re Vinnie Jones).

So if you calculate the ratio of the FGR to the surface area of the rest of their bodies, these petit players score big, because they’re not filling up the onscreen real-estate with rippling muscles or unnecessarily long legs. At the other end of the scale there’s Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose FGR to body ratios are tiny. And who would you rather have in your movie?

Jean-Claude Van Damme proves the accuracy of this calculation — he?s got the bulging muscles, but he’s only 5′ 8″, so you would expect him to have more onscreen presence than Dolph and Arnie. This is borne out by his excellent work in the neglected masterpieces Nowhere to Run and Universal Soldier: The Return, so that’s QED for the FGR theory.

All of which puts Vince Vaughn at a huge disadvantage — not only is he missing an ‘a’ from his last name, he’s also a giant amongst men at 6’5″, and all that extra body just gets in the way of his acting. Facing a similar problem is Tim Robbins, who’s also 6’5″.

Maybe next year the Oscars will be handicapped, like horse racing, or better still, governed by weight division like boxing. ‘And now, we come to the award for those with an FGR to body ratio of 17.5% or less’. There’d be weigh-ins before films started shooting, and De Niro would bulk up for the first time since Raging Bull to go up a division and show them how good he was. I can’t wait.

Originally published on the Square Eyes TV blog