Kate Beckinsale (L) and Gary Oldman (R) in 2004's 'Tiptoes.'
In an interview about his movie, Gary Oldman once said: "It is a glorious part. A dream of a role. But it wasn’t an immediate ‘yes’. I just wondered how I would meet the physical challenge of it. I happen to think it’s an incredible ... bench mark in the field of make-up."
Oldman was, of course, talking about his Academy Award-winning transformation into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. But various corners of the internet have since taken his words and applied them instead to his role in 2004's Tiptoes—a relentless hellride of a movie in which he plays a little person. (Try not to think on that title too hard—it gets worse the longer you do.)
“He was basically on his knees,” co-star Kate Beckinsale later explained to MTV, “with a prosthetic part of his head and face and a hump and different kinds of harnesses to strap his arms back to make them short, and special clothes. They had various different effects, like if he was sitting in a chair, his legs would actually be inside the chair and he’d have these little fake legs sticking out on top.”
She's not joking.
Tiptoes, at first glance, appears to be a fairly typical romantic comedy: Matthew McConaughey plays Steven, a regular-guy firefighter who's in a relationship with a tattooed painter named Carol (played by Beckinsale). Steven is secretive about his background until Carol gets a surprise visitor one day who tells her that Steven is the only one in his family who wasn't born with dwarfism. The news is an especially big shock since she's just found out she is pregnant.
Oldman plays Steven's twin brother Rolfe (with an American accent that is not great), and Peter Dinklage appears as his pal Maurice, a French Marxist (with an accent that's not... bien). Maurice is dating Lucy, a hitchhiker with white-lady cornrows played by Patricia Arquette. (It's worth noting that Arquette and Dinklage play the only vaguely likable characters in this entire thing.)
It remains a mystery how this movie got a cast of this stature, but one gets the sense that, once upon a time, Tiptoes was trying to be important. The ghosts of those good intentions emerge occasionally in scenes that aim to prove that little people are just like everyone else—opinionated, sexually active, well-rounded—except for when they're forced to deal with casual abuse from strangers and physical ailments related to their size. Unfortunately, because the movie ultimately can't figure out what it wants to be—a romance, slapstick comedy or searing drama—salient points tend to get lost.
It doesn't help that the script is self-conscious, PSA-level clunky and grossly over-estimates the likelihood of two average sized people producing a child with dwarfism. It doesn't help that the ending is completely out of left field and patronizing but, worst of all, the film is prone to presenting little people as caricatures—the slutty blond, the angry communist and the wholesome family man are all here.
If there's one consistent element in Tiptoes, it's in just how offensive Oldman's physical appearance is. He's given a walking stick as a ploy to explain the awkward movements caused by him "walking" on his knees. His prosthetic hump moves and changes size. And every time an actual little person is used as his body double, it shines a spotlight on just how different Oldman's proportions are. Worst of all, those fake legs Beckinsale mentioned look like limp foam appendages ripped off a cheap Halloween costume.
In a 2012 New York Times interview, Dinklage expressed mixed feelings about the film. "It was sort of an amazing idea for a movie, but the result [of the final cut] was what we were fighting against—the cutesiness of little people," he said. "There was some flak. 'Why would you put Gary Oldman on his knees? That's almost like blackface.' And I have my own opinions about political correctness, but I was just like, 'It's Gary Oldman. He can do whatever he wants.'"
(Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.)
Tiptoes is just one in an extremely long line of movies that have inflicted indignities on little people. Exploitation was rife in the early days of Hollywood—the actors who played Munchkins in 1939's Wizard of Oz, for example, were paid less than half of what the dog that played Toto made per week. Plus, roles are—and have always been—very limited. Even after becoming a household name as Mini-Me in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Verne Troyer was recently reduced to starring in Gnome Alone, a low budget horror movie. To make matters worse, available parts for little people are often limited to that of evil creatures or magical beings. (See: Griphook in Harry Potter, or the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)
Ali Chapman, an actress, entertainer and cast member of Little Women LA told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016: "I mean, I can just be a nurse in a show, or a mom, or a lady walking her dog down the street! Like, do I need to be an elf? Do I need to be a leprechaun?"
While Tiptoes did give little actors roles outside of the fantasy realm, it ultimately failed to treat dwarfism with much respect either. Its failure to give the role of Rolfe to someone born with the appropriate stature (Peter Dinklage was right there!) wasn't just a major stumbling block, it ultimately turned Tiptoes into a sideshow—which was the exact opposite of what everyone involved clearly originally wanted. Today, it remains mostly buried, a cult classic and, for obvious reasons, a fairly major embarrassment for everyone involved.
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