NEAR THE BEGINNING of The Station Agent, a film that makes its Boston debut on Friday, there is a moment that says much about what it’s like to be different — and about how easy it is for someone to fall into the trap of imbuing his particular difference with more meaning than it warrants.
Fin, played by the dwarf actor Peter Dinklage, is walking along the side of the road when an SUV driven by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) careens out of control and forces him to dive into the brush. Later in the day, it happens again.
Their first encounters — she all nervous, twitching apologies, he just trying to get away — are revealing. Fin obviously believes Olivia swerved off the road because she freaked out at seeing a dwarf. But she — and we — know that she is merely a terrible driver.
It’s that kind of subtlety — acknowledging Fin’s difference, yet resolutely refusing to give it more weight than it deserves — that makes Dinklage’s Finbar McBride perhaps the most important film role a dwarf has ever played.
To be sure, that’s not saying much. From Tod Browning’s 1932 horror anti-classic, Freaks, to The Wizard of Oz, and on to such latter-day examples as the Lord of the Rings and Austin Powers series, dwarfs have been stereotyped as monsters, elves, jesters, and goofballs.
There have been some advances in recent years. Meredith Eaton’s turn as a lawyer in the now-defunct CBS series Family Law comes to mind, as does Ricardo Gil as a gay, Jewish, wheelchair-using dwarf in the 2002 film Cherish.
But The Station Agent breaks through all previous barriers. Fin is not only the lead character, he is a fully realized human being. His dwarfism is a vital part of who he is, but it is subordinate to the larger points the movie makes about love, friendship, and connection. (See "Track Star," Arts, page 3.)
"I’m just an actor," Dinklage, 34, told me recently in a telephone interview. "I don’t know what kind of a spokesperson I am for the cause of dwarfs in films. I’m just looking for a good script and a good gig. But it does feel somewhat nice, I suppose. It’s about time."
THE ROLE OF dwarfs in the entertainment industry is of more than passing interest to me. My second child, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. (Dinklage, too, has achondroplasia.) At the age of 11, Becky is three feet 10 inches tall — the height of a typical five- or six-year-old — and she’s likely to grow no more than another couple of inches. I am also the author of a just-released book on the culture of dwarfism, Little People: Learning To See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes (Rodale).
Though achondroplasia can be accompanied by significant physical problems, most dwarfs enjoy reasonably good health, a normal life span, and normal intelligence.
Dwarfism is a disability, recognized as such under federal and state law. In the main, though, the disability is more social than medical. ATMs are often out of reach. Doors, coat racks, supermarket aisles, cars, and just about anything else you can think of are designed for the majority of us who are between five and six feet tall. And — most perniciously — there are the taunts, the bullying, and the discrimination.
Dwarfism is also exceedingly rare. There are perhaps 30,000 to 50,000 people with dwarfism living in the United States. Many of us in the average-size (to use the politically correct term) majority might pass our entire lives without ever seeing a dwarf in person. Thus, our cultural experience of dwarfism is mediated — that is, it is shaped and formed by the media. Unfortunately, the history of how dwarfs are portrayed in the media is a dubious one. And even the rare, well-intended depiction can end up falling flat — or worse.
For example, not long after Becky was born, we rented a movie called De eso no se habla ("I Don’t Want To Talk About It"), a 1993 Argentine film directed by María Luisa Bemberg. It is a coming-of-age tale about a young dwarf woman, Charlotte, played by an unknown actress named Alejandra Podesta. For parents concerned about their infant daughter’s prospects, De eso no se habla was, for the most part, reassuring: Charlotte is attractive and self-possessed, and marries a mysterious stranger played by Marcello Mastroianni.
In the end, to get away from her domineering mother (Luisina Brando), Charlotte leaves her husband and — I’m not making this up — joins the circus, where she can live among other dwarfs and presumably discover her true essence. It is contrived and silly, and conveys some rather primitive ideas about identity — that Charlotte’s most authentic self is not the girl she was and the woman she has become but, rather, is the sum product of her tiny arms and legs and her waddling gait.
Of course, such reasonably highbrow fare doesn’t even begin to approach the more loathsome depictions that are standard in certain elements of the media. From dwarf-tossing to midget pornography, from the late Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf to the very much alive Beetlejuice, dwarfs are all too often treated as objects of scorn and hilarity.
I don’t know how much difference The Station Agent will make. But it’s a good start.
TOM MCCARTHY, the 37-year-old actor who wrote and directed The Station Agent, says he had not originally intended to cast Fin as a dwarf. It was only after running into Dinklage in downtown New York, hanging out with him, and watching how he shut out the stares and the pointing that are a part of any dwarf’s life that McCarthy knew he had his leading man.
The movie’s premise is that Fin, a railroad enthusiast who works in a model-train shop, inherits an abandoned train station in a small town in New Jersey called Newfoundland, and decides to move in.
A shy, solitary type — he doesn’t exactly appear to be lonely, though it’s hard to tell — he gradually becomes friends, despite himself, with Olivia, who’s mourning the loss of her young son, and with Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban-American fast-food vendor who parks his mobile eatery outside the station every morning. Accustomed to caring only about his own feelings, Fin learns, in rather dramatic fashion, that friendship imposes responsibilities he is not used to, especially caring about the feelings of others rather than just his own.
"Peter and I talked about it a lot, and we felt like the fact that Peter’s character was born with dwarfism was the cause for what the theme of the movie is — which is people disconnecting because of certain cards that life had dealt them," McCarthy told me in an interview at the new Ritz-Carlton. "When I made the decision to use Peter, we thought we would not make it about a young man dealing with dwarfism, but, rather, about a young man dealing with the question of whether or not to connect. In dealing with that, obviously we had to confront who he was. Truthfully, I think we did a good job of avoiding pontificating or getting too expositional about it."
That they do. One of the most striking aspects of The Station Agent is watching Fin shut people out because of his automatic assumption that they are interested in him only because of his short stature. In some cases, that’s true — as with the kids who taunt him with calls of "Grumpy" and "Sleepy," or the store clerk who actually takes his picture while he’s buying groceries. But sometimes — and this, ultimately, is what he must learn — it’s not true at all. Such is the case with Olivia, who looks after him, and even buys him a video camera so that he can chase trains. And Joe, an extrovert forced into an introvert’s life who’s figuratively climbing the walls looking for friendship.
"Bobby’s hilarious. Patty’s heartbreaking. But Peter is just the rock in the movie," McCarthy says. "And that was a really difficult role to play. I hope it opens up opportunities, like with women, like with African-Americans, like with gay men and women, just people moving beyond the typecasting. Anybody could have played Peter’s role."
McCarthy tells a story about the effect he hopes The Station Agent will have, at least on some of his audience.
"I had one woman," he says, "who actually confessed to me, ‘I’ll be honest with you, I had a phobia, a severe phobia, of little people.’ I had heard of this before. And she’s like, ‘I am cured.’ She’s like, ‘He’s hot and I’m cured, and I’m ashamed to say I had it, but I did.’ She really wanted to tell me that."
PETER DINKLAGE is hot. There’s been a lot of advance buzz about The Station Agent, which won three awards at Sundance earlier this year. The New York media can’t get enough of Dinklage. The Times published a piece a couple of weeks ago on the four-foot-six Dinklage’s sex appeal, headlining its profile dark, handsome and short. The Daily News’ much-heralded new gossip columnist, Lloyd Grove, seemed giddy at the notion that a dwarf could go out for a few drinks and come off — in the words of a model whom Grove quoted — as "such a sexually confident being." The New Yorker and the Post have published pieces about Dinklage, too. Locally, the Boston Globe ran a long profile this past Sunday.
Still, it’s hard to know what The Station Agent will do for Dinklage’s career. He is a good actor — an exceptionally good actor, as anyone who sees the movie will attest. But dwarfism is such a rare difference that it’s hard to imagine that this movie will lead to a string of imitators. The Station Agent will play the art-house circuit, and it’s not likely to expand beyond that. It’s a critical success, and Dinklage has gotten good notices. Will it serve to advance his career, to land him the mainstream roles that might have eluded him in the past?
"I don’t know," he replies. "I don’t know what this movie will do. You know, I was asked, ‘Would you ever play a character who’s not a dwarf?’ And I found that a very funny, funny thing. How could I? It’s a matter of how fully developed the character is. Tom wrote a very complex character. This character has flaws. A lot of times roles written for dwarfs are out of fairy tales. They’re sages, they’re wise people, or they’re fools. There’s no complexity to them. I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan, I love those books. But the dwarfs have a tendency to be one-dimensional. They don’t get the girl. There’s no romance in their lives. And that’s been passed down, I suppose, to modern days."
The temptation is to get too far ahead of reality, to harbor generalized hopes over a very specific success. Just as Finbar McBride is a fascinating character who happens to be a dwarf, The Station Agent is a fine, quirky movie whose themes happen to include dwarfism.
That doesn’t mean dwarfs are suddenly going to star in action movies and romantic comedies at the local multiplex. But it does mean that something real and important has taken place.
For me — for my daughter, my family, and for the thousands of others who are part of the dwarf community — that’s enough. For now.
Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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