Good Fella —
This week, we lost a great actor and a great man, James Gandolfini, who suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 51.
Instead, I want to address the ignorance that has swept in to concern troll around his death. People did the same thing when Heavy D died without knowing his long and troubled history of losing and regaining hundreds of pounds.
Now, that same rush to judgment is happening again.
Whenever a fat celebrity dies, there’s an immediate rush to make size the causal link. That’s been par for course since Mama Cass died of a heart attack at the age of 32 and was immediately (and falsely) mocked for choking on a ham sandwich. Once those rumors dissipated, people immediately attributed her size to the heart attack, even though she had recently lost 80 pounds through extreme dieting in the eight months leading up to her death. But why look at the full picture when you can simply assume her death was the result of her uncompromising fatness?
I understand that there’s a natural inclination to explain the death of someone you know, love or admire, particularly when they’ve been taken at such a young age. We need to believe that death is fairly predictable and that we’re all promised a long life, but when we lose a good person too soon and it rocks us to our core. We have to figure out what that person did wrong so that we can avoid it and cash in on a full life.
Most young celebrity deaths are caused by drug overdose, yet how often do we see the kind of hand-wringing and public recrimination of the recently deceased, like this Gawker article on Gandolfini. The cover photo for the article includes a photo of Gandolfini that someone tagged with the following comment:
First of all, asshole, nobody is saying that all fat people are healthy. Second, can’t you hold off on your anti-fatty slam dunk until they bury the man?
In that Gawker piece, the author, Lucas Mann, empathizes with Gandolfini because he’s fat. But then he writes, “Let’s be honest, even if tomorrow an official report comes out of the hospital in Rome saying it wasn’t a heart attack, James Gandolfini died of obesity. What can you write about that?”
This is the attitude of our culture right now: if you’re fat and you die young, it doesn’t matter what the autopsy says because your fat is what killed you. Period.
Mann goes on to compare Gandolfini’s death to celebrities who overdose:
The way that Hollywood party boys come to embody the vice we expect from them, so too did Gandolfini. In sad-watching as many Sopranos clips as possible, careening back and forth between all the seasons, I’ve been astounded by just how much fatter he got from the first season to the sixth. It must be a near-hundred-pound fluctuation, over the course of eight years. In front of everyone’s eyes, while giving Emmy acceptance speeches and starring in that shit movie with Brad Pitt. Self-destruction could not be more conspicuous. Needle tracks are, at least, hide-able with a sleeve.
While Gandolfini’s weight gain may have contributed to his risk, neither Mann, nor anyone else, knows the full extent of that risk, let alone the other risks and their respective contributions. On CNN, Erin Burnett revealed that Gandolfini’s ex-wife indicated that he had a problem with drugs and alcohol. Completely unknown, as of now, is Gandolfini’s family history of heart disease, which is one of the single greatest risk factors for heart disease. Could his weight gain have contributed? Yes. But Gandolfini may have run the full gamut of risk factors for heart disease, so why are we focusing on just one?
Mann makes the case that somebody, anybody, should have “mobilized to save James Gandolfini” from his weight, as though all of these other issues would have been resolved if people would have just kept telling him that he was too fat. Again, Mann assumes that he knows the full story and that nobody warned him or that he didn’t have a doctor who explained the risk. Finally, Mann goes on to project his own insecurities on Gandolfini:
Gandolfini once said, in probably his most famous interview quote, “I’m a neurotic mess. I’m basically a 260-pound Woody Allen.” He later amended it to a “295 pound Woody Allen.” The quote was charming because of the perceived valley between Allen, small and frightened, and the characteristics that we associate with a 260-pound dude, gregarious, oblivious. But anybody who has been anywhere near 260 pounds knows that feeling like Woody Allen comes with the territory. Self-loathing, self-destruction, a fear of death that seems realer than your average — that’s what 260 pounds means.
As I’ve said many times, I weight 265 pounds and I don’t have any of the self-loathing or self-destruction tendencies that Mann seems to think is a natural result of getting fat. I do have a great fear of death, but I’ve harbored that since I was a slender kid who witnessed his own grandfather’s death in his bedroom. But Mann takes his assumption that all 260-pound people are intentionally marching to the grave and announces it like this fact was released with the autopsy.
What I want to know is, where were all these assholes when Larry King had his first heart attack and quintuple-bypass at the age of 53? Or David Letterman had his quintuple-bypass at age 52? Or when Star Jones had open heart surgery seven years after having bariatric surgery? Or what about the heart problems of Toni Braxton or Robin Williams or Kelsey Grammer or Alex Trebek? All thin, all suffered heart disease at comparable ages to James Gandolfini.
Where was all the speculation on how those celebrities brought it on themselves? King and Letterman had a family history, but they were also heavy smokers most of their lives. Where was the mass public speculation on their self-destructive tendencies? Where was all the incrimination about how “we could see it coming”?
The Mayo clinic lists 12 risk factors for heart disease, including age, sex, family history, smoking, poor diet, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity, high stress and poor hygiene. Unless you were James Gandolfini’s doctor, you don’t know how many of these risk factors he carried and you don’t know what all contributed to his death.
Short of having that information, what you are doing is shitting on a great man’s legacy by reducing him to a cautionary tale. Every single time a fat celebrity dies, they become the poster child for anti-obesity crusaders who care nothing about the deceased and everything about their own self-righteous moral crusade.
When you play doctor for the recently departed, you are disrespecting their friends, their family and their life. You don’t know and you’ll never know, so in the words of Tony Soprano…