The best thing about the blockbuster movie E.T. is that it is a short subject.
All the good guys are short. All the bad guys are tall. It is a movie shot from the hip -- from the perspective of people who can't see a parade passing by unless they stand in the front row.
It is too much to hope that one movie and one small movie star can reverse decades of prejudice against short people. But if E.T. and Henry Thomas, who played Elliott, can convince Hollywood that the world is waiting for short heroes, maybe others will stand up and be counted.
Ever since Alan Ladd stood on a box to buss his leading ladies, actors have lived in fear of being caught short. There is evidence that Robert Redford has gone to some lengths to conceal his exact height from his fans. Reports of long ago said the actor stood six feet tall. But the more people saw of Redford, the more it appeared that the measurement must have been taken while he was seated on his horse or wearing his cowboy boots.
In 1975, New York magazine devoted extensive space to trying to take the measure of the actor. Redford's staff apparently wasn't telling, so the magazine found a photo of the actor in front of a brick building and counted the bricks to calculate the height of the cinema giant. Their conclusion: Redford is 26 bricks tall, or approximately 5 feet 9 3/4 inches.
Actors aren't the only public figures with tall images. All of the American astronauts involved in the early Mercury program were on the short side; they had to be less than 5 feet 11 inches to fit into the capsules. But in all of the hoopla surrounding these heroes and their dashing demeanor and derring-do, immortalized by Tom Wolfe in "The Right Stuff," the fliers' height was rarely mentioned. NASA never sold them short and the astronauts' height seemed to match their towering achievements.
Clearly, people expect their heroes to stand head and shoulders above the crowd and are surprised when they don't. Our obsession with inches is based on the myth that the world belongs to those who are tall enough to see over the top of it. We are brought up to believe that the tall guys always get the girls and the presidency.
When short people succeed, we say that they did so despite their height. Napoleon, we are told, created an entire empire just to compensate -- and even then he was so insecure he couldn't keep his hands out of his pockets.
So it is not surprising to see parents watching their kids' growth with more than ordinary interest. Or to hear kids complaining that they were shortchanged genetically. My own children have suggested several times that since I knew I'd never get past 5 foot 3 inches, I should have selected a 6-foot father for them.
Freud said that "anatomy is destiny." Although my children won't be reading Freud for a while yet, they seem worried that unless they grow to be tall they will fall short in life. That is why they always know exactly where they stand in their classes: how many kids are shorter than they are and how many are taller.
I tell them that the world is run by people who sit comfortably in the back seats of Volkswagens, people who did not waste their young years trying out for basketball teams or modeling schools and therefore have time to develop their other talents. Look at Henry Kissinger, King Hussein and all of the others, I say; there are plenty of people at the bottom of the height charts who sit in rooms at the top.
Even so, the success of E.T. should not be used to create a new brand of short chauvinism. We should stop measuring people by measuring people. That is the long and the short of it.