April 28, 2009 -- When film professor Wes Gehring went to see the recently released "State of Play," starring Jeff Daniels and Russell Crowe, he couldn't help noticing just how large the leading men had become.
Looking at the fat, unshaven, ponytailed Crowe playing a reporter, "I thought, 'God, you're a slob,'" he told ABCNews.com.
Because Gehring researches and writes about film, he remembered that Crowe had gained 63 pounds to play a CIA boss who spends more time on the phone than in the field for last fall's "Body of Lies," with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Apparently, he hung on to several of those pounds for his current film.
"It's kind of ironic that his excuse was a year ago," said Gehring, who teaches film at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "He has not lost pound one. Russell Crowe likes to play an everyman, and when you look around the world there are a lot of fat everymen, but it sounds like an excuse for him to eat a lot of Doritos."
Crowe, 45, is not the only leading man who seems to be packing on the pounds lately. Daniels, playing opposite Crowe in "Play," also sports a couple chins. John Travolta, 55, and Denzel Washington, 54, in the upcoming summer thriller "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" look like a matched set -- more chunky than hunky.
Even DiCaprio has more padding at 34 than he did during his "Titanic" heartthrob days.
For the most part, Hollywood doesn't seem to care. The extra weight hasn't cost these men their leading-man status and, in some cases, it has brought more roles. Vince Vaughn, for instance, has only gotten more popular at the box office since adding bulk to the lanky frame he displayed in "Swingers."
Women, on the other hand, haven't been so lucky. Kathleen Turner, 54, who once played leading roles in "Body Heat" and "War of the Roses," has rarely been seen on screen since becoming a plus-size actress.
Instead leading women seem to be getting thinner as their male counterparts get heavier. The diminutive Reese Witherspoon, for example, was paired with Vaughn for "Four Christmases" last year. Julia Roberts donned a bikini in "Charlie Wilson's War," not long after giving birth to her third child.
Packing on Pounds Can Still Doom an Actor's Career
"It's just pure double standard," Gehring said. "Leading men are always paired with really attractive women, who are always younger and thinner. Men can get away with it."
That's only true to an extent, says Hollywood gossip columnist Ted Casablanca.
Casablanca says Crowe's career has actually suffered in recent years.
"Part of the reason is he's let his figure go to pot," he told ABCNews.com. "I don't think audiences necessarily want to look at a fat brilliant actor.
"Men can age, get grey hair and crows' feet, but I think the ultimate no-no is to get fat," said Casablanca, who writes the column "The Awful Truth" for E! online. "Look at Val Kilmer. Where is his career? Even Leo DiCaprio was a bit puffy in 'Revolutionary Road,' and he wasn't in any of the awards and the movie kind of died off. Leo looking domestic and suburban -- we don't like, we don't want it."
Travolta, he said, is in a class by himself.
"He's a beloved figure, much in the way Oprah is. Her weight yo-yos, but we always love Oprah, we forgive Oprah. Travolta is very enduring, very charming. He's often comic in his performance. Look at 'Hairspray.' He had the guts to do that -- literally and figuratively," Casablanca said.
"It's different from Val Kilmer just pigging out on the potato chips," he added. "Travolta does something with the weight as an actor. He makes himself more quirky, more lovable."
But in his new film with Washington, Casablanca said the jury is still out on how it will do at the box office. Audiences are not used to seeing a heavier Washington, who was once People's Sexiest Man Alive.
"That's not how we know him, that's not how we like him," he said.
In the past, leading men, like Cary Grant, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart, maintained their svelte figures well past middle age. It was due in part to the studio system, which had these stars under contract.
"You had to look good, you had to take care of yourself," Gehring said. "They would fine you if you didn't maintain a certain weight."
Robert Redford and Paul Newman, who became actors at the tail end of the studio system, nevertheless maintained their trim physiques. They also tended to maintain a certain persona no matter what role they played.
Comic Actors Cut More Slack
Actors since then have used so-called "method acting" to justify gaining or losing weight for a role. But in some cases, like when Shelly Winters added substantially to her frame for "The Poseidon Adventure," the actors never slim back down.
Actors playing comic roles, like Travolta and Vaughn, get more leeway from audiences for being heavy.
"Comedians are supposed to look funny, think Laurel and Hardy," Gehring said.
But these days, Hollywood may just be reflecting America.
"Out here in the hinterlands, much of America is huge," Gehring said. "There might be a lot of obese men."
"The dude factor is the trend right now, that's very middle-America right now. Metro-sexual is out," Casablanca said. "Go around the country on a date night and the chicks are super-thin in short skirts, and their boyfriends are wearing un-tucked T-shirts with flab around the middle. I think Hollywood reflects that. It's almost seen as gay to be too trim and have too much of a physique."
Think Hugh Jackman, said Casablanca. The "Wolverine" star and current People's Sexiest Man Alive has been dogged by gay rumors.
"Vaughn, we will forgive him for being too chubby, but he has to have the super thin chick," Casablanca said. "It's a very American thing right now. But Hollywood has to watch it. We're going to go with it only so far and Russell Crowe has gone too far."
Fortunately, Crowe is already shedding the pounds for his current role as Robin Hood in a new film for Universal. Got to look good in those tights.