The pattern was set in the 1930s and ’40s by Edward G. Robinson (“Little Caesar”), James Cagney, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Muni — all small men who usually played tough and cruel. Sometimes camera angles obscured the physical facts — Robinson looked absolutely huge as Wolf Larsen in “The Sea Wolf” in what can be called, without irony, a towering performance — and sometimes the camera just didn’t care as when, for example, Cagney regularly beat up men obviously twice his size.Is there something comparable for women? Maybe we could make a list of women who have fairly average looks who play beautiful women on screen. My favorite example of this is Bette Davis in "Mr. Skeffington," where the raving over Bette's beauty occasionally crosses the line into the laughable. No man could resist her:
Slightly later came John Garfield, and the smallest of them all, Alan Ladd who played big in “The Blue Dahlia,” “The Glass Key,” “The Badlanders” and who more than holds his own against Ben Johnson and a tree-like Van Heflin in “Shane.”...
Famously slight Paul Newman displayed his chest and pugilistic abilities in movies like “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Hud,” “The Long, Hot Summer” and “Cool Hand Luke.” James Dean would have made the list had he lived longer. Now aging tough guy-short guys (by short I mean under 5-foot-9) include Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino, Mel Gibson, Jean Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone, who created not one but two iconic American males, Rocky and Rambo.
And these days we have a bumper crop of undersized super heroes — Tom Cruise, Tobey Maguire, Mark Wahlberg and Robert Downey Jr., along with the occasionally macho Johnny Depp and Sean Penn.
Ah, yes! I remember laughing out loud in the theater when she comes down the stairs and a man exclaims "Fanny! You look beautiful!" And check out that death-bed dialogue: "A woman is beautiful only when she is loved." That's what the plain women in the audience — next to the hubbies they dragged to the chick flick — long to believe.