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The biggest names in Hollywood just got even bigger

Being portly lends gravitas to Crowe and Travolta, but their female co-stars must remain stick-thin

Sit back, relax and grab yourself a full-sugar soft drink with an extra-large tub of well-buttered popcorn. The summer blockbuster season is fast approaching, but Hollywood's leading men aren't doing anything fast: they're getting fat.

Russell Crowe recently hit US cinemas as a portly journalist in State of Play. Denzel Washington and John Travolta, whose combined age of nearly 110 has done nothing for their waistlines, are about to cross both swords and double chins in the action movie The Taking of Pelham 123.

By accident or design, nearly a dozen male stars in some of the summer's biggest films have been piling on the pounds, according to a survey of trailers and set photos carried out by The New York Times. Even Hugh Grant, as thin as a rake well into his forties, has developed a middle-aged spread.

"Grant, 48, who played the skinny cad to a puffy Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary just eight years ago, may find the tables turned in Did You Hear about the Morgans?, a comedy to be released in December," reports the paper. "His co-star, Sarah Jessica Parker, is the sleek one this time around, while Mr Grant's famous dimples pop out where they used to pop in."

The trend towards what some would call realism, and others podginess, can be attributed to both market forces and artistic endeavour. "It's possible to elicit a sense of pain or anguish from having been seen to go to seed a bit," says Dr Mark Gallagher, from Nottingham University's Institute of Film and Television studies. "The bottom line for men is that puffy, bloated, unhealthy bodies tend to be seen as more authentic than sculpted Hollywood bodies."

Joining the current crop of porky stars is, however, generally a privilege given only to the A-list. Leonardo DiCaprio's belt size has gone up and down more times than the poop deck of the Titanic (he's chubby again, judging by set photos from his next film, Shutter Island) and Seth Rogen has made a career out of being overweight (look at his new title, Observe and Report). But for lesser mortals, it's a trickier career choice. "The bottom line is that leading men lead. They're the big name, they bring in the money, and no matter how they look, people will build a film around them," says Paul Duddridge, a Hollywood fame coach. "For an unknown, it's a little bit harder. Quite often, a casting agent will call saying they need a beefcake. If you send them a fat guy, you could be wasting their time.

"But every now and then, a bloke looking like Danny DeVito will walk into the beefcake audition and land the role. I advise people to be themselves. If they're having to work too hard to have nice biceps, they should let go, and look how nature intended."

The fluctuating weight of leading men is not, however, acceptable among leading ladies. Tom Hanks, star of the summer tent-pole Angels and Demons, has gained a spare tyre since he starred in Castaway, but his female colleagues aren't afforded that luxury.

"For women in their early forties there just isn't the same level of leading parts, and certainly not ones open to heavier actresses," says Pippa Harrison of Spotlight, publishers of the famous casting directories. "Actresses are only required to be heavy in character parts, never leading roles."