This week, it was revealed that A24, the wunderkinds of independent American cinema, would be working in collaboration with celebrated director Darren Aronofsky on his latest project. Titled The Whale, the drama is based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter and is centered on the life of a morbidly obese shut-in and the decision he makes to change his life — and is set to star one Brendan Fraser. It’s a story that is, to put it mildly, fraught with problematic potential. Pop culture has never been great at portraying fat people in empathetic or even vaguely human ways. Film tends to reduce any person who isn’t superhero levels of buff as either the schlubby comic relief, a lazy antagonist, or a figure of outright disgust. The plot for The Whale, and even its title, does not encourage positivity in the viewer, nor do the images of various stage productions featuring thin actors drowning in fat-suits while chewing on pieces of fried chicken. Aronofsky’s work is known for the ways it heightens anxiety in the audience and forces them to confront images and ideas that may prove distressing, so it’s not hard to see why some of us are hesitant about him portraying a fat man (portrayed using prosthetics and padding) as an object of lurid fascination.
The news of Fraser's casting was met with more excitement than the film itself. Here’s an actor that everyone loves, a man whose name elicits enthused cries of fandom and well wishes for his fate. Fraser’s the kind of star who deserves to work with the best directors, although even die-hard fans are wincing at the mental image of him playing a character described as weighing over 600 pounds, as well as the inevitable cries of bravery and daring that accompany actors who undergo some sort of drastic physical change. The possibility of Fraser making his major comeback via an Aronofsky film felt like a dream come true, right up until the finger on the cursed monkey’s paw curled downwards.
Still, when it comes to Brendan Fraser, he’s exceptionally easy to root for. When he made a minor comeback via shows like The Affair, Condor, and Doom Patrol, it inspired a wave of devotion that nobody saw coming, a reminder of just how likeable and missed he was during those years in the Hollywood wilderness. Now that he’s back, we don’t want him to go away ever again.
To understand Fraser’s appeal, we must go back to the heady days of the mid-to-late 1990s and examine the arguable commercial peak of his career. He had excelled in drama and comedy before, with movies like Encino Man and Airheads, but the one-two punch of George of the Jungle and The Mummy offered the perfect platforms for his particular set of skills. He managed to find the unexplored territory between the dashing leading men of the golden age of cinema and the slapstick comedy of the Farrelly Brothers era. You didn’t think we’d need a middleman between Errol Flynn and Jim Carrey until Brendan Fraser came along and made it look oh so easy. As Rick O’Connell in The Mummy, he is the epitome of old school swashbuckling charm but devoid of the toxic male bullshit that often accompanied such stars. He could swoon as much as he made Rachel Weisz do so and land a pratfall as effortlessly as an action kick. In George of the Jungle, he is peak himbo, the perfect sweet goofball with zero qualms about making a total fool of himself while never sacrificing his true heroic charisma. That Fraser made it seem so simple is testament to his sinfully underrated skills. You don’t get to, say, Chris Hemsworth as Thor or Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool without him.
Fraser also killed in dramatic roles with films like Gods and Monsters, The Quiet American, and the very strange The Passion of Darkly Moon. He's just as capable of making you sob hysterically, as anyone who remember his guest turn in Scrubs can testify to. Given how often he was typecast as a goofy bro, it’s a shame that he never got more chances to show off his range during the peak of his industry visibility. That would come later, after several years away from the spotlight and a slew of “Whatever Happened to Brendan Fraser?” clickbait headlines.
In a 2018 piece in GQ with that exact title, we found out where Fraser had been, and the story was far more tragic than anyone could have anticipated. Following a series of injuries related to his years of action movies, he underwent several major surgeries, including a partial knee replacement. He also divorced his wife and struggled with alimony payments, but the kicker of the piece was when Fraser confessed to having been allegedly sexually assaulted by Philip Berk, the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, an accusation he denied. This combination of pain led to a serious depression for Fraser and a decline in his career. He fell from sight for several years before returning in small television roles that suddenly had the critics remembering that, yes, Brendan Fraser is kind of awesome.
Fraser doesn’t look like he did in his action hero days. He’s older, a bit paunchier, and not exactly being called upon to be the oiled-up loincloth wearer of the late-90s. Instead, he’s now a character actor, and he’s a bloody good one too. In a guest role in The Affair, he slid between bemused and calculating, an ideal fit for the series’ contrasting truths. He was the best thing in Trust, FX's underseen take on the Gerry kidnapping, bringing a strain of cynical weirdness to the crime genre that it sorely needed. He also, to the surprise of many, has great villain chops, as shown in Condor, where he is ruthlessly efficient yet entirely unstable as a covert operative. If you missed classic Brendan then don't worry because Doom Patrol has him firing on all cylinders, even if it's mostly a voice-based part. His Robotman is a more foul-mouthed version of his most iconic roles, and with just as much poignancy when the occasion calls for it.
Hollywood history is littered with the stories of major stars who burnt out, faded away, or were left to rot on the sidewalk of the past. It's a nasty system on a purely human level but also one that wastes so much potential. It always sucks to see actors you love being discarded in favor of the new hot young thing with abs for days, and it doesn't have to happen. Fortunately, it seems that Fraser is getting his much-deserved second act. He's thriving on TV and he has a new upcoming film directed by Steven Soderbergh. Frankly, it's good to just see him being busy these days. It's rare that one celebrity is so universally loved by the varied and cynical masses. It would be a shame to lose that. So, bring on the Frasernaissance! He deserves it and so do we.
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