Snub of Brendan Fraser and ‘The Whale’ is a Spirit Awards conundrum

It has been frequently acknowledged as the one sure thing through the early months of this awards season: Brendan Fraser is the front runner to land a lead acting nomination for his wrenching, career-defining work in “The Whale” as a reclusive 600-pound gay man struggling to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter and find a measure of peace and redemption before it’s too late. Having seen the film at an early screening and witnessed the standing ovations and awestruck reaction to his performance, it’s impossible not to be tremendously moved and conclude that the Oscar appears to be Fraser’s to lose.

But that evidently wasn’t good enough for the members of Film Independent and the Spirit Awards Film Nominating Committees to include Fraser as a nominee for the 2023 Independent Spirit Awards announced early on Tuesday. Not only was Fraser snubbed; so was “The Whale ” entirely. The lack of attention for Best Feature and Best Director isn’t necessarily a surprise. There’s a lot of competition for those five slots. But for Fraser not to be included among the 10 nominees in the newly gender-neutral Best Lead Performance category is, quite frankly, something akin to a criminal act.

Of course, this stuff is all so subjective. And it isn’t as if we can target any of the actual category nominees for exclusion. But surely Fraser should be among those honored, only two of which are male: Paul Mescal for “Aftersun” and Jeremy Pope for “The Inspection.” It isn’t that there is any objection to there being such a preponderance of female performances in the category. God knows women have had to struggle to be on anything approaching equal footing with the men no matter what area of film we’re talking about. But failing to cite Fraser seems to fly in the face of what the Spirits purport to stand for – as they say, honoring “creativity and innovation in visual storytelling.” Fraser’s performance as the character Charlie in “The Whale” is as creative and innovative as it gets.

The early critical response to Fraser’s work has been singularly laudatory. The San Jose Mercury News dubbed the performance “one for the ages.” The Toronto Star called it “a revelation.” While the film doesn’t come out for another couple of weeks (December 9), the awards buzz for “The Whale’s” star has been consistent and deafening. Fraser has also been number one on the Gold Derby combined Oscars, Golden Globes and SAG Awards predictions lists since “The Whale” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in early September.

All of which is to say that it’s curious and confounding how Fraser and “The Whale” could be so ignored. Was it that the nominating committees thought the film to be an example of fat shaming, even if its message is meant to be precisely the opposite? Did they believe it somehow too mainstream for their maverick indie sensibilities? Might it have been too depressing a watch? It’s unclear, because Fraser’s performance represents everything the Spirits should applaud. That’s not to even mention the heartwarming comeback story the actor himself embodies.

Will being ignored by the Independent Spirits impact Fraser’s chances for a nomination at the Academy Awards in particular? Highly unlikely. It’s instead much more probable that this will prove to be far less a telling precursor than a dissenting blip on the radar. It will be interesting to see how the Gotham Awards — for which Fraser was nominated in a similarly gender-neutral category — will play out when those winners are announced on November 28. Regardless, the suspicion here is that the momentum will continue to build over the next three-and-a-half months for the comeback kid.

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