Ray Richmond: Darren Aronofsky and A24 just gave Brendan Fraser’s SAG campaign a last-minute jolt of electricity

Well, it’s coming down to the nitty gritty now. The Screen Actors Guild Awards are happening this Sunday, followed two weeks later by the Academy Awards. Soon enough, we’ll know if Brendan Fraser (for “The Whale”) or Austin Butler (for “Elvis”) is The Chosen One, circa 2023. It’s also possible it will be neither of these guys, but come on. Colin Farrell couldn’t even win the lead actor prize at BAFTA – upset by Butler – and if an Irishman can’t beat a kid from Anaheim, California in London, he probably ain’t going to pull it off at the Dolby Theatre.

It’s also true, however, that the two-man race had started to look like a look like a one-man coronation lately. The perception was that “The Whale” campaign was running low on steam, and it was potentially impacting its star’s chances – particularly at the SAGs. Part of the problem has been that lots of SAG Awards voters who don’t live in an area where the film is playing in theaters, like L.A. or New York, wouldn’t have an opportunity to see it. Or in the age of COVID, even as we’re undeniably past the height of virus fear, maybe they just didn’t want to have to leave the house to catch Fraser’s gut-wrenching performance as a morbidly obese man struggling to reconcile with his estranged teenage daughter before it’s too late.

SEE Experts slugfest: 2023 BAFTA Awards recap — did Austin Butler just lock up the Best Actor Oscar?

The issue was that producer-director Darren Aronofsky and distributor A24 were insistent that the public and SAG voters see “The Whale” in a theater or not at all. It wasn’t made available on streaming. But that all changed Tuesday with the surprise announcement that the Oscar-nominated drama would be available immediately on demand via multiple platforms including Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube and Vudu, among others.

And not a moment too soon.

In hindsight, this may well be an unintentional stroke of genius. Or wait, given that there are no accidents when it comes to entertainment, let’s instead assume this is a savvy marketing move. The movie is being released into the streaming universe just in time to be seen by procrastinating SAG voters and build momentum, peaking just as voting closes this Friday at noon PT.

Brilliant. And besides that, brilliant.

The purported reason why “The Whale” had been unavailable as a streaming entity until now was Aronofsky’s insistence that everyone see his film on the big screen as God and the czars of cinema intended. This was a noble goal, to be sure. There’s no question that the greatest moviegoing experience involves watching on a larger-than-life backdrop, in near-total darkness, surrounded by people who may be chattering or crunching their popcorn a bit too loudly. While there have been several screenings of the film for critics and voters, those behind it had made it a little tough to find the movie outside of a theater. That may be artistically noble, but it’s not how you build support in a pandemic.

Yet it all makes sense now. At this late stage of the game, those backing “The Whale” have changed up the narrative by giving the movie a sudden burst of availability. The conversation switches from “Where can I see this movie?” to “Let’s stay home and watch it tonight.” People talk about Fraser and “The Whale” just when they’ve overdosed on Butler and “Elvis,” which have been at the center of the Best Actor conversation for months. I mean, so have Fraser and “The Whale,” but it suddenly doesn’t feel the same.

This is a very good thing from where I sit, as I consider Fraser’s work as Charlie in “The Whale” to be a stunningly moving performance, not to  mention a moment of considerable redemption for an actor who has rarely been accorded his due. Since the night that I saw the film last November, I haven’t wavered in my view that nothing should come between Fraser and his rightful claim on the statuette.

Fraser is still managing to stay in front of Butler (if barely) at Gold Derby for the SAGs while just in the past day or so falling behind for the Oscars overall. Indeed, after the BAFTAs and the energy that appeared to be building around “Elvis,” you could sense the air coming out of the Brendan balloon. It was a shame, not because I at all dislike or discount Butler – he was sensational as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – but because on a level playing field, Fraser should be the choice. With the on demand release, it suddenly feels level again.

The further good news is that people can now cry to their heart’s content while watching “The Whale” without feeling the least bit self-conscious, since they can now experience it in the discomfort of their own living room. And I’m sorry, but in 2023, accessibility from multiple platforms (large screen. TV monitor, laptop, phone, watch) is king. If we’ve learned anything about we Americans in the digital age, it’s that we love us our convenience. As the astounding success of Amazon has taught us, people want things delivered to them and want them delivered now. That’s now possible with “The Whale,” which can be viewed without planning a night out around it.

It’s also more than that. The buzz created by the greater accessibility of a movie to its fan base indirectly pours fuel on an awards campaign. “The Whale” can finally be seen by the largest possible audience at a moment when its star most needs maximum exposure. As we sit just days away from the SAG Awards, it’s a critical factor that could well put Fraser over the top. And if that happens, the Oscar probably will probably be his, too.

PREDICT the 2023 SAG Awards winners.

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