Is this what it looks like to peak too soon?
Back in September, when Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, the audience was so moved that its star Brendan Fraser received a six-minute standing ovation that brought Fraser to tears. The same thing happened at the festival in Toronto a week later. This standing O reportedly lasted only five minutes that second time, but when people are measuring the length of your sustained applause, it’s a pretty good place to be. The buzz on Fraser’s prosthetic-enhanced performance in the film as Charlie, a reclusive gay 600-pound man in the final throes of eating himself to death who’s struggling to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink from “Stranger Things”) before it’s too late, was strong and getting stronger in advance of the film’s December release. Critics couldn’t rush to praise him enough. It was a foregone conclusion that the Academy Award was Fraser’s to lose despite his having never been anywhere close to this kind of awards conversation before.
But within weeks, the worm turned, and suddenly the movie was in the crosshairs of the fat acceptance movement as Public Enemy #1. While Fraser’s performance was still mostly celebrated, the movie itself was being derided as a shameful example of stereotyping and humiliation rather than depicting a broken human being’s self-destruction. That it was fatphobic to the extreme and wrong to cast an actor of normal weight while encumbering him with between 50 and 300 extra pounds per scene between the fat suit and arm, leg, belly and facial prosthetics. Interviewers were asking Aronofsky why he didn’t cast an actor of similar girth to fill the role. Fraser was obliged to defend his choices, physical and emotional, by noting he worked with the Obesity Action Coalition to better understand the real issues specific to those living with morbid obesity.
You’ve heard of the five stages of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance? Well, Fraser has been forced to endure the Five Stages of Oscar Season: skepticism, respect, adoration, backlash and limbo. Indeed, while the actor remains atop the Gold Derby combined Oscar count for Best Actor with 37/10 odds and has been consistently parked there for months, his hold on the spot seems increasingly tenuous in advance of the January 24 Oscar nominations. It probably didn’t help that the contender who has been nipping at Fraser’s heels for weeks, Colin Farrell for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” won a Golden Globe over the weekend while Fraser was knocked off in his drama actor category by the man who has been third in our three-man Oscar race, Austin Butler for “Elvis.” We should know a little more about where things stand after Sunday night’s Critics Choice Awards, as Fraser was never going to make any Golden Globes headway after speaking out against the Hollywood Foreign Press and refusing to attend the ceremony.
But I’m here to both defend Fraser and “The Whale” and briefly explain why his Oscar nomination shouldn’t be in doubt – and indeed why he’s still the man to beat for Best Actor. At the same time, let me also note my belief that extreme bias against the overweight in America is real. I saw it myself from up-close, even if it didn’t involve me personally. My parents were divorced, and throughout my childhood and adolescence, my father’s longterm girlfriend was a lovely woman named Marilyn who happened to weigh 400 pounds. I saw the discrimination and ridicule that greeted her every time we’d walk into a restaurant – the pointing, the snickering, the mocking sense of wide-eyed disbelief. Marilyn did her best to ignore it, but I know it had to profoundly wound her. I’ve also written on this site about my brother Marc and the hell he endured as a teen struggling with morbid obesity before dying of cardiac arrest at 17.
I bring this up not to claim I fully understand the experience of the severely overweight but to underscore my empathy for the physical and psychological toll that it can exact. And when watching Fraser’s heartbreaking and emotionally raw performance as Charlie in the film, I didn’t see an actor but a man who put himself fully in the shoes of a character and felt it with every fiber of his being. It was in no way caricature. Quibble if you want with a storyline whose creation Fraser had nothing to do with, but don’t blame it on the performer, and don’t hold it against him that he hadn’t lived the experience away from the set. This is, after all, called “acting,” not “being.” The job of an actor is to become someone else. That’s just what Fraser did, and better than anyone I’ve seen this awards season. His performance is mesmerizing, devastating, moving, painful, tragic, powerful – and Oscar-worthy.
If we insist on making sure every actor being hired for a role has some sort of true-life experience with the person they are portraying beyond delivering dialogue from a script, we might as well just call it documentary and be done with it. While some decry Fraser’s strapping on of those cumbersome prosthetics, I’m in awe of the performance he was able to convey despite the physical limitations they demanded. We aren’t asked in any way to make light of this man and his dire predicament but, yes, to pity and sympathize with him, both for what he is knowingly doing to himself and because he’s so monumentally unhappy that eating himself to death strikes him as his only viable option.
I have rarely, if ever, seen an actor so successfully transform himself into a character that the man playing him literally disappears. That’s what Brendan Fraser does in “The Whale,” and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the stuff of which Oscars (and certainly Oscar nominations) should be made.
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