We’re meant to find Brendan Fraser in a fat suit tragic, not funny. Is that really progress? | Phoebe-Jane Boyd
l can only assume that acting – convincingly pretending to be someone you’re not – is an incredibly boring, thankless profession if you’re an able-bodied person playing other able-bodied people. That must be the case, considering how many professional actors who happen to fall into that group take on roles they perhaps shouldn’t, and then get lauded for doing so by their peers — now including, of course, Brendan Fraser in The Whale.
Fraser’s casting in the movie – whether or not the movie should exist at all in 2023 – may be even more scrutinized now that there are Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Actor, to add to his hoard to awards.
The performance would of course always attract a lot of press. Fraser dons heavy prosthetics (both physical and CGI) for his performance as a morbidly obese individual, and actors who wear prosthetics or makeup for dramatic performances often receive critical acclaim (see Nicole Kidman, Steve Carell, even Al Pacino as “Big Boy” Caprice in Dick Tracy).
Performance with prosthetics gets particular scrutiny from the entertainment industry machine when the additions make the actor look what Hollywood considers… worse. Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is a perfect example of this: that’s why it’s considered brave; therefore it is bait for awards. But should it be?
Based on a play by Samuel D Hunter, the film revolves around a “reclusive English teacher trying to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter”. A major factor in why Fraser’s Charlie is so withdrawn? That weight of 600 pounds. If you haven’t seen the film yet, the reviews can give you an idea of the treatment of obesity, but also a very clear insight into the awkwardness it entails for some reviewers to tell such a story.
There’s an annoying voyeuristic delight in the description of the character’s “slanted jaws,” “jelly belly,” and “meat slices”—and a bonus comparison to Jabba the Hutt—in Variety’s article. In the Telegraph, there’s a snide joke about “a rounded character in more ways than one” alongside the “radiantly human” compliment about Fraser’s performance. A more personally informed opinion came from Little White Lies magazine, with the reviewer wishing that the film “would have done more to dig into the prevailing idea (subconscious or not) that fat people deserve less dignity, respect and love” .
Much buzz has focused on the 50 to 300 pound extra-thick suit Fraser donned for The Whale, and while, yes, this ties into Hollywood’s ongoing fascination with transforming the sleek and symmetrical, it just feels downright weird to see a thick suit in a mainstream dramatic film. Typically, fat packs are mined for comedy – “a one-note joke”, as admitted by Fraser himself.
That’s because we as viewers are expected to look down on these characters. Audiences are invited to laugh at actors wearing fat suits over and over again, and it often overlaps with prowess, classism and racism – a whole extra side of filth: Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers movies, Sherman Klump in The Nutty Professor , Rasputia in Norbit, Rosemary in Shallow Hal, Thor in Endgame, countless characters in the work of David Walliams and Matt Lucas, Fat Monica in Friends, and also, in case you forgot, Joey.
A lot of people have actually thought that actors playing fat when they’re not fat is hilarious. We could delve into the academic theories behind this – is the laughter due to feelings of superiority (à la Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes), incongruity (Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer), relief (Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud) – or is it punitive (Henri Bergson)? Could it be all that? I wouldn’t know, because I don’t necessarily find thick suits funny. Does this mean I think it’s a sign of progress that fat packs are being mined for misery instead, like in The Whale? Real actors with the required body type – where possible – would certainly be better; so are stories that do not arouse deep pity or even horror in their audience.
In the mid-1990s, I thought Fat Monica’s dancing was cute because it was recognizable to me as a fat teenager. The Klump family interrupting each other at dinner in the first Nutty Professor movie (we’ll carefully ignore the sequel) reminded me of my own family’s meals. But then I started to notice the grins behind the performances. I was compared to these characters by bullies who didn’t have much creativity when it came to insults, and by the time Fat Thor arrived in 2019, I was tired of seeing Hollywood’s comedic cosplay.
Fraser has spoken with genuine sensitivity and thought about the experiences of people with disabling weight issues on the publicity aisle, and his portrayal is far from Fat Bastard. He has said he hopes the film will help “end the prejudice against people living with obesity”. I am so grateful for that, so desperate am I for fat characters on screen who are not there to be laughed at. But will the fat suit go from funny to sad and finally make its way to the dignity Fraser wanted to portray? I really hope so.
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