In 2021, we experienced a movement which, over on TikTok, had been dubbed ‘The Brennaisance.’ The social media movement centred around renewed appreciation for ‘90s movie heartthrob Brendan Fraser, who was known for adventure movies like The Mummy series as well as classic family movie favourites like George of the Jungle.
Despite catapulting to fame in the ’90s and early 2000s, the actor disappeared from the spotlight for a number of years, fading into a puzzling obscurity before re-emerging with a candid GQ profile in 2018. In the interview, he said that he was blacklisted by the film industry after speaking out about being sexually assaulted by a high-level executive.
It had been a tough few years for Fraser, with the actor also experiencing mental health issues and a divorce. However, armed with a new legion of fans and a second chance in the industry that betrayed him, we’ve slowly seen the Brennaisance come to fruition, with the actor booking a number of high-profile roles and continuing to go viral for his humility and appreciation of his fans.
This September, The Whale, a drama movie in which Fraser plays the starring role, premiered at Venice Film Festival. His performance as a 600lbs gay man struggling to connect with his estranged daughter before his compulsive binge eating kills him earned him a 6-minute standing ovation at the Festival. There’s even talks of this movie earning Fraser an Academy Award nomination, which would further cement his rise back to the top.
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The problem is, I’m conflicted.
Yes, there’s no actor I love more than Brendan Fraser. I adored him in George of the Jungle, and seeing him tear up in response to his standing ovation made me tear up too. He deserves the world, and more. But do fatsuits really have a place in 2022 Hollywood?
As a society, we have made leaps and bounds in terms of body positivity. The implications of fatphobia — which is defined as discrimination and hatred towards fat bodies — in Hollywood are a lot clearer than they were ten, even 20 years ago.
These days, the idea of Gwyneth Paltrow donning a fatsuit and having her character’s obesity be the punchline of rom-com Shallow Hal seems almost ludicrous — but it was only 20 years ago. From ‘Fat Monica’ in Friends to Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, my generation was raised to believe that fatness made you undesirable and unworthy of respect, and that your life was only worthwhile if you could magically lose all the weight.
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The thing is, I’m a fat person myself —and I don’t see that word as an insult, but more of a neutral descriptor of the way my body is. But coming to terms with my own fatness doesn’t mean that seeing someone make a mockery of my body type doesn’t hurt.
While fatsuits are oftentimes used for comic relief, there have also been occasions in the past where actors have used prosthetics in order to portray weight gain in more dramatic roles: a very recent example being Austin Butler in Elvis. This, of course, is a lot more forgivable than actors donning fatsuits to mock us, but it begs the question of whether overweight parts are better suited to overweight actors, who are often overlooked because they don’t meet the stringent beauty standards expected by Hollywood.
No matter how well a slim actor might portray a fat person in a dramatic role, they can still, at the end of the day, zip out of that fatsuit and reap all the benefits of having a societally-accepted body type. They can absorb the praise of being fat when it suits them, but can shed that skin at will.
Yet, when it comes to Brendan Fraser in The Whale, it’s a little bit more complicated. Firstly, he did gain a significant amount of weight for this role, and has also experienced body shaming himself in the past after gaining weight, so it’s not like he doesn’t understand what it’s like, and hasn’t tried to play the role more authentically. The issue is that getting to a size like 600lbs may well be catastrophic to his or any other actor’s health, so it makes sense that there was a limit to the natural weight gain he was able to do.
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Secondly, it’s questionable whether having a person who is naturally 600lbs in a role where the character is dying of heart failure because of their weight is necessarily good for that actor’s mental health. There are lots of reasons why someone might be that size, and it may not be due to compulsive binge eating as it is in The Whale, so having to play out this scenario where they’re ‘eating themselves to death’ may not be very productive for their state of mind.
But is this a sweeping generalisation? Darlene Cates portrayed the morbidly obese Bonnie Grape in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape with no acting experience and was widely praised for her performance, but another problem you’ve got to consider is whether treating fatness as a spectacle in itself serves anyone apart from skinny people who see fatness as a point of fascination – whether that spectacle is within a dramatic or comedic context.
This piece is full of questions and contradictions because the bottom line is that I simply haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s hard to make solid judgements about a movie that hasn’t even released a trailer. So, I’ll suspend my judgement for now, but I hope Brendan can forgive me for being sceptical.