Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky’s highly anticipated psychological drama The Whale, which stars Branden Fraser who hasn’t had a lead role since straight-to-DVD thriller Breakout in 2013, has just premiered at the Venice Film Festival 2022. And it’s safe to say that it was a hit, with the movie receiving a six-minute long standing ovation, leading the once-blacklisted actor to wipe a few tears away in an emotional moment he’ll never forget.
The Whale’s official synopsis reads: “A reclusive English teacher suffering from severe obesity attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption” and saw Fraser undergo an intense physical transformation for the role. The Mummy star and internet protégé also had to don prosthetics to accentuate his character’s features in the movie.
Many were hoping the film could be the one to launch a comeback of sorts for the 53-year-old, and so far, it certainly looks like it might do just that. Following its premiere, numerous journalists who attended the renowned festival said that an Oscar nomination could now be on the cards for Fraser.
Although gen Zers reading this might know him from the countless internet rants celebrating the man and speaking out on the unfairness of what happened to him, Fraser’s face is probably more familiar to those slightly older, millennials more specifically.
He was the iconic American adventurer Rick O’Connell in The Mummy movie franchise, and George in George of the Jungle before that. Fraser was one of the ‘hunks of Hollywood’ but not only—he could act and was game to take on more serious roles too. In 1992, he starred with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris O’Donnell in the drama School Ties, as a Jewish scholarship quarterback fighting for his place at an elite, anti-Semitic boarding school.
“If you watched movies at the end of the previous century, you watched Brendan Fraser,” wrote GQ. Yet somehow, by the end of the first decade of 2000, the actor almost completely disappeared from our screens.
By the time he was filming the third instalment of The Mummy, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, in 2008, as the films’ success started to diminish, they also began taking a physical toll on the actor. “I was put together with tape and ice—just, like, really nerdy and fetishy about ice packs. Screw-cap ice packs and downhill-mountain-biking pads, ‘cause they’re small and light and they can fit under your clothes. I was building an exoskeleton for myself daily,” Fraser told the publication in a 2018 interview.
Ice packs ultimately had to be replaced by multiple surgeries. One laminectomy, followed by another one the year after, a partial knee replacement, more work done on his back—Fraser revealed he was in and out of hospital for the next seven years, no less.
But physical exhaustion was not the only thing hindering Fraser’s star quality.
Though rumours had been circulating prior to Fraser opening up to GQ, the story had ended up getting lost in the mix of other speculations made about the actor’s slowing career. Some blamed it on a few poor movie choices while others mentioned his physical health. But according to Fraser himself, it was something that happened to him during the summer of 2003 that really changed everything.
Relaying the events in that same GQ interview mentioned above, Fraser mentioned that he attended a luncheon held by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the organisation that hosts the Golden Globes, at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. On his way out of the hotel, he was hailed by Philip Berk, a former president of the HFPA.
In the midst of a crowded room, Berk reached out to shake Fraser’s hand. Then, he pinched Fraser’s butt—at least, according to Berk. But the actor said it was more than a pinch: “His left hand reaches around, grabs my ass cheek, and one of his fingers touches me in the taint. And he starts moving it around.” At that moment, he was understandably overcome with panic and fear before he eventually managed to remove Berk’s hand.
“I felt ill. I felt like a little kid. I felt like there was a ball in my throat. I thought I was going to cry,” Fraser shared with the publication before adding that as soon as he left the hotel, he told his then-wife, Afton Fraser, what had happened. At the time, he thought of making it public, but changed his mind for fear of repercussions.
His representatives asked the HFPA for a written apology, which Fraser did receive even though Berk claimed he “admitted no wrongdoing” in it, and the organisation also promised not to allow Berk in a room with the actor ever again. Regardless of this, Fraser had to deal with the trauma by himself, “I was blaming myself and I was miserable—because I was saying, ‘This is nothing; this guy reached around and he copped a feel.’ That summer wore on—and I can’t remember what I went on to work on next.”
After 2003, the actor noticed that he was rarely invited to events in the movie industry anymore, let alone the Golden Globes. On top of dealing with the trauma of what had happened to him, Fraser had to witness the whole Hollywood scene blacklist him for something he was the victim of.
Following the 2018 revelation, Fraser’s heartbreaking story seemed to change the perception the world had of him. Online, a movement started to form in support of the actor, with countless netizens vowing to ‘protect him at all costs’. Which brings us to his comeback in The Whale and his outstanding performance.
Fraser plays Charlie, a gay Ohio literature professor who never leaves his dingy, cluttered apartment, and keeps his camera switched off during his Zoom lectures. The reason for this shyness is that he has been depressed since the suicide of his lover, several years ago, and he has kept eating to the point where he is morbidly obese.
In fact, his heart is failing because of it, leaving him with only a couple of days left to live. And although his loyal carer, Liz (played by Hong Chau) urges him to go to hospital, all Charlie cares about is talking to Ellie (Sadie Sink), the 17-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen since he left her and her mother eight years earlier.
After it was announced that Batgirl—in which Fraser played the villain—was getting scrapped by Warner Bros. many feared this would be it for the actor’s career. But The Whale might prove to be the beginning of what we all hope will be the ‘Brenaissance’ Fraser deserved all along.