It is exceedingly rare to witness a moment in Pop Culture where seemingly everyone, regardless of taste, fandom, or politics, rallies so enthusiastically behind one person. It’s even rarer that it happens to someone who it’s widely agreed upon to legitimately deserve it. Brendan Fraser, however, is having that moment.
Fraser has returned to the spotlight in style, landing the best reviews of his career (and some of the strongest write-ups for any actor in 2022 so far) for his turn in Darren Aronofsky's The Whale. He plays Charlie, a bereaved professor who weighs 600 pounds and is desperately trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter before his body gives out. Reviews have been generally positive but even the most negative ones cannot help but note who truly excellent Fraser is.
As The Whale plays the fall festival season, entering the Oscar conversation with bombast, Fraser has received wild applause and long standing ovations from every audience he finds himself in front of. To watch him fight back tears as the crowds support him so unabashedly feels exciting. It’s been a long time coming for a man so wronged by the industry that catapulted into stardom.
For many years, Fraser was the go-to man in Hollywood for a certain kind of earnest charm. Best known for action movies like The Mummy and goofball comedies like George of the Jungle, he was the alternate leading man to the more intense likes of Tom Cruise or over-sized gun totters Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
He could save the girl with romantic flair then pratfall into a hole in the same scene. His work clearly paved the way for many a Marvel star trying to balance taking down the bad guys while making jokes along the way (Chris Hemsworth, in particular, owes him a major debt.) But his talents were not limited to popcorn fare. He more than held his own in dramas like The Quiet American and Gods and Monsters, going toe to toe with the likes of Michael Caine and Ian McKellen. He even did Tennessee Williams on the West End.
After his commercial peak, he slowly disappeared from our screens, seemingly just another A-Lister whose best years were behind him. He put on weight. His hair thinned. He stopped looking like what Hollywood desired of its leading men and derision followed. Eventually, it seemed that the only place Fraser regularly popped up was in tacky “Where is He Now?” clickbait pieces. When he returned to the spotlight in 2018, thanks to some critically acclaimed TV roles in The Affair, Condor, and Trust, many of us were thrilled. We didn’t realize how much we’d missed him until he was gone. A heart-wrenching profile in GQ then revealed the truth behind his disappearance.
Fraser revealed that he had struggled with various injuries after feeling pressure for many years to do all of his own stunt work. He talked candidly about the death of his mother, his financial struggles following his divorce, and feeling as though he’d been left to the curb by Hollywood. Most shockingly, he alleged having been sexually assaulted by Philip Berk, then the President of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. While Berk tried to dismiss the incident, wherein he allegedly grabbed Fraser’s genitals at the Golden Globes, as a “total fabrication”, Fraser believes it led to him being blacklisted by the film world. It’s a moment he says messed with his sense of “who I was and what I was doing.” He even admitted that he was "frightened" about speaking out so many years later.
Fraser’s honesty kicked open a door that allowed us to see into a seldom-discussed aspect of fame. What happens when it ends? How does that impact the celebrity in question? And how does the industry itself remain so lacking in empathy towards those it discards? Such exposés often don’t see the light of day until the person in question is dead, as was the case with Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Stratten, and Amy Winehouse. They’re seen as cautionary tales, enshrined in amber and devoid of the individual’s own perspective. Fraser got to speak out, and he’s been able to make his way back into acting with a level of support that is too frequently denied from fans and colleagues alike.
It’s so easy to love Brendan Fraser. He’s talented, sweet, a huge part of our collective millennial nostalgia, and he has a strong reputation as a genuinely nice guy. We seldom get to see someone have a true comeback in this fashion, an opportunity to be appreciated the way they should have been decades prior. He’s getting the acclaim and kindness that we don’t usually express until they pass, and it’s only fair that he’s being credited as a truly great actor after being dismissed in his commercial peak. He’s working with top auteurs like Aronofsky, Stephen Soderbergh, and Martin Scorsese. Everyone is singing his praises. How can we not fully appreciate this unique moment?
Here is a man who deserves nothing but good things, but the mistake would be to pretend that Fraser's comeback is the end of the story, or that he is the sole character in this wider narrative. Berk is no longer head of the HFPA, having stepped down following racist comments he made, but he never faced punishment for allegedly assaulting Fraser (and the sexual abuse of men remains an under-discussed plague that Hollywood widely ignored during the height of #MeToo conversations.)
Nobody in the entertainment world has stepped up to discuss his accusations of having been blacklisted. To be fat or balding or to, shock horror, be a man in his fifties who doesn’t look 25, is still seen as a personal and moral failing. A lot of publications are still pulling in those clicks by gloating over celebrities who look different from their heyday. The Associated Press described Fraser as having “backed away” from the spotlight, which is certainly not how the man himself characterized events. There’s a softening of his trauma in order to sell a glitzier comeback fable to an industry that tossed him aside with such ease barely 15 years before. They want Fraser’s second act to be an indelibly Hollywood story, not a symptom of their continuing sickness.
We, the audience, also cannot repeat the errors of our past. In our current pop culture era of re-examination, we’ve hyped up the notion that we all learned our lessons and are smarter about celebrity as a whole. We were sorry for what we did to Britney Spears and Whitney Houston and Monica Lewinsky. We won’t do it again. Yet we do, over and over again, turning the abuse of troubled public figures into sport.
Some of the support for Fraser falls into the same cycle. Reviews herald his return in The Whale as they use astonishingly fatphobic rhetoric to describe his character's body. The Guardian's review described Fraser's character as "a giant pool of Jabba the Hutt-type flesh" while Variety also compared him to the Star Wars villain. Aside from missing the point of the film, it’s a slap in the face for an actor who is fat and has talked about the difficulties of dealing with an injured and changing body, one damaged through work in the industry.
Brendan Fraser isn’t alone in this. Who knows how many others in and out of the spotlight faced similar mistreatment and haven’t been able to tell their stories. His comeback, and the joy we share in celebrating it, deserves to be more than a one-off incident, an exception to the rule that is Hollywood rot. If not, it’s hard to imagine anything will get better. Fraser is owed his comeback but he never should have been pushed out in the first place.