I wrote earlier that there were no bumps or missteps in last night’s production. Which is not to say there weren’t controversies.
Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor Academy Award for The Whale was simultaneously one of the sweetest moments of the show, and one of the most upsetting – which is kind of a feat in and of itself.
Watching Brendan Fraser’s Oscar season has been – maybe the right phrase is ‘unsettling’. You see it every so often: someone is an Actor, but not a celebrity, and the round of parties and dinners and ceremonies is just too exhausting. I remember feeling this from Sally Hawkins, or Keisha Castle-Hughes, probably others I’m forgetting. And then there are people like Joaquin Phoenix, who are just as uncomfortable but from a place of cynicism and distrust for the ‘Hollywood’ part of the business.
Brendan Fraser’s campaign wasn’t exactly either of these. He appeared for each new win and accolade looking a little bit like he expected to be hit by spitballs or buckets of pigs blood. So it’s hard to look at his (still cautious) elation and obvious nerves, and feel cynical or mean about him receiving an award that means so much, both as a celebration of his work and an invitation back into a world that, it’s very clear, he figured was gone forever.
Brendan Fraser accepts the #Oscar for Best Actor for #TheWhale. https://t.co/ndiKiHfmID pic.twitter.com/kNuDy85dpH— Variety (@Variety) March 13, 2023
He’s openly emotional, and not trying to hide it, and even when he allows himself to feel a bit of happiness, as in here where the press room applauds him, he’s hyperaware of THEN versus NOW and what is going to happen ‘all the time’ and I don’t necessarily think he’s looking forward to it.
There are people for whom you know this award is going to mark a turning point, more than others, and I think we’re seeing that in an unpolished, and therefore endearing, way. His costar, Hong Chau, wasn’t even trying to blot away the fact that she was openly crying during his acceptance speech, and he clearly, if awkwardly, felt the same way. “I want to tell you that only whales can swim at the depth of the talent of Hong Chau” is incredibly earnest and sweet. Awkward and wordy, dare I say ham-fisted, but sweet.
Which is why it’s so difficult to point out that The Whale is not the movie it thinks it is – or that Fraser thinks it is. He has talked all season about how it was “a film that’s gonna change hearts and minds”. It’s possible that’s true – a lot of people obviously felt like it was important piece of cinema in one form or another.
But on the other hand, it’s a movie about someone whose only traits are being fat, and being miserable. It is not uplifting. It is not breaking any stereotypes about what someone living as a 600-lb individual might be like. It is reinforcing them, essentially telling people they’re good because they can empathize with Charlie even though he looks like that.
Scholars far better than me have written about this – Lindy West has the quintessential piece on the subject in the Guardian, and while the megasuccesful podcast Maintenance Phase has referenced it only glancingly so far, they’ve made full academic studies of other once-popular fat suit movies.
Remember ‘nothing about us without us’? Remember how revolutionary it was, just last year, to have a movie with ASL-speaking performers and characters, to the point where there were ASL interpreters through substantial parts of the show tonight?
Why is it that it’s important to correctly represent three-dimensional people of diverse origins and attitudes (vanishingly recently, obviously), but still unthinkable to do for people of diverse sizes? Do not even start with ‘oh there aren’t any actors who’ – please. And – I’m both echoing the experts above and going with my gut – I sincerely doubt there were people of size involved in creating the story of this man.
It’s hard not to think it’s because the filmmakers don’t really think of this movie as being about Charlie, Fraser’s character. They think of it as being about A Fat Guy. Exhibit A, the Oscar-winning makeup artist who referenced “turning Brendan into The Whale”. I know nobody thinks they’re doing a bad thing, but here we are anyway. (Sarah pointed out that as the discourse around the film has changed, director Darren Aronofsky has been almost entirely absent from the awards show circuit.)
Apparently on social media this is being dealt with by pretending Fraser’s Oscar is for a different movie. Mostly Encino Man or The Mummy, but I’ll go rogue and pin it on With Honors, I guess. I’m happy for the guy and all the offers he’s about to get, so this one is soon in the rearview.