I can only assume that acting – pretending, convincingly, to be someone you aren’t – is an incredibly boring, unrewarding profession if you are 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 are then celebrated for it by their peers – now including, of course, Brendan Fraser in The Whale.
Fraser’s casting in the film – or whether the film should even exist in 2023 – may be under even more scrutiny now it has Academy Award nominations, including one for best actor, to add to its treasure trove of accolades.
Naturally, the performance was always going to attract lots of press. Fraser dons heavy prosthetics (both physical and CGI) for his performance as a morbidly obese person, and actors wearing prosthetics or makeup for dramatic performances tend to attract plaudits (see Nicole Kidman, Steve Carell, even Al Pacino as “Big Boy” Caprice in Dick Tracy).
Prosthetic-enhanced performances get particular attention from the entertainment industry machine if the additions make the actor look what Hollywood considers to be … worse. Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is a perfect example of this: therefore, it is considered brave; therefore, it is bait for awards. But should it be?
Based on a play by Samuel D Hunter, the film centres on a “reclusive English teacher who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter”. A major factor in why Fraser’s Charlie is so reclusive? That 600-pound weight. If you haven’t seen the film yet, the reviews can give you an idea of its treatment of obesity, but also very clear insight into the awkwardness involved in covering such a tale for some reviewers.
There is a nasty voyeuristic delight in the description of the character’s “sloping jowls”, “jelly belly” and “meat slabs” – and a bonus comparison to Jabba the Hutt – in Variety’s write-up. In the Telegraph, there is a snide jibe about “a rounded character in more ways than one” alongside the “radiantly human” compliment about Fraser’s performance. A more personally informed take came from Little White Lies magazine, with the reviewer’s wish that the film “would have done more to dig into the prevalent notion (subconscious or not) that fat people are any less deserving of dignity, respect and love”.
Much gushing has centred on the 50 to 300 extra pounds of fat suit that was put on Fraser for The Whale, and while, yes, this does tie in with Hollywood’s continued fascination with transforming the slender and symmetrical, it feels just plain weird to see a fat suit in a mainstream dramatic film. Typically, fat suits have been mined for comedy – “a one-note joke”, as acknowledged by Fraser himself.
That’s because we are expected, as viewers, to look down on these characters. Audiences have been invited to laugh at actors wearing fat suits over and over again, and it frequently overlaps with ableism, classism and racism – a whole extra side of nastiness: Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers films, Sherman Klump in The Nutty Professor, Rasputia in Norbit, Rosemary in Shallow Hal, Thor in Endgame, numerous characters in the work of David Walliams and Matt Lucas, Fat Monica in Friends, and also, in case you forgot, Joey.
Plenty of people have genuinely thought actors playing fat when they aren’t fat is hilarious. We could go 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 of those? I wouldn’t know, because I don’t find fat suits inherently funny. Does that mean I think it’s a sign of progress that fat suits are being mined for misery instead, as in The Whale? Actual actors with the body type required – where possible – would certainly be better; so too would stories that don’t call for deep pity or even disgust from their audience.
I thought Fat Monica dancing was cute in the mid-1990s, because it was recognisable to me as a fat teenager. The Klump family interrupting each other over dinner in the first Nutty Professor film (we will studiously ignore the sequel) reminded me of my own family’s mealtimes. But then I started to notice the sneering behind the performances. I was compared to these characters by bullies who didn’t have a lot of creativity when it came to insults, and by the time Fat Thor arrived in 2019 I was tired of seeing Hollywood’s comedy cosplay.
Fraser has spoken with genuine sensitivity and thought about the experiences of people with disabling weight issues on the publicity trail, and his portrayal is far from Fat Bastard. He has said he hopes the film will help to “end the bias against those who live with obesity”. I’m so grateful for that, so desperate am I for fat characters onscreen who aren’t there to be laughed at. But will the fat suit’s move away from funny to sad eventually make its way around to the dignity Fraser wanted to portray? I really hope so.