Congrats to Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor win at last night’s Oscars! In honor of his triumph we have republished this article about his comeback role in The Whale. ** This article contains spoilers for The Whale.
Controversy has been swirling around Darren Aronofsky’s film The Whale. From what I’ve gathered it comes down to two issues. First, the character of Charlie is a morbidly obese gay man played by Brendan Fraser who is neither gay, nor morbidly obese. Second, a lot of the film’s detractors feel that the portrayal of Charlie’s obesity is denigrating and exploitive.
With regard to the first point of Brendan Fraser playing the role of a gay man, I understand why there is outcry over a straight man playing a queer role when there are several gay actors out there that could have played the part. I have no issue with that complaint because it’s a very true thing. Hollywood continues to erase us from our own narratives. I have nothing to add to this particular discourse.
In terms of Brendan Fraser playing a morbidly obese man, however, all I can do is pose the question of how many obese male actors do you know of in Hollywood? I don’t need to tell you that the answer is ‘not many’ and even if they did go with a ‘bigger person’ there is certainly no working actor I am aware of that is as big as the role called for. What I am getting at, is that a fat suit was always going to be in the cards for this movie, no matter who was cast in the role; and that is because entertainment is the most fat phobic industry in existence, with the possible exception of the fashion industry.
There was not a pool of fat actors to choose from for the role because Hollywood typically doesn’t tell these types of stories. Fat characters are typically relegated to comic relief roles. Besides Precious, I am hard pressed to think of any mainstream tv shows or movies, that are not comedies, where the person of size is the lead. Even with This is Us, Chrissy Metz is part of an ensemble, not the lead. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the representation that she and Gabourey Sidibe provided but talk about those roles being ‘one in a million’, because truly, they were.
With respect to the second point of contention, that Charlie’s obesity was exploitive, well I have some thoughts on that too. I myself, am an obese gay man. I’m not 600 pounds like Charlie, but I am big enough and have struggled with my weight and food issues long enough to see myself in the character. And even still, I do not agree with the assessment that the movie was exploitive. I read a fair number of reviews and with the rare exception, this complaint was being lodged by people who are not obese, or even fat. And while I appreciate the allyship, I have to question where their sentiment is coming from?
The movie is hammering home the point that Charlie is both an emotional eater and addicted to food. His sorrow compels him to binge in a way that could seem exploitive to some, but those of us in the know realize that the behavior is based in truth. Its not a truth everyone knows or wants to recognize but that makes it no less real. Charlie is not just a bigger person, he is super morbidly obese; an experience that few people know anything about, except through My 600 LB Life, which is obviously not the most objective or informative lens to learn about this experience. I personally think critics are shocked and dismayed by the eating because they just have no reference point or experience with it.
The only scene that I feel the argument for exploitation can be made is the shower scene. It does nothing for the story or character. Its just Charlie in the shower with his hanging belly forming a curtain over his pubic area, rendering his genitalia invisible. It adds nothing of value and merely provokes shock. The eating, his labored movement, the sweat, and the heavy breathing, however; that is most definitely part of the experience of being obese.
Some argued that his greasy mouth during the eating scenes was too much, and that Charlie was made to look ‘gross’, but if he is binging to ease emotional pain, then the eating is going to be feverish and a bit chaotic. He’s numbing pain and satisfying an addiction in those moments. Think about how drug addicts or alcoholics are portrayed in movies, its rarely glamorous. To me these scenes were not about exploitation but about exposing what to some is a shocking reality for people like Charlie. I do not think the film is trying to say all morbidly obese people live like Charlie either. Those just happen to be his circumstances given his life and personal history.
The Whale is the story of a morbidly obese recluse hiding in his home because of a physical inability to join the world, and a deep-rooted shame in his behavior and appearance. Charlie quite literally eats himself to death by the end of the film, an addiction brought to life as a way to console himself over the suicide of his partner Alan, a man who killed himself because he could not rectify his homosexuality with his religion. Upon realization of his impending death thanks to his nurse, friend and caretaker Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he left years before to be with Alan.
What transpires is a psychological drama that explores the themes of redemption, religion, authenticity, addiction, and shame in a masterful script from Samuel D. Hunter that was adapted from his original play. It’s a heartbreaking but engaging film with strong performances from the entire cast, but especially from Brendan Frasier. He fully commits to the character and his vulnerability brings Charlie to life in a way that I’ve rarely seen on screen. All of the accolades he’s been given are richly deserved.
Great art inspires debate and sometimes, controversy. That’s the case with The Whale. Its not for everyone and some will not be able to look past the issues mentioned here. But if you can get past them, I encourage you to take a look with an open mind and heart, because it is not often that these types of stories are given mainstream attention.
The Whale is currently playing in theaters from A24 Films.