‘The Whale’ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Forget Fatphobia Claims and Watch Brendan Fraser’s Fab Performance

Before I was able to see the film “The Whale,” I was aware of some controversy. After I saw the film, I was afraid that this issue might prevent Brendan Fraser from getting a well deserved nomination.


I think we need to discuss the issues raised before we get into before a review of “The Whale.” The film, directed by Darren Aronofsky and based on Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 off-Broadway play of the same name, has been accused of a variety of politically incorrect attitudes: 

  • fatphobia
  • a casting catastrophe

You might not know this, but I do have a fixation on my weight. That was a by-product of my mother’s concerns. She was a woman who was often overweight, but always pleasantly plump and never obese.  I took gymnastics while in high school and developed a habit of weighing myself every day. I am close to my high school weight.  As a working adult, I did become work with a woman who was morbidly obese; her elbows were dimples on her over-stuffed sausage arms. Her family had a history of heart disease. No one expected her to live long.

At that time fat had already become a feminist issue, but fat, particularly in the sense of morbid obesity has been and should still be a health issue. 

The concern over casting was that not only was Brendan Fraser not morbidly obese, but he was playing a gay man. Some people felt that an overweight gay actor would have been a better choice. However, do we really want to limit gay actors to only gay roles? Think of the versatile Neil Patrick Harris who has played the womanizing Barney Stinson and the lovelorn Mark Cohen in “Rent” during the national tour or the ill-fated Romeo in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Old Globe. I don’t think we should limit actors based on their gender preferences. I do feel that black face and yellow face is a problem. My feelings about whitewashing and blacking out history should be clear from the reviews I have posted. 

Race, however, is not an issue with “The Whale.” The issues surrounding “The Whale” are summarized in a Time magazine article

It should be noted that the play is based on Hunter’s own lived experience. Hunter is gay and he did have a weighty problem that he eventually shed. In this play, Hunter speculates what would have happened to him if he hadn’t been able to lose weight and kept on the same course.  

At this point in his life, Fraser can be described as plump or chubby. He isn’t skinny. And we can see in some photos that he had developed a potbelly. He looks overweight in about the same category as one of the persons (e.g. Daniel Franzese) who has been quoted in the articles. 

So when entertainment journalist, Katie Rife,  wrote, “You can tell that no actually fat peoples were involved in the production [because] of a major plot point where the protagonist is dying, but refuses to go to the hospital even though he has money to pay the bills,” Rife, who is quoted in the Newsweek article,  isn’t totally correct. Fat people were involved in the production, including the playwright who also wrote the screenplay and the lead actor.

Guy Branum also commented. 

But neither Branum or Rife looked into the director’s notes or did any research it seems because besides Hunt and Fraser, the Obesity Action Coalition offered “insight into the realities of living with severe obesity” to the production company A24, and to the director Aronofsky  the lead actor Brendan Fraser. The Coalition does warn that the film might be “challenging for many who live with severe obesity or suffer from binge eating disorder.”

From my perspective Fraser has been and is fat as is Katie Rife.  I don’t think it is worth our time to figure out the BMI of Rife, Fraser, Franzese, Branum and Hunter. Mine is 19.9 (using the NIH calculator), but I’d like to be 18.8.  At my heaviest I think I had a BMI of 20.2. So most US citizens look fat to me. If you want to compare the people involved you can see an unflattering photo of Fraser from 2018 in The Mirror. 

The reason given for not hiring a morbidly obese person was the cost. Film fans might remember that there was an actor cast in a secondary role who did weigh over 500 lbs.–Darlene Cates who played the mother, Bonnie Grape, in the film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”  But casting Cates often meant working around her. 

Aronofsky addressed the situation in a Variety interview: 

“There was a chapter in the making of this film where we tried to research actors with obesity,” says Aronofsky. “Outside of not being able to find an actor who could pull off the emotions of the role, it just becomes a crazy chase. Like, if you can’t find a 600-pound actor, is a 300-pound actor or 400-pound actor enough?”

And Aronofsky worried that an actor with severe obesity would struggle with the demands of a grueling production schedule. “From a health perspective, it’s prohibitive,” says Aronofsky. “It’s an impossible role to fill with a real person dealing with those issues.”

The film did include people who were overweight on the production team–the writer, Samuel D. Hunter,  and the star, Brendan Fraser. Further, an organization for overweight people participated, the Obesity Action Coalition. 

The Whale

I hate films that start with simulated sex and “The Whale” begins with a large puddle of a man with his hand down his pants, masturbating while watching pornography. The man, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), hastily fumbles from carnal desire to fear. He’s begun to have chest pains. While one is tempted to look at Charlie as pathetic and the camera doesn’t spare us, vividly displaying the incredible work of the makeup artists, Fraser’s performance makes Charlie sympathetic.

When we meet him, he is a man in hiding. Charlie teaches English classes online, but claims that his computer’s camera isn’t working. He orders pizza delivered and although the same delivery person, Dan (Sathya Sridharan), comes, this is no-contact delivery, even though this takes place pre-pandemic. The money is left in the mailbox. The only person allowed into his home and who openly knows of his physical condition is his nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), who brings him food that she knows isn’t good for him and begs him to get better medical care.

Two people interrupt this sluggish slide into suicide by gluttony: a Christian door-to-door evangelist named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and Charlie’s estranged high school aged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).

Once upon a time, Charlie has been hiding the reality of his sexual preference. He had a wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and a young daughter, when he fell in love with one of his male students. The subsequent divorce left his wife bitter, requesting that he not contact his daughter, Ellie.

Now Charlie hopes to reconnect with the now angry teen by helping her with her writing, but she’d rather have him write for her. While Charlie hopes to save his daughter from her bitterness, Thomas hopes that by saving Charlie he can save himself. 

The title refers both to Charlie (because who can forget “Dale the Whale” on the TV series “Monk”) and “Moby Dick.” There’s an essay that Charlie keeps returning to about that novel in which the essayist writes, “This book made me think about my own life.” Sometimes the details distract us from what’s important and sometimes obsessions are what separate us from others. 

To me, “The Whale” isn’t about being gay although that definitely is an important point in the storyline. The protagonist was never thin or etched with the kind of strongman build that Fraser himself showed when he played George of the Jungle. Charlie tells us,  “I was always big; I just let it get out of control.” After the death of his partner, he medicated his grief and depression with food. 

This is a sensitive portrayal of a man drowning in grief. We should be horrified at what Charlie has done to himself and some of the choices he has made. Yet we should also feel compassion for a man reaching out to the daughter he loves. Who doesn’t want forgiveness at the end? 

“The Whale” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and then made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the same month of September. The film was released in the US on 9 December 2022. The film has three nominations, including Best Actor for Fraser, Best Supporting Actress for Hong Chau and Best Makeup and Hairstyling for Adrien Morot, Judy Chin and Anne Marie Bradley. 





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