Content warnings: fatphobia, eating disorders, death or dying, spoilers for The Whale (2023)
After almost a decade since his last leading role, Brendan Fraser has just crossed the finish line in his marathon of a comeback, winning “Best Actor” at the 95th Academy Awards for his role in director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale (2022). However, controversially, the film’s hair and makeup team (lead by Adrien Morot) picked up the statue for their work over projected favourite, Elvis. There is no denying The Whale’s technical proficiency, but since its release, both Aronofsky and Fraser have received backlash for claims that the film contributes to fatphobic and exploitative stereotypes in the industry. It’s true that Aronofsky certainly trips into ethical pitfalls at times, but he still manages to turn some inside-out, and ends up illuminating the hearts of screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter’s characters with as much empathy he and his cast can muster. And if you are going to pay $15-20 to sit in a cinema with this film for almost 120 minutes, it will be to witness some of the greatest performances of the decade thus far.
An adaptation of Hunter’s 2012 play of the same name, The Whale follows Charlie, a morbidly obese English teacher living an isolated life in his Idaho apartment. His only access to the outside world is the webcams of the students in the online college course he teaches—with his camera turned off due to his embarrassment—and Liz (Hong Chau), his friend and nurse. After Liz tells Charlie he’s most likely suffering from congestive heart failure and will be dead by the end of the week if he doesn’t visit a hospital, he makes one last effort to reconcile with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he lost custody of eight years ago and hasn’t seen since. Also drifting in and out of the film is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary trying to convince Charlie to turn to God in his final days.
The supporting cast here is superb. Sink perfectly executes the cruel personality of Ellie. It’s hard to feel any empathy for her at times—she has been viciously bullying classmates online, and frequently insults her father, and we learn early on that her only motivation for spending time with Charlie is the $120,000 he promises to give her. And yet, Sink still finds a way to remind the audience that she had it tough growing up and, like Charlie, she too is redeemable. But Hong Chau—who also managed to pick up a Supporting Actress nomination—is by far the standout. As Liz, she brings the companionship that Charlie has lost: laughing and crying with him, worrying like any true friend would. Chau is especially excellent in the moments when Liz’s professionalism breaks and shows that she’s also struggling to get through the week. At one point, Charlie almost chokes whilst eating, and the vigour of Liz desperately trying to unblock his throat has the audience convinced that Chau has more than absorbed her character’s profession.
The Whale’s backlash is understandable, however. At times, its cinematography (Matthew Libatique), scoring (Rob Simonsen) and tonal shifts, likely all under Aronofsky’s direction, cross the line into exploitation. In a particular sequence toward the film’s end, Charlie hits rock bottom and begins binge eating. Rather than rein in the film’s technical aspects to let the emotions behind his behaviour speak for themselves, Aronofsky and his team fall flat. As Charlie sifts through drawers and his fridge, Simonsen’s score settles into a haunting swell of strings, and Libatique’s cinematography starts wide, slowly zooming in tighter and tighter, until Charlie starts to seem like a circus act rather than an attempt by Aronofsky to confront the audience of our prejudices by leaving things uncensored.
Aronofsky has been vocal about the film’s accusations of fatphobia by stressing the importance of the film’s prosthetics in comparison to past examples: “One of my first calls after casting Brendan was to my makeup artist, Adrien Morot. I asked him, ‘Can we do something that's realistic?’ Because if it's going to look like a joke, then we shouldn't do it.” It’s precisely this which has divided critics and fans, although it seems to be a “two sides of the same coin” scenario: the reason why the prosthetics have slipped past critique for some is because of Fraser’s performance and the way his character is texturized. Norbit, flashbacks of Monica in Friends, Big Momma’s House, and, more recently, Chris Hemsworth in Avengers: Endgame have all perpetuated the stereotype of fat suits and prosthetics in Hollywood being used for comedic effect. When we see an actor wearing such suits—knowing them to be of a different body type out of frame—we are quick to associate the excess weight with ridicule. And whilst Charlie is frequently insulted by Ellie, he brushes off her words and is quick to remind her, and the audience, that his mind is elsewhere. He actively chooses to love rather than loathe.
Charlie is all the things that a layered character can be. He’s an intellectual; he has an endearing and witty rapport with Liz; he’s refreshingly optimistic; but most importantly, he’s human. Despite his selfishness in breaking up his family, he still tries to repair it even though his efforts might get him nowhere. And whilst Fraser is quite literally carrying around up to 300 extra pounds of weight in prosthetics, he effortlessly shows the lengths his profession can reach in terms of physicality and the emotions it elicits, proving that he’s more than just the box-office asset many considered him to be. It’s a daring and perfectly executed performance that is beyond worthy of the Oscar he picked up, and it is one of the few in recent memory that features a plus-sized character with all their complexities, good and bad. In this regard, The Whale achieves its goal of being a meditation on empathy, even if some methods are up for debate.