The celebrity comeback has become a cliche in recent years — an expected stop on the trolley car of fame, a required slide in a talent manager’s PowerPoint presentation. Comebacks rely on our nostalgia but, even more, on the entertainment industry’s need to fill endless hours of programming time. They’re business now.
Then there’s the return of Brendan Fraser. This one feels good. This one feels personal.
Fraser plays a very big man in a little movie called “The Whale,” which opens in theaters Dec. 9. When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, the actor received an eight-minute standing ovation that left him and the audience in tears. Best actor trophy talk immediately ensued, and three months later he’s still the bookmaker’s choice, in part because no one outside festival audiences has seen “The Whale” and in part because everyone seems happy to have Brendan Fraser back.
Which prompts a question: Why? He never actually went away. The truth is that we’ve come back to him. But that’s not the story we like to tell ourselves.
Fraser was everywhere in the 1990s and early 2000s: a sweetly handsome, blue-eyed lummox whose starring roles established him as a perpetual naif. In “Encino Man” (1992), he played a thawed-out California cave-dude; “George of the Jungle” (1997) and “Dudley Do-Right” (1999) cast him as the live-action version of classic Saturday morning cartoon characters. There were dramatic performances, too, and fine ones — “School Ties” (1992), the revelatory “Gods and Monsters” (1998) — and three big action hits in “The Mummy” (1999) and its two sequels, but the Fraser persona seemed set in stone. He was a capable but slightly dazed nice guy, your older brother’s best friend and your little sister’s secret crush. Not so much a movie star but one of your own crew who had somehow managed to scramble up onto the screen.
And then he was gone.
Well, not really. The parts just got smaller and the movies did, too, and audiences moved on to other leading men, not because they were tired of Fraser but because we want our heroes to stay eternally young.
All those action sequences and pratfalls took a toll on his body, too, and there were surgeries, partial knee replacements and what the actor later referred to as an “exoskeleton” of ice packs just to get him through a day’s shoot. The blue eyes seemed to turn rheumy with regret: When a 2016 video interview promoting the Showtime series “The Affair” revealed a Fraser who seemed dejected and defeated, it went viral. What had happened to our best bro?
Regarding that specific interview, what had happened was the actor’s mother had died the previous week. More pertinent to his career, his role as a villainous prison guard in the third season of “The Affair” introduced a new Brendan Fraser: heavier in body and in spirit, wiser to the world’s disappointments and much less nice than before. No longer a leading man but one of those fringe benefits you look forward to running into halfway down a movie’s cast list. This, too, is a well-trod career path, and it seemed to sit comfortably on Fraser’s broad, weary shoulders.
An empathetic GQ magazine profile in 2018 solidified his new persona: the survivor. Fraser talked frankly and movingly about his disenchantments with the movie business, and he spoke publicly for the first time about a 2003 incident in which he says he was groped at an awards function by a high-ranking member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. That experience and its aftermath deeply rattled him and contributed to his decision to distance himself from the Hollywood rat race.
The article became among the most widely read in GQ’s history, and it left its mark on author Zach Baron, who recently wrote a follow-up piece for the magazine. Speaking about the actor by phone, Baron remains impressed by Fraser’s guilelessness and candor: “He is, by both Hollywood celebrity standards and regular human standards, a remarkably honest, vulnerable guy in a line of work where being honest and vulnerable gets beaten out of you at an early age.” (In the new article, Fraser states that if his “Whale” performance is nominated by the HFPA for a Golden Globe, he will not attend the ceremonies.)
All of this helps explain why the response to “The Whale” has seemed so unusually intense. Here was a guy who had been loved but never really appreciated by an entire generation of moviegoers — ask a 35-year-old how many times they watched “Dudley Do-Right” and “The Mummy” on VHS when they were 10 — and finding him again was like running into a long-lost favorite cousin, still standing if a little worse for wear.
The new movie partakes of that same sense of damage, regret and reconciliation. Based on a 2016 play by Samuel D. Hunter and directed with few frills by maverick filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan”), “The Whale” is about a 600-pound man named Charlie who never leaves his apartment, teaching high school English by Zoom — not surprisingly, Melville’s “Moby Dick” is on the curriculum — and trying to make amends to an angry teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) while binge-eating his way toward coronary failure.
Relax, Brendan Fraser is not 600 pounds. (He’s big, but he’s not that big.) Prosthetics and “fat suits” have created a believable on-screen behemoth, one that has prompted a fierce off-screen conversation — about representation and whether “The Whale” is fat-phobic — that will heat up in the weeks to come. Yet it’s a mark of the esteem in which the star is held that the controversy hasn’t spilled over into criticism of his performance.
“Brendan Fraser is actually a significant asset in the title role,” wrote Katie Rife of Polygon in an otherwise negative review of the film. “He plays Charlie as a smart, funny, thoughtful man who loves language and creativity, and refuses to let the tragic circumstances of his life turn him into a cynic.”
The circumstances of the movie may go a long way in understanding why this particular comeback is pushing a lot of people’s buttons. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that “there are no second acts in American lives” has long since been disproved (it was taken out of context, anyway, but that’s another story), and the fact remains that we love to see once-strapping stars revived from the dead, transfigured into something less pretty but weathered and worldly, with layers of hard-earned experience giving gravitas to their performances. In the surprise of a star comeback is a shock the culture doesn’t want to admit: that icons change and grow old even as their personas remain trapped in the amber of media and collective memory.
Remember when John Travolta danced the Twist at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in 1994’s “Pulp Fiction”? The delight of that scene lay in seeing a younger, skinnier Travolta, the sensation of “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), visible through the tracing paper of hit man Vincent Vega. Or the audience’s intake of breath when Mickey Rourke appeared on-screen in Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (2008), a battered shipwreck of the eerily beautiful 1980s star? Both actors were nominated for Oscars, an acknowledgment that Academy voters may consider the simple fact of getting older as worthy of awards consideration.
Perhaps the first movie star comeback was Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard” — the first only because Hollywood hadn’t been around long enough in 1950 for film actors to even have a second act. Billy Wilder’s acid-etched Beverly Hills freak show depicted the titans of the Silent Era as egotistical monsters playing to a camera that had long ago stopped rolling, and Swanson’s fearless performance changed her image from a has-been drama queen to a genuinely talented diva. Like Travolta and Rourke, she was Oscar-nominated and, like them, failed to win; Swanson’s comeback didn’t stick, as many comebacks don’t, because once the thrill of renewal is gone, we’re left with a performer whose moment has passed not once, but twice. (Or, in the case of Travolta, four or five times.)
Some keep it going: Sean Connery got a second wind and a supporting actor Oscar in “The Untouchables” (1987) and rode it to the end of his career. Some use a comeback to reestablish their legend: Without “The Godfather,” Marlon Brando would have been a post-World War II supernova that fizzled; with it, he entered the pantheon. Some, like Fraser, achieve stardom in youth and regain a more settled, lowercase version of it in middle age: Winona Ryder, for instance. A lucky few come back from the career morgue with second acts that eclipse the first: Frank Sinatra, Robert Downey Jr.
This can spill over into the musical arena, too. Bonnie Raitt had to age like a fine Scotch to be appreciated as an American classic, and Tina Turner’s massive solo success felt like the best kind of artistic revenge against an abusive ex-husband. Johnny Cash exited life as an elder statesman reinterpreting the national pop songbook in a series of monumental final recordings, less a comeback than a summation of a life lived hard and well.
It’s much too early to know where Brendan Fraser will go from “The Whale,” whether audiences or the Academy embrace the film or not. It’s safe to say, however, that everybody seems happy to have him back on the scene. More than that — relieved in a way that speaks to this particular actor’s bond with audiences.
Fraser always seemed like our representative on-screen, grounded rather than glamorous and slightly bamboozled by the requirements of stardom. In Baron’s words, “one of us, as opposed to an untouchable icon.” I predict he’ll have a solid, rewarding future of character roles and the occasional meaty lead, the way most of us fumble along playing our parts and every so often finding the spotlight.
Fraser has put on some years and pounds and miles, and so have we. He survived, and so will we.
Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.substack.com.