When audiences at the London Film Festival last month gave a tearful actor a five-minute standing ovation for his role as a self-loathing 43-stone wheelchair-bound gay man, they celebrated one of the most remarkable — if not the most glamorous — comebacks in Hollywood’s recent history.
For the man in question, moved to tears by the tribute, was Brendan Fraser and there was a time not too long ago when he was one of the hottest stars in Tinseltown.
The plaudits were for his critically acclaimed and deeply moving performance in The Whale, his first leading film role in the best part of a decade.
In it, he donned a “fat suit” to play an English teacher living with morbid obesity, teaching online classes with the camera off while striving for redemption.
When audiences at the London Film Festival last month gave a tearful actor a five-minute standing ovation for his role as a self-loathing 43-stone wheelchair-bound gay man, they celebrated one of the most remarkable – if not the most glamorous – comebacks in recent Hollywood history
All of which is an apt metaphor for 53-year-old Fraser who, after once being omnipresent on screen as the handsome, likeable hero of adventure films including The Mummy and Disney comedies such as George Of The Jungle, suddenly and mysteriously faded from view . – even as he struggled with his own weight.
“What happened to Brendan Fraser?” was a question that for several years echoed far beyond the film industry. The actor tried to come clean four years ago, when he shockingly revealed that he had been a male #MeToo victim of sexual assault in Hollywood.
With his bright blue eyes, floppy hair and impressive physique, the Canadian-American actor had been a movie idol in the classic mold. His first major box office success was in Disney’s 1997 Tarzan parody, George Of The Jungle, where he played the goofy hero.
It was a family comedy and it was later revealed that the film’s producers had worried about revealing too much of Fraser’s private parts.
Adventure: With Rachel Weisz in the 2001 film. However, it was the big-budget The Mummy film trilogy, which ran from 1999 to 2008 – in which he played a dashing explorer battling ancient Egyptians, co-starring Rachel Weisz (and later Maria Bello) – which made Fraser a household name
“Disney wanted me to look like a cross between a model, Mr. Universe and a sex idol,” Fraser said. “In the very beginning, everyone was agonizing over my loincloth and whether it should have a higher or lower hemline.”
A similar debate arose again the following year, when he reportedly pulled out of a full-frontal nude scene in the Oscar-winning film Gods And Monsters, starring as the straight muse to a gay horror director, played by Ian McKellen.
However, it was the big-budget film trilogy The Mummy, which ran from 1999 to 2008 – in which he played a dashing explorer battling ancient Egyptians, co-starring Rachel Weisz (and later Maria Bello) – that made Fraser a household name.
In other more serious films, he starred alongside Harrison Ford in Extraordinary Measures and Michael Caine in The Quiet American.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he seemed to be everywhere. Then, suddenly, he was nowhere, his career sinking into the shifting sands of the celebrity desert, as if he had fallen victim to the Mummy’s curse.
His marriage to actress Afton Smith, with whom he had three children, ended in a messy divorce in 2008.
And, in a humiliating admission of his faded status and lack of work, in 2013 he sought a reduction in his spousal and child support because he could no longer afford the £790,000 a year ordered by the courts.
According to court papers, he was £76,000 in the red each month due to his divorce, medical bills for a back injury and heavy business expenses. But his ex-wife later accused him of hiding assets worth almost £22m to avoid paying.
The death of Fraser’s mother Carol from cancer in 2016 proved a further blow. His career had tanked. Some of his most hardcore fans were so upset by his absence that they launched a petition calling on Hollywood to “please consider Brendan for any upcoming shows/films that are planned”.
They claimed that he seemed very down and we loyal fans feel obligated to help him in any way we can. Please help us get Brendan back on his feet, we miss him.’
They called for his “Brenaissance” and the petition they launched got almost 46,000 signatures.
Jungle antics: Brendan Fraser in the 1997 Tarzan parody
Its author claimed victory when he won a critically acclaimed role in Danny Boyle’s 2018 TV drama Trust, playing billionaire J. Paul Getty’s quirky ex-CIA fixer. It was a start, but hardly a return to the big time. That same year, GQ magazine asked Fraser in an interview to explain what had happened to his career – and he finally spilled the beans.
In the summer of 2003, aged 34 and at the height of his fame, he had attended a luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the powerful but controversial organization that hosts the Golden Globe Awards.
As he was leaving, he said, he was eulogized by Philip Berk, the association’s former president.
Berk shook his hand and then, as Berk later admitted, squeezed Fraser’s bottom.
Berk, a South African journalist who was 70 at the time, insisted it was an easy adjustment. But the actor told GQ it was anything but playful. He claimed graphically that he had been intimately touched by one of Berk’s fingers, “and he starts moving it around”.
Fraser said he was overcome with panic and fear and eventually removed Berk’s hand. ‘I felt sick. I felt like a little child. I thought I was going to cry, he said.
He hurried home, where he told his wife what had happened. “I felt like someone had thrown invisible paint on me,” he said.
He considered accusing Berk publicly, but did not want the crime to become “part of my story”. His representatives asked the HFPA for a written apology.
Berk told GQ that Fraser’s account was a “total fabrication.” But he also said that, without admitting wrongdoing, he had written to Fraser to apologize if he had “done something that upset him”. Fraser also claimed that the HFPA said they would never allow Berk in the same room as the actor again (Berk has denied this).
The HFPA carried out an investigation and concluded that “what Mr Fraser experienced was inappropriate”, although it said the bottom touching was intended as a joke and was not a sexual approach.
Fraser said he became depressed and began telling himself he deserved what had happened.
‘I blamed myself, and I was miserable because I was like, “This is nothing; this guy was reaching around and he got a feeling.” ‘
The experience with Berk made him “retreat” from Hollywood and “feel withdrawn,” he said. The work withered on the vine for me. In my mind at least something had been taken from me.’
At the same time, his body was falling to pieces. Doing his own stunts in the all-action Mummy movies had taken a physical toll.
When he made the third film, he was “put together with tape and ice, wearing ice packs and mountain bike padding” under his costumes.
His various injuries required surgery, including a laminectomy (where part of the vertebra is removed) and a partial knee replacement, as well as repair of his vocal cords.
When acting work began to dry up, he wondered if the HFPA, which ran the Golden Globe Awards, had blacklisted him. He claimed he was rarely invited to its events after accusing Berk.
“The silence was deafening,” he said. “The phone stops ringing and you start asking yourself why. There are many reasons, but was this one of them? I think it was.’
Berk denies that the HFPA retaliated against Fraser, saying: “His career declined through no fault of ours.”
Hollywood observers could certainly point to other reasons why his career might have stalled. For starters, there was his so-so performance in 2008’s “blockbuster” Journey To The Center Of The Earth, and the mediocre third Mummy film, Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (producers replaced Fraser in the sequels to both).
In truth, light-hearted Indiana Jones-style adventure films were losing ground to increasingly popular superhero films.
But Fraser’s affecting account of the Hollywood disaster in GQ was well timed. The downfall of predatory movie mogul Harvey Weinstein a few months earlier—in a blizzard of sexual misconduct allegations from multiple women—had made it much easier for people in the industry to come forward about what they had experienced, and much more likely for others to believe them.
Fraser said he had been encouraged by the #MeToo and Time’s Up anti-harassment movements, as well as actresses such as Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and Mira Sorvino, all of whom had come forward and all of whom he had worked with.
“I saw this wonderful movement, these people with the courage to say what I didn’t have the courage to say,” he said. Except now he had it.
The interview attracted a lot of attention, and Hollywood seemed to get the message.
The years have not been kind to Fraser’s potential as a romantic lead, as he has put on quite a bit of weight. But it has its advantages, allowing him to explore the more challenging “character” roles, such as in The Whale, that he longs for.
Steven Soderbergh included him in his ensemble cast in the acclaimed 2021 thriller No Sudden Move. Martin Scorsese cast him as a lawyer alongside Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in an upcoming Western crime drama, Killers Of The Flower Moon.
And of course his performance in The Whale – which was not only met with rapturous applause in London but also at the Venice Film Festival in September, where the audience stood for a full six minutes – has led to talk of an Oscar.
Whether or not he wins an Oscar next March, it’s clear that Brenaissance Man, like The Mummy, has risen from the dead. And not before time.
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