Brendan Fraser won best actor for his leading role in «The Whale» on March 12 at the Oscars, and I hated it. Fraser was awarded for a role where he puts on a fat suit and pretends to choke on fried chicken and sandwiches and pizza. It’s a movie where he literally eats himself to death, and it’s portrayed as some sort of metaphor for love and redemption. Fraser and director Darren Aronofsky have said repeatedly that they wanted the movie to show the humanity of fat people, to invoke empathy toward them, but the movie fails to do anything close. And Fraser’s win is the cherry on top — the affirmation from Hollywood that this is a good, worthwhile film and performance.
There’s something kind of gross about how every time I talk about my issues with «The Whale,» I feel pressured to hedge it. «Oh but I love Brendan though,» I must add. «He’s so great in ‘The Mummy’! He’s in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ this year, he’ll be so great!» Brendan has spoken eloquently about his battle with depression, about the pain he experienced at its depths, and of course I’m happy to see him navigate through those challenges and return to a career he loves. But that mental health struggle doesn’t absolve him of starring in a movie like «The Whale»; it actually makes it worse. People suffering from depression are ostracized and stigmatized in American society, and so are fat people. But instead of Fraser’s own journey leading him to greater empathy for and identification with those in larger bodies, he and his award campaign used it as justification for why he deserved to win.
«The Whale» also won for best makeup and hairstyling at the event, which was clearly because of the fat suit Fraser wore. On the broadcast, as winners Adrien Morot, Judy Chin, and Anne Marie Bradley took the stage, an unseen announcer said, «The team transformed Brendan Fraser into the whale through the first-time use of all-digital prosthetic makeup for a major feature. This pushed Fraser’s weight into the severest extreme without covering his face and allowing his emotional range of expression.»
This is so telling. Foremost, Fraser’s character isn’t called «the whale» — his name is Charlie. The creative team has repeatedly claimed the title isn’t really calling Charlie a «whale» — there’s a whole subplot involving an essay about Moby Dick, and screenwriter and playwright Samuel D. Hunter told Variety last year, «The title deliberately pokes at some people’s prejudices» — but if you name a movie about a fat person «The Whale,» of course you’re calling him that. And obviously that was clear to whoever quickly wrote the copy read by the announcer on Sunday night.
There’s also something so dehumanizing about this phrasing: «This pushed Fraser’s weight into the severest extreme.» Fraser’s weight didn’t actually move in any direction; that’s the point of a fat suit. This also implies that people who live at high weights live on the «severest extreme.» Plus, the whole idea of his unique, digitally enhanced fat suit is an overly complicated solution for a problem of the movie’s own making. You wouldn’t be in danger of hindering an actor’s «emotional range of expression» if you weren’t putting them in a fat suit to begin with.
Two of the other makeup and hairstyling nominees were also tapped for movies that employed fat suits. «The Batman» uses a fat suit to turn Colin Farrell into the Penguin, and «Elvis» put both Tom Hanks and Austin Butler in prosthetics and padding.
In 2022, in addition to Fraser, Farrell, Butler, and Hanks, Emma Thompson — who has been vocal about unrealistic standards for women’s bodies — wore one for «Matilda,» and Renee Zellweger wore one for NBC’s «The Thing About Pam.» Farrell was seen earlier this month in the suit again for his HBO Max Penguin spin-off series. Sarah Paulson wore one for 2021’s «American Crime Story: Impeachment,» and she got a 2022 Emmy nomination out of it. Chris Sullivan wore one for «This Is Us.» Gary Oldman won best actor at the 2018 Oscars for his performance as Winston Churchill in «Darkest Hour;» he also wore a fat suit in the movie. Meanwhile Eddie Murphy received the lifetime achievement award at this year’s Golden Globes. Murphy famously wore fat suits in the «Nutty Professor» and «Norbit» films.
There’s rising backlash online about the use of fat prosthetics, but it doesn’t seem Hollywood is at all ready to listen. In fact, the industry seems more attached to star power than they are willing to give fat actors a chance. But even using an actor closer to Charlie’s size wouldn’t have fixed the many problems of «The Whale,» a movie that’s vicious in its hatred toward fat people and portrays a warped perception of fat lives.
In the same night that Fraser won for his fat suit-enabled performance, host Jimmy Kimmel opened the evening with a joke about the weight loss drug Ozempic and the actors assembled before him. Kimmel didn’t mean that in a particularly deep way, but it was a tacit acknowledgment that for most people (and pretty much all women) to succeed in Hollywood, one must be thin. Pretty much every presenter or winner on Sunday night was a thin person. Many cry that thin is in again, but in truth, it never left.
After I published my review of «The Whale,» calling out its fatphobia back in December, Internet commentators accused me of not wanting to accept the truth of what it’s like to be fat, which of course the movie portrays. They claimed I just didn’t like it because I don’t want to admit that I’m going to die because I’m fat. Is that the empathy Fraser wanted to spread? That real fat people should be ignored for a fictionalized account? As writer and critic Lindy West (whose memoir inspired Hulu’s show «Shrill») wrote in her March 10 piece on «The Whale» for the Guardian, «People respond positively to ‘The Whale’ because it confirms their biases about what fat people are like (gross, sad) and why fat people are fat (trauma, munchies) and allows them to feel benevolent yet superior. It’s a basic dopamine hit, reifying thin people’s place at the top of the social hierarchy.»
I hope thin people who love and defend «The Whale» can examine why they find such a mean-spirited movie so moving and wonderful. I hope they realize the way their ingrained fatphobic attitudes have let them openly celebrate this film and Fraser’s success. I hope they open themselves up to work actually created by fat people that reflects their real lives.
But I’m not holding my breath.