When audiences at the London Film Festival last month gave a tear-stained actor a five-minute standing ovation for his role as the self-loathing 43-stone gay man in a wheelchair, they celebrated one of the most remarkable — if not the most glamorous — comebacks in recent Hollywood history.
Because the man in question who was moved to tears by the flattery was Brendan Fraser, and not long ago he was one of Tinseltown’s hottest stars.
The applause was for his critically acclaimed and deeply moving performance in The Whale, his first starring role in a film in nearly a decade.
In it, he donned a “fat suit” to play an English teacher living with morbid obesity and conducting online classes with the camera off as he seeks redemption.
When audiences at the London Film Festival last month gave a tear-stained actor a five-minute standing ovation for his role as the self-loathing 43-stone gay man in a wheelchair, they celebrated one of the most remarkable — if not the most glamorous — comebacks in recent Hollywood history
All of this is an apt metaphor for 53-year-old Fraser who, once ubiquitous on screens as the handsome, personable hero of adventure blockbusters like The Mummy and Disney comedies like George in the Jungle, suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from view – even as he struggled with his own weight.
“What happened to Brendan Fraser?” was a question that resonated well beyond the film industry for years. The actor tried to clear up the matter four years ago when he shockingly revealed he had been a male #MeToo victim of Hollywood sexual abuse.
With his clear blue eyes, limp hair and impressive physique, the Canadian-American actor had been a movie idol from the classic mold. His first big box office success was in 1997 Disney’s Tarzan spoof George Of The Jungle, in which he played the goofy hero.
It was a family comedy, and it later emerged that the film’s producers were concerned about revealing too much of Fraser’s private parts.
Adventure: Starring Rachel Weisz in the 2001 film. However, it was the big-budget The Mummy film trilogy that ran from 1999 to 2008 – in which he played a dashing explorer with co-star Rachel Weisz (and later Maria Bello). fighting the ancient Egyptians – 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. “Right from the start everyone was agonizing over my loincloth and whether it should have a higher or lower hem.”
A similar debate flared up again the following year when he reportedly pulled out of a frontal nude scene in the Oscar-winning film Gods And Monsters, in which he starred as the straight muse of a gay horror film director, played by Ian McKellen.
However, it was the big-budget The Mummy film trilogy, which ran from 1999 to 2008 — in which he played a dashing explorer fighting the ancient Egyptians with co-star Rachel Weisz (and later Maria Bello) — that did it 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.
Indeed, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he seemed to be everywhere. Then suddenly he was nowhere, his career sank into the shifting sands of the celebrity desert, as if he had fallen victim to the curse of the mummy.
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 applied for a reduction in his spousal and child support payments because he could no longer afford the court-ordered £790,000 a year.
He was in the red by £76,000 every month because of his divorce settlement, medical bills for a back injury and high business expenses, according to court documents. However, his former wife later accused him of hiding assets worth nearly £22million to avoid paying.
The death of Fraser’s mother, Carol, from cancer in 2016 was another devastating blow. His career had stalled. Some of his hardcore fans were so upset by his absence that they started a petition urging Hollywood to “please consider Brendan for any upcoming shows/movies.”
They claimed he “seems very down and out 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 started received nearly 46,000 signatures.
Jungle antics: Brendan Fraser in the 1997 Tarzan parody
His writers claimed victory when he won a critically acclaimed role in Danny Boyle’s 2018 television drama Trust, in which he played billionaire J. Paul Getty’s oddball ex-CIA fixer. It was a start, but hardly a return to the big time. That same year, in an interview, GQ magazine asked Fraser to explain what had happened to his career — and he ended up spilling the beans.
In the summer of 2003, at age 34 and at the height of his fame, he had attended a luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the powerful but controversial organization that organizes the Golden Globe Awards organised, was organised.
As he left, he said, he was greeted by Philip Berk, the association’s former president.
Berk shook his hand and then, as Berk later admitted, pinched Fraser’s butt.
Berk, a then 70-year-old South African journalist, insisted it was a light-hearted change. But the actor told GQ it was anything but playful. He graphically claimed he was intimately touched by one of Berk’s fingers, “and he starts moving it around.”
Fraser said he was overcome by panic and fear and ended up removing Berk’s hand. ‘I feel sick. I felt like a little kid. I thought I was going to cry,’ he said.
He rushed home where he told his wife what had happened. “I felt like someone sprayed me with invisible paint,” he said.
He considered publicly framing Berk, but didn’t want the offense to become “part of my narrative.” His representatives asked the HFPA for a written apology.
Berk told GQ that Fraser’s account was a “total fabrication.” However, he also said that without admitting any wrongdoing, he wrote to Fraser to apologize when he “did something to upset him”. Fraser also claimed the HFPA said it would never allow Berk in the same room as the actor again (Berk has denied this).
The HFPA conducted an investigation and concluded that “what Mr. Fraser experienced was inappropriate,” although it said the ground touching was intended as a joke and was not a sexual advance.
Fraser said he became depressed and started telling himself he deserved what happened.
“I blamed myself and felt unhappy because I said, ‘It’s nothing; This guy reached around and he caught a feeling.’
The experience with Berk caused him to “retire” and “feel withdrawn” from Hollywood, he said. For me work has withered on the vine. At least in my mind something had been taken from me.’
At the same time, his body crumbled into pieces. Doing his own stunts in the mummy action movies had taken a physical toll.
By the time he shot the third film, he was “put together with duct tape and ice, wearing ice packs and mountain bike padding” under his costumes.
His various injuries required surgery, including a laminectomy (which removed part of the vertebra) and a partial knee replacement, as well as repairs to his vocal cords.
As acting work began to dry up, he wondered if the HFPA, which hosted the Golden Globe Awards, had blacklisted him. He claimed he was rarely invited to his events after blaming Berk.
“The silence was deafening,” he said. “The phone stops ringing and you wonder why. There are many reasons, but was this one of them? I think it was.’
Berk denies the HFPA’s retaliation against Fraser, saying “His career has declined through no fault of ours.”
Indeed, Hollywood watchers might point to other reasons why his career may have stalled. There’s his mediocre performance in the 2008 blockbuster Journey to the Center of the Earth and the mediocre third mummy film Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (the producers replaced Fraser in the sequels of both).
In truth, light-hearted Indiana Jones-style adventure films were losing ground to the increasingly popular superhero films.
However, Fraser’s moving account of Hollywood’s tragedy in GQ was well timed. The ouster of predatory film mogul Harvey Weinstein a few months earlier — amid a blizzard of sexual misconduct allegations from multiple women — had made it much easier for people in the industry to speak out about their experiences, and others were far more likely to do so believe them.
Fraser said he’s been encouraged by the anti-harassment movements #MeToo and Time’s Up, and by actresses like Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and Mira Sorvino, who have all come forward and he’s worked with.
“I’ve watched this wonderful movement, these people with the courage to say what I couldn’t say,” he said. Only now he had.
The interview drew considerable attention, and Hollywood seemed to get the message.
The years haven’t done well for Fraser’s potential as a romantic lead as he’s put on quite a bit of weight. But that has its perks and gives him the freedom to explore the more challenging “character” roles, like The Whale, that he craves.
Steven Soderbergh included him in his cast for the acclaimed 2021 thriller No Sudden Move. Martin Scorsese cast him as a lawyer opposite Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in upcoming crime western drama Killers Of The Flower Moon.
And, of course, his performance in The Whale, which received rave reviews not only in London but also at the Venice Film Festival in September, where the audience stood for a full six minutes, spoke 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 ahead of time.