Brendan Fraser could win an Oscar for The Whale. As of this writing, in mid-December 2022, it is far from certain, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. By casting Fraser as Charlie, an obese man confined to his apartment as he enters the final stages of heart failure, the movie offers a literalized version of what so many Oscar vehicles do for their stars: It is a big part in a small movie. Charlie never leaves his apartment, and apart from a couple of dreamlike flashbacks, neither does the movie. It feels like a refusal to take its eyes off the prize: This is Fraser’s best shot at awards glory, and director Darren Aronofsky will be damned if he misses it.
The movie is so effective at providing a showcase for Fraser that no one making it seems to have noticed what an amateurishly stagebound production The Whale is, the kind of theatrical adaptation where you can practically hear the clip-clop of actors’ shoes on the floorboards. Some plays-on-film give the impression of material that might have worked better on stage. In these terms, The Whale provokes only bafflement: What did Aronofsky who, whatever his faults, is a visceral and fence-swinging filmmaker, see in this? It feels like someone’s thesis project from 2005. (Its mustiness transcends its mere decade-ago premiere.) Fraser and his co-star Hong Chau are the only reasons the movie even vaguely, occasionally works.
There is a long history, of course, of movies that seemingly exist in order to garner their stars some awards recognition, and the prosthetics Fraser wears as Charlie (he gained weight for the part, but not hundreds of pounds), while somewhat controversial today, would have been par for the course a decade ago. But a physical transformation in service of virtuosic soloing has more often been the domain of women performers, perhaps aware that a sometimes-thin Best Actress field could be broken into with the right combination of physical transformation, emoting and overall career luster. Though playing real-life figures has become the go-to strategy, you don’t need to look back very far to find movies that seem to evaporate when awards season ends, leaving only traces of their central performance. Julianne Moore won her Oscar for Still Alice. Kate Winslet won hers for The Reader. For 1992, the year where she gave a career-best performance as Catwoman in Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer was nominated…for a movie called Love Field. Check it out in a double feature with Blue Sky, a movie that sat on the shelf for two years before producers realized that Jessica Lange could win an Oscar for it, possibly without anyone actually watching the movie itself. The best-case scenario here is a movie like Monster, for which Charlize Theron won a de-glammed Best Actress; it may not be a rewatched classic, but at least has an unvarnished toughness and honesty about it, and launched the career of director Patty Jenkins.
It would be insulting to therefore conclude that Fraser is using these tactics to compete with The Whale, a movie that, if cool heads prevail, will not be racking up a bevy of additional nominations. (Though stranger, less worthy choices have been made.) But his chance at gold does reflect how the categories have flipped in stature over the last few years, with Best Actress typically offering a more competitive race and Best Actor tending to honor five obvious choices, for a paucity of alternatives.
That doesn’t make every awards vehicle a bust. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which, like The Whale, doesn’t exactly hide its stage roots, was perfectly calibrated to showcase Chadwick Boseman. After the actor’s passing, a few months before the film’s release, there was catharsis in seeing him once more, acting with such vigor, playing an artist imbued by such desire to create on his own terms. Boseman didn’t win—he was upset by Anthony Hopkins in The Father, another intimate, stage-originated drama—but his work had a chilling poignancy.
Aronofsky has experience building out this kind of showcase. Two movies in a row, The Wrestler in 2008 and Black Swan in 2010, received attention primarily for their lead performances, also centered on forms of body horror—from the gentler bloodletting of Mickey Rourke in the former to the obsessive self-destruction of Natalie Portman in the latter. They’re undeniable showcases for those stars, yet it’s precisely the characters’ single-minded quests for glory that make the movies feel more intimate and less vainglorious than a simple awards grab (even when, in Portman’s case, it was successful: The beautiful white swan got her Oscar, and didn’t have to bleed out for it IRL).
That’s true of Fraser’s performance in The Whale; it is utterly, achingly sincere work. But by stripping away Aronofsky’s various show-off architectures—the grainy following shots, the fast-cut close-ups, the menacing psychedelia—the movie around him looks spare and unfinished; what’s left on the set sticks out at odd, discombobulating angles. What is going on with Sadie Sink’s performance? Much-praised by Fraser for its intensity, it involves her cranking up most of her line-readings to the max, and trying to stomp her way through a character—Charlie’s estranged, furious daughter that he longs to support—that makes next to no sense, further wounded by the movie’s inability to convincingly depict the passage of time. For that matter, how did Aronofsky get such dully coarse work out of Samantha Morton? Why do the movie’s discussions of honesty sound like discussion posts that Charlie would have to moderate for his online classes, rather than adults speaking to each other?
In a way, though, Aronofsky’s failure to tame The Whale makes it so awards-friendly. Perversely, it may even improve Fraser’s performance. Charlie takes a lot of abuse: From his family lashing out, from his body as it groans under the burden of dying, and from himself as he refuses to seek medical help. Throughout it all, Fraser’s face takes on a different sort of expansiveness. The wide-eyed, gee-whiz quality he had as a young man opens up even further, as Charlie does his best to absorb whatever he can from his surroundings—positive and negative. He sounds perpetually full of wonder at the world around him, and also devastatingly aware of what he has lost over the years. Maybe that combination is more touching in such a busted, uneven vehicle—in a rickety, unconvincing movie that might nonetheless propel Fraser onto the Oscar stage. Sometimes, you give the performance of a career, by turns heartbreaking, searing, gentle and risky, and the movie kind of sucks. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.