In excellent news for people who like to yell about movies on Twitter (guilty), Darren Aronofsky has emerged wet and dripping from Mother! lake to direct his first film since 2017. Called The Whale, the drama is an adaptation of a Samuel D. Hunter Off Broadway play of the same name about a homebound, 600-pound English teacher named Charlie living with obesity and crippling grief who tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter before he almost inevitably dies too young. Aronofsky will stay true to the stifling setting of the play by setting the whole film in Charlie’s home. The action revolves entirely around this character, his perspective, and his pain.
Of course, this is a dream role for any serious actor who wants to give a big, deep, important performance. And of course of course, as is almost always the case, the role will be played by an actor, Brendan Fraser, in a fat suit and prosthetics. Fraser is less svelte than many Hollywood leading men, but he is also not 600 pounds, and a first-look article in Vanity Fair depicts his intensive process for transforming into Charlie. The article takes pains to call the prosthetics “empathetic” and “naturalistic,” and Fraser says it is nothing like “other body suits that had been used in comedies over the years, usually for a one-note joke,” and that he “learned quickly that it takes an incredibly strong person inside that body to be that person.”
The messaging in this first look is at odds with itself. On the one hand, Aronofsky and Fraser are taking great pains to emphasize their empathizing, stressing that Fraser consulted with the Obesity Action Coalition and aims to not fall into the traps of other pop-cultural depictions of people living with obesity. On the other hand, the article is full of technical details making a spectacle of the sheer weight and scale of the physical transformation with Fraser describing how the “torso piece was almost like a straight jacket” and that he had vertigo after taking it off:
Fraser carried anywhere from 50 to 300 extra pounds during filming, per Aronofsky, depending on the scene’s contents; further, Charlie is severely limited in mobility. (Several people were always on hand to assist Fraser in standing up, sitting down, wheeling him across the 70 or so steps between the studio and the makeup room.) At the start of production, Fraser would spend five to six hours in a makeup chair, each day, to become Charlie; by the end, they got that hour count down to two to three.
It’s clear that Aronofsky, Fraser, and the A24 publicity team are taking pains to show how The Whale will not reduce this character to the spectacle of his size, and yet it’s still being framed as an object of fascination that will surely fuel conversations surrounding Fraser’s performance once the film finally premieres at TIFF on September 11, where he’ll be given the Tribute Award for Performance. Furthermore, the character is queer and mourning the loss of his male soulmate, a Mormon named Alan. That’s a whole other representational quagmire. Still, we have faith in Fraser, who is due for another serious, celebrated star turn, but did it have to come via Christian Bale–ification? Pumpkin-spice season may already be here, but awards season isn’t quite yet. Brace yourself for the discourse while you can.