For a movie with so much Oscar buzz coming out of this year’s film festivals, The Whale has been met with decidedly mixed reviews from critics. Much of the criticism surrounding the film centers on its treatment of its main character’s weight.
Brendan Fraser, who stars as isolated gay teacher Charlie, wore a fat suit and prosthetics to play the character, which led some, like out actor Daniel Franzese and comedian Guy Branam to blast the film for not hiring an actor who accurately reflects the 400lb character’s size and sexuality. “Why go up there and wear a fat suit to play a 400-lb. queer man?,” Franzese recently asked in an interview with People. “Who knows more about being an obese queer man than an obese queer man?”
“To finally have a chance to be in a prestige film that might be award-nominated, where stories about people who look like us are being told? That’s the dream,” the Looking star went on. “So when they go time and time again and cast someone like Brendan Fraser, me and the other big queer guys, we’re like, ‘What the … ?’”
Criticisms like that apparently took director Darren Aronofsky by surprise, despite growing calls in recent years for Hollywood to cast actual queer people in queer roles and to hire larger actors instead of dressing stars up in fat suits.
“Actors have been using makeup since the beginning of acting — that’s one of their tools,” Aronofsky insisted in an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment. “And the lengths we went to to portray the realism of the make-up has never been done before. One of my first calls after casting Brendan was to my makeup artist, Adrien Morot. I asked him, ‘Can we do something that’s realistic?’ Because if it’s going to look like a joke, then we shouldn’t do it.”
“People with obesity are generally written as bad guys or as punchlines,” Aronofsky continued. “We wanted to create a fully worked-out character who has bad parts about him and good parts about him; Charlie is very selfish, but he’s also full of love and is seeking forgiveness. So [the controversy] makes no sense to me. Brendan Fraser is the right actor to play this role, and the film is an exercise in empathy.”
In a recent column for The Hollywood Reporter, Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the play on which The Whale is based and the film’s screenplay, similarly argued that the film is about a specific experience.
“My own experience with weight is a specific one and does not represent everyone who has dealt with obesity. Many people out there are big and doing just fine, and they should be left the hell alone,” Hunter wrote. “But that wasn’t me. It’s not Charlie, the protagonist of The Whale, either. And it’s not the experience of thousands and thousands of Americans who turn to food for solace in a deeply cynical world that routinely dehumanizes them.”
In Hunter and Aronofsky’s telling, the film aims to humanize the character.
Still, many critics viewed The Whale’s depiction of Charlie’s body as cruel. “The film presents us with obesity as tragedy,” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote. The Ringer’s Adam Naman accused Aronofsky of “grandstanding sadism,” while Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson blasted the film for “putting Charlie, whose body size is viewed with repulsion by many of the film’s characters, onscreen to be looked at in a culture beholden to rampant fatphobia that tends to denigrate human dignity.” In a recent New York Times column, Roxane Gay wrote that The Whale’s “on-screen portrayal of fatness bears little resemblance to the lived experiences of fat people. It is a gratuitous, self-aggrandizing fiction at best.”
While many critics have very rightly focused on the film’s “fatphobia,” the decision to cast Fraser in the role deserves more attention. As is so often the case in these sorts of discussions, the controversy around casting an actor whose lived experience does not match that of his character is mainly being reduced to an issue of representation—as host Sean Fennessy did on a recent episode of The Ringer’s “The Big Picture” podcast. Of course, representation is essential. We all want to see stories that feature people like us, and that reflect our experience of the world.
Equally as important, however, and often ignored is Franzese’s point about opportunities for performers of different body types, races, and sexualities. When an actor is cast in a role, they are hired to do a job. And while queer and trans actors and fat actors are frequently passed over for high-profile, prestige roles, cisgender actors, straight actors, and actors of more average body size are routinely hired to play those roles, often receiving massive media attention, acclaim, and awards that only lead to more opportunities.
The issue is not so much that an actor cannot inhabit a different kind of character. It’s that there are people who are rarely, if ever, given the opportunity. As endearing a figure as he may be and as stellar a job as he may have done in The Whale, Fraser is just another example of this.
None of that seems to have occurred to Hunter or Aronofsky, or indeed, many of the critics who have reviewed The Whale. We should be just as concerned about that as we are about the film’s exploitative depiction of its main character.