February 8, 2023

“The Whale” and the Fat Suit

The new film “The Whale,” which A24 will release on December 9th, is about a man named Charlie. He lives alone in a squalid apartment in Idaho, grieving a male lover, and is estranged from his ex-wife and teen daughter. His only companions are a nurse and a young evangelist who shows up at his doorstep. Charlie teaches an online essay-writing course, but he keeps his computer camera off out of shame, because he is around six hundred pounds.

Charlie is played by Brendan Fraser, beneath folds of photorealistic prosthetic fat. When I saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, in September, Fraser came onstage afterward, alongside the director, Darren Aronofsky, to an avalanche of applause. At fifty-three, Fraser was heavier than in his heartthrob days, though nothing close to his character in “The Whale.” He seemed almost befuddled to be embraced so warmly, after years of neglect from Hollywood. In a 2018 GQ profile titled “What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser?,” he described falling into a depression after being groped by Philip Berk, the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (Berk denied the allegation.) The support for Fraser in Toronto was palpable, and he now stands at the front of the Academy’s Best Actor race, with two time-tested Oscar narratives behind him: the comeback and the deglamorizing “transformation.”

But, as endearing as Fraser was, the lovefest left me uneasy. I wasn’t alone. “This is a mighty act of becoming, the film seems to insist—and also one of empathy,” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote, of Fraser’s onscreen transformation. “But what’s expressed instead is a kind of leering horror, a portrait of a man gone to catastrophic ruin so that we, in the audience, may tap into our nobler, higher minds and see the worthy human being beneath the frightful exterior.” The film is adapted from a play by Samuel D. Hunter, which I first read a decade ago, before its acclaimed Off Broadway run, at Playwrights Horizons, starring the actor Shuler Hensley in a bulbous bodysuit. (The New Yorker’s John Lahr, in his review, praised Hunter’s “promise as a bold theatrical storyteller.”) On the page, the play transported me into Charlie’s mind, where I could share his yearning for connection; his voice, not his bulk, was what tugged at the imagination. Onscreen, his body is a special effect, and the camera can’t help but take pride in the craftsmanship. Aronofsky, no stranger to visceral body horror (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”), is faithful to the play, but cinematic realism—the flesh made literal—creates an ogling effect. In “humanizing” Charlie, Aronofsky seems to want to repel the viewer so that we can pat ourselves on the back for finding the man in the monster. But is that empathy or pity?

Aubrey Gordon, a podcaster and author (“What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat”), has been anticipating the movie’s release with dread. “The impression that I’ve gotten from pretty much every fat person I know has been, like, just hunker down and wait for this to be over, because it’s going be awful,” she told me recently. She hadn’t seen “The Whale,” but she had bought the play when she heard about the film. Gordon, who is part of a movement to embrace rather than pathologize fatness (including reclaiming the word “fat”), hadn’t responded to the script as I had. “The points that it is making about fat people are not distinguishable to me from the points that are made on ‘1000-Lb. Sisters’ or ‘My 600-Lb. Life,’ ” she went on. “The overwhelming vibe here was: Look at this wretched fat person who is doomed to die young! If only he’d gotten his shit together! It’s not actually a radical or edgy thing to say, like, ‘Oh, don’t you feel bad for this fat guy who’s definitely going to die alone?’ That’s the main narrative about fat people.” Recalling the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands era of Hollywood fat-suit comedies, Gordon said, “People will say we’ve really moved past ‘Shallow Hal’ and ‘Norbit’ and ‘The Nutty Professor.’ I think it’s getting more entrenched. Now it exists in prestige world.”

When I spoke to Samuel D. Hunter, who adapted his play for the screen, he recalled those same fat-suit comedies with a shudder. “Maybe subconsciously that was one of the reasons I wanted to write this, because I was just sick of seeing that deployed so often,” he said. A sensitive forty-one-year-old, Hunter grew up in Idaho, where nearly all his plays are set, and attended an evangelical Christian school, where he was outed as gay in eleventh grade. “When I got to college, I just started falling deeper and deeper into depression, and—this is not everybody—but for me personally it manifested in pretty rapid weight gain throughout my early twenties.” He lost the weight over the next ten years, he said, thanks to the support of his parents, a therapist, and his partner. In 2009, when he started writing “The Whale,” he was teaching an expository-writing class at Rutgers and “desperately trying to connect with my students,” he recalled. “At one point, I just begged them to write me something honest. And one of my students wrote a line that ended up in the play and in the movie, which was: ‘I think I need to accept that my life isn’t going to be very exciting.’ ”

By the time the play was produced, in 2012, Hunter was shedding “the final pounds that I had been carrying around,” he said. “When I lost the weight, I was shocked at how much nicer people were to me in general, like cashiers or people on the street. And gay men, I should say. It was really, really jarring.” Charlie’s obesity grew out of Hunter’s lived experience, but also out of worst-case speculation. “What would happen to me if I hadn’t turned that corner? If I didn’t have the support system? I was looking at the way I was gaining weight back then and how rapidly it was happening—I was, like, ‘This could have been me.’ ” Aronofsky saw the Off Broadway production and immediately showed interest—onstage in Toronto, he said that he was attracted to the play’s “rich, human characters”—but it took nearly a decade for the film to get made, in part because of casting. Aronofsky mentioned Fraser early on, but it wasn’t until early 2020 that the actor did a reading of the script, in the East Village, and “there was no question as to who could best tell this story,” Hunter recalled. “He’s able to navigate the sadness through hope.”

Contemplating the audience’s potential revulsion, Hunter told me, “I do think that, when people bring in certain prejudices or preconceptions, Brendan’s performance and, hopefully, the depth of this character start to melt that all away.” But even the fact of putting an actor in a fat suit is a trope too far for some viewers. “So long as fat people are being represented by half a puppet, you’re never going to be able to see that character as wholly human,” the actor and comedian Guy Branum told me. Like Gordon, Branum had not seen the film but had read the play in anticipation. “Some people I really respect were telling me what a great and beautiful play it is,” he recalled. “But, you know, it’s a play that opens with somebody who’s not that much fatter than me almost masturbating himself to death. And it just sort of goes from there.” In the gay rom-com “Bros,” Branum plays the main character’s saucy sidekick, a bon vivant who goes to parties and cracks wise. “The Whale,” in contrast, has turned fatness into what Branum called “a metaphor for gay pain,” unable to imagine a life for its protagonist beyond “being locked in a sad apartment eating KFC.”

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