When the audience at the London Film Festival last month gave a tearful actor a five-minute standing ovation for his role as a self-loathing 43-stone gay man confined to a wheelchair, they were celebrating one of the most remarkable — if not the most glamorous — comebacks in recent Hollywood history.
For the man in question, moved to tears by the adulation, was Brendan Fraser and there was a time not that long ago when he was one of the hottest stars in Tinseltown.
The applause was for his critically acclaimed and deeply moving performance in The Whale, his first leading film role for the best part of a decade.
In it, he donned a ‘fat suit’ to play an English teacher living with morbid obesity, conducting online classes with his camera turned off while striving for redemption.
When the audience at the London Film Festival last month gave a tearful actor a five-minute standing ovation for his role as a self-loathing 43-stone gay man confined to a wheelchair, they were celebrating one of the most remarkable — if not the most glamorous — comebacks in recent Hollywood history
All of which is an apt metaphor for 53-year-old Fraser who, after once being ubiquitous on screen as the handsome, likeable hero of adventure blockbusters including The Mummy and Disney comedies such as George Of The Jungle, suddenly and mysteriously faded from view — even as he struggled with his own weight.
‘Whatever happened to Brendan Fraser?’ was a question that for years echoed far beyond the film industry. 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, floppy hair and impressive physique, the Canadian-American actor had been a movie idol out of the classic mould. His first big box office success was in Disney’s 1997 Tarzan spoof George Of The Jungle, in which he played the goofy hero.
It was a family comedy and it later emerged that the movie’s producers had fretted over revealing too much of Fraser’s private parts.
Adventure: With Rachel Weisz in the 2001 movie. It was, however, the big-budget The Mummy film trilogy, running from 1999 to 2008 — in which he played a dashing explorer battling Ancient Egyptians, with co-star Rachel Weisz (and later Maria Bello) — that made Fraser a household name
‘Disney wanted me to look like a cross between a model, Mr Universe and a sex idol,’ said Fraser. ‘Right at the beginning, everyone began to agonise over my loincloth and whether it should have a higher or lower hemline.’
A similar debate arose again the following year, when he reportedly pulled out of a full-frontal nude scene in the Oscar-winning film Gods And Monsters, starring as the straight muse of a gay horror movie director, played by Ian McKellen.
It was, however, the big-budget The Mummy film trilogy, running from 1999 to 2008 — in which he played a dashing explorer battling Ancient Egyptians, with co-star Rachel Weisz (and later Maria Bello) — that 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 sinking into the shifting sands of the celebrity desert, as though he had been the victim of The Mummy’s curse.
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 requested a reduction in his spousal and child support payments because he could no longer afford the annual £790,000 that had been ordered by the courts.
According to court papers, he was £76,000 in the red each month because of his divorce settlement, medical bills for a back injury and heavy business expenses. However, his former wife later accused him of hiding assets worth almost £22 million to avoid paying.
The death of Fraser’s mother Carol from cancer in 2016 proved a further heavy blow. His career had tanked. Some of his most hardcore fans were so upset by his absence that they launched a petition calling on Hollywood ‘to please consider Brendan for any upcoming shows/movies that are planned’.
They claimed he ‘appeared to be very down and out, and us loyal fans feel like we are obliged to help him in any way possible. Please help us get Brendan back on his feet again, we miss him.’
They demanded his ‘Brenaissance’ and the petition they launched received nearly 46,000 signatures.
Jungle antics: Brendan Fraser in the 1997 Tarzan spoof
Its authors claimed victory when he won a critically acclaimed role in Danny Boyle’s 2018 TV drama Trust, playing the oddball ex-CIA fixer of billionaire J. Paul Getty. It was a start, but hardly a return to the big time. That same year, GQ magazine asked Fraser in an interview to explain what had happened to his career — and he finally spilled the beans.
In the summer of 2003, aged 34 and at the height of his fame, he had attended a lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel held by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the powerful but controversial organisation that hosts the Golden Globe awards.
As he was leaving, he said, he was hailed by Philip Berk, the association’s former president.
Berk shook his hand and then, as Berk later admitted, he pinched Fraser’s bottom.
Berk, a South African journalist who was then 70, insisted it was a light-hearted tweak. But the actor told GQ it was anything but playful. He graphically claimed he had been touched intimately by one of Berk’s fingers, ‘and he starts moving it around’.
Fraser said he was overwhelmed by panic and fear, eventually removing Berk’s hand. ‘I felt ill. I felt like a little kid. I thought I was going to cry,’ he said.
He hurried home, where he told his wife what had happened. ‘I felt like someone had thrown invisible paint on me,’ he said.
He considered accusing Berk publicly, but didn’t want the offence 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 wrongdoing, he had written to Fraser to apologise if he had ‘done anything that 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 bottom-touching had been intended as a joke and it was not a sexual advance.
Fraser said he became depressed and started telling himself he’d deserved what had happened.
‘I was blaming myself, and I was miserable because I was saying: “This is nothing; this guy reached around and he copped a feel.” ’
The experience with Berk made him ‘retreat’ from Hollywood and ‘feel reclusive’, he said. Work ‘withered on the vine for me. In my mind, at least, something had been taken away from me.’
At the same time, his body was falling to pieces. Doing his own stunts in the all-action Mummy films had taken a physical toll.
By the time he made the third film, he ‘was put together with tape and ice, wearing ice packs and mountain-biking padding’ under his costumes.
His various injuries needed surgery, including a laminectomy (in which a portion of the vertebra is removed) and a partial knee replacement, as well as the repair of his vocal cords.
When the acting work started to dry up, he wondered if the HFPA, which ran the Golden Globe Awards, had blacklisted him. He claimed he was rarely invited to its events after accusing Berk.
‘The silence was deafening,’ he said. ‘The phone does stop ringing, and you start asking yourself why. There’s many reasons, but was this one of them? I think it was.’
Berk denies the HFPA retaliated against Fraser, saying: ‘His career declined through no fault of ours.’
Hollywood observers could, indeed, point to other reasons why his career might have stalled. For a start, there was his so-so performance in the 2008 ‘blockbuster’ Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and the mediocre third Mummy film, Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (producers replaced Fraser in the sequels of both).
In truth, light-hearted, Indiana Jones-style adventure films were losing ground to increasingly popular superhero movies.
However, Fraser’s affecting account of Hollywood misfortune in GQ was well timed. The downfall of predatory film mogul Harvey Weinstein a few months earlier — in a blizzard of sexual misconduct allegations from multiple women — had made it far easier for people in the industry to come forward about what they had experienced, and far more likely that others would believe them.
Fraser said he had been heartened by the anti-harassment #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, as well as actresses such as Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and Mira Sorvino, who had all come forward and all of whom he had worked with.
‘I watched this wonderful movement, these people with the courage to say what I didn’t have the courage to say,’ he said. Except that now he had.
The interview attracted considerable attention, and Hollywood seemed to get the message.
The years have not been kind to Fraser’s potential as a romantic lead, as he’s put on a fair bit of weight. But that has its advantages, freeing him to explore the more challenging ‘character’ roles, such as in The Whale, that he craves.
Steven Soderbergh included him in his ensemble cast of acclaimed 2021 thriller No Sudden Move. Martin Scorsese cast him as a lawyer alongside Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in a forthcoming western crime drama, Killers Of The Flower Moon.
And, of course, his performance in The Whale — which was not only met with eager applause in London but also at the Venice Film Festival in September, when the audience stood for a full six minutes — has led to talk of an Oscar.
Whether he wins an Academy Award or not next March, it’s clear that, like The Mummy, Brenaissance Man has risen from the dead. And not before time.