The 2023 Oscars were decidedly un-scandalous compared to last year’s ceremony, but the winners themselves still sparked some controversy. Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is surely the most divisive—a film that earned Brendan Fraser a Best Actor win but has been dogged by accusations of fatphobia.
The Whale‘s second Oscar, for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, was particularly polarizing because it was so specifically awarded for the film’s use of a fatsuit.
Hailed as Brendan Fraser’s comeback, The Whale is a drama about an obese English professor who struggles with his relationships and self-image and never leaves the house. The role required Fraser to wear a fatsuit weighing over 300lbs, and the film was accused of perpetuating harmful stereotypes about fat people, portraying its protagonist as tragic, dysfunctional, and addicted to binge-eating. In the New York Times, Roxane Gay wrote, “how this film deals with Charlie’s fatness is egregious: exploitative and at times cruel.”
In response to this widespread criticism, Aronofsky defended the film as “an exercise in empathy,” saying that the backlash “makes no sense to me.” But when the time came for The Whale to win its two Oscars—particularly the one for makeup and hairstyling—many commentators were still disgusted.
Out of the five makeup nominees this year, three were at least partially nominated for fatsuit prosthetics: The Whale, The Batman (featuring a transformative makeup job for Colin Farrell), and Elvis (which involved extensive historical hair/makeup alongside prosthetics for Tom Hanks and Austin Butler, whose fatsuit led to the “sweaty Elvis” meme).
Much of The Whale‘s publicity has revolved around Fraser’s experience of donning and performing in the fatsuit, which involved hours of work in the makeup chair each day. Fraser’s transformation into his 600lb character was explicitly treated as a spectacle, clashing with his and Aronofsky’s defense of the film as a sympathetic drama.
Over the past few years, there’s been increasing pushback against the use of fatsuits, in part due to the film industry’s discrimination against fat actors. Filmmakers seemingly prefer to hire a thin celebrity in a fatsuit than cast an actor who actually looks the part. At the same time, the prosthetics themselves are often viewed with grotesque fascination. The imagery of The Whale‘s Oscar win was particularly stark, as the film’s makeup artists accepted the award with an image of Brendan Fraser’s nude fatsuit looming in the background.
While film buffs generally seem happy for Brendan Fraser’s comeback, The Whale‘s two wins cast a pall over the night for many viewers. Despite the many conversations around diversity and inclusivity at the Oscars, the fatsuit issue remains a very obvious blindspot.