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Many of this year’s Oscar races were decided months ago (like Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Ke Huy Quan), but best actor is still something of a toss-up between Austin Butler for Elvis and Brendan Fraser for The Whale.
Both of them embody classic Oscar narratives: Fraser is having a tremendous comeback while Butler fully embodies a larger-than-life legend; Fraser’s role involved 300 pounds of prosthetics that took up to six hours to put on while Butler still sounds like Elvis Presley whenever he speaks.
Elvis has been available to stream on HBO Max for months, but it was only recently that people could watch The Whale at home. (It’s available on VOD.) Many viewers have been profoundly affected by The Whale and Fraser’s performance, but audiences have also been confounded by the appeal, especially once clips of the film’s fantastical ending went viral.
The Whale follows Charlie (Fraser), a 600-lb. man drowning in grief who tries to make amends with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink), over the course of a week. Charlie is dying of congestive heart failure, and his caretaker Liz (Hong Chau) says he has maybe a week to live without proper medical attention.
It’s based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, which is evident from how it can’t shake off the staginess of its one-location setting. Various characters pop in and out of Charlie’s apartment to admonish him, verbally abuse him, mock him for his weight and poor health, and try to save him. And Charlie takes it all because he thinks he deserves everything thrown at him.
There’s a lot to admire about Fraser’s performance; Chau, who was nominated for supporting actress, is also great. But my experience watching The Whale a few months back left me feeling drained and emotionally manipulated, and I found the film’s use of sound design around the eating scenes to be particularly gross.
Criticisms about Fraser’s prosthetic fat suit—along with the limited scope of stories about fat protagonists Hollywood tells—have followed the film since its Venice premiere; while Fraser might disagree, his defense doesn’t come off as hostile.
But also following Fraser is the adoration of fans who grew up watching his movies thrilled by his success; he’s been stacking up endearing viral moments like Infinity Stones, which makes discussion around a backlash trickier to discuss but nonetheless fascinating. (Not that the Academy ever paid much attention to backlash before *cough* Green Book *cough*.)
Why it matters
The best performances rarely ever win Oscars. But if the nostalgic goodwill around Fraser is any indication, even people who might not like The Whale can find something positive to come out of a potential win.