Arts·Point of View

What we can all learn from Brendan Fraser's triumphant second act

We can all take something away from The Whale star Brendan Fraser's return to stardom, his openness about his struggles, and his willingness to reinvent himself.

The Whale star's big comeback, and his openness about how it happened, makes him a role model for all of us

A heavy man sits in a room.
Brendan Fraser in Darren Arronofsky's The Whale. (TIFF)

We tend to talk about role models like they're something only children and teenagers need — as if once you get past your early 20s, you no longer require guidance or examples. Like, adults should have their shit figured out, and if you need to look to follow another adult's lead on how to handle a situation, particularly if it's not someone you know personally, there's something wrong with you. 

But that's ridiculous. You don't grow out of needing a role model. You may grow out of hero-worshipping them; you may see your role model as imperfect, and in a more nuanced way, but you still need them. Life is complicated. Role models help with that.

And, in 2022, Brendan Fraser — who will receive the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance for his role in the new film The Whale — might be the role model we all need. But before we get into that, we should just take a minute to acknowledge how utterly ubiquitous Brendan Fraser was once upon a time.

If you're in that murky generational no man's land between Gen X and millennials — meaning you were a teenager in the mid-to-late '90s — then Brendan Fraser was sort of omnipresent for you. Even if you weren't a diehard fan of his work, he was just kind of always around. Every Saturday afternoon, some station would be airing Encino Man; everyone had one friend who swore Airheads was an underrated work of comedic genius; and we all went to see The Mummy (and many of the subsequent sequels) because The Mummy was a big deal summer action movie, so obviously you went to see it. 

Brendan Fraser was a massive star. You kind of just always assumed he'd have the full massive star career arc. He'd start to direct and produce. He'd become a DeNiro-style eminence grise. You couldn't imagine a Fraser-less universe. You thought he'd always be there.

And then, at some point toward the end of the '00s, he just wasn't. I mean, he continued to exist. He even continued to make movies — but no one was watching them, and most people would be hard-pressed to name one. Brendan Fraser, a super handsome, super successful eminently bankable star, who was so versatile he could be an action star, a serious dramatic lead or a comedic goofball, and do all three equally well, was a has-been. 

The reasons for this are complicated, and Fraser himself has speculated on what exactly happened, most notably in a 2018 interview with GQ. He thinks he may have been blacklisted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the people behind the Golden Globes) after allegedly being sexually assaulted and harassed by its former president, Philip Berk, in 2003. He also admits that years of action film stunt work began to take a toll on his body, to the point where he needed several major surgeries, including a partial knee replacement. But whatever the reasons, it happened. 

But then, something else happened. Starting in the end of the previous decade, Brendan Fraser started making a comeback on television: he played a fourth-wall-breaking bodyguard in Trust, the story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III. Then, he was a quietly menacing ex-CIA agent-turned-military contractor on Condor, an updating of the classic Three Days of the Condor. Then came a starring role as Cliff Steele/Robotman in Doom Patrol, which, for my money, is the best comic book-to-screen adaptation in recent memory (and I've seen pretty much all of them).

People started to talk about his comeback, the so-called Brenaissance. And earlier this week, it hit what may be its apex: the festival debut of Darren Aaronofsky's Oscar-bait film The Whale, which features Fraser as an obese, isolated writing teacher trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter. It, and he, received a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. And he wept about it. Openly. 

And that's one of the things that makes Fraser a role model, particularly for men. He's not afraid to emote. He's not afraid to talk about his feelings. Read that GQ article and see how vulnerable and real he is — about the incident with Berk, about his divorce, about fatherhood, about feeling past it and like a horse bound for the glue factory. He's startlingly honest.

In a culture where men — and even more so men like Fraser, who are expected to literally perform masculinity for a living — are still taught to be stoic and tough, seeing a guy like him feel his feelings in a big way is a reminder that not only is it okay to get emotional sometimes, it's necessary. It's hard to imagine that the Brenaissance would have been possible without Fraser acknowledging and talking like he has about the things that were weighing him down.

For people of all genders, Fraser shows us that second acts are possible. That even if you "peaked" early, you can still get a second peak. That "has-been" status doesn't have to be a permanent condition. You can always reinvent yourself. And sure, that sounds like something that would be easy for a Hollywood actor, harder for the rest of us, but in reality it's probably the other way around. Fraser had to fall and rebuild himself in the public eye, with strangers turning him into a meme and criticizing his appearance. His rebuild happened under a microscope. The rest of us don't have to deal with that.

If you're of an age where Brendan Fraser was a ubiquitous part of your childhood or adolescence, you might be starting to hit an age where you feel washed, where you feel past it, like doors are closing. And even if it's not happening to you, feel fortunate, it's probably happening to people you know. The Brenaissance reminds us that if we're open, self-reflective and willing to feel our feelings, it doesn't have to be that way.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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