“Whale” and the Chubby Suit

The new film ‘The Whale’, which will be released by A24 on Friday, is about a man named Charlie. He lives alone in a squalid apartment in Idaho, grieving over a male lover, and estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter. His only companions are a nurse and a young missionary who appears on his doorstep. Charlie teaches an online essay writing course, but keeps his computer camera out of shame, since he weighs about six hundred pounds.

Charli was played by Brendan Fraser, beneath folds of realistic synthetic fat. When I saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, in September, Frasier then took to the stage, alongside director Darren Aronofsky, to a burst of applause. At fifty-three, Frasier is heavier than he was in his heartthrob days, though there’s nothing close to his character in “The Whale.” He looked almost flustered to be embraced so warmly, after years of neglect from Hollywood. in 2018 GQ Profile titled “What Happened to Brendan Fraser?” He described falling into a depression after being molested by Philip Burke, former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (Burke denied the allegation.) Frasier’s support in Toronto was clear, and he now stands at the front of the Academy’s Best Actor race, with two time-tested Oscars behind him: The Return and the decadent “Transformation.”

But, as lovable as Fraser was, the lovable one left me uncomfortable. I was not alone. “This is a great job, the film seems to insist – also on empathy” Vanity Fair Richard Lawson wrote, about Frasier’s onscreen transformation. “But what is expressed instead is a kind of towering horror, a picture of a man gone to catastrophic ruin so that we, among the audience, may make use of our noble and higher intellects and see the worthy human being beneath the fearsome exterior.” The movie is an adaptation of a play by Samuel D. Hunter, which I first read a decade ago, before its acclaimed Off-Broadway run, at Playwrights Horizons, starring actor Schuller Hensley in a puffy suit. (The New Yorker John Lahr, in his review, praises Hunter’s “promise to be a daring playwright-narrator.”) On the page, the play brought me into the mind of Charlie, where I could share his yearning for connection; It was his voice, and not the bulk of it, that caught the imagination. On the screen, his body has a special effect, and the camera can’t help but be proud of the craftsmanship. Aronofsky, not alien to visceral body horror (“Black Swan”, “Gladiator”), is faithful to the play, but cinematic realism – the artificial body – creates a mystical effect. In “Humanizing” Charlie, Aronofsky seems to want to hold back the viewer so we can pat ourselves on the back to find the man in the beast. But is this sympathy or pity?

Aubrey Gordon, podcaster and author (“What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk Fat”), was anticipating the film’s release with trepidation. “The impression I got from every fat person I knew was, like, walking around and waiting for this to be over, because it would be awful,” she told me recently. She had never seen “The Whale” but bought the play when she heard about the movie. Gordon, who is part of a movement to embrace obesity rather than pathologically treat it (including taking back the word “fat”), didn’t respond as she did. “The points he makes about fat people are indistinguishable to me from the points made on ‘1,000-lb. Sisters’ or ‘My 600-Lb. Life’,” she continued. The vibe here was: Look at this miserable, miserable person condemned to die young! If only he’d gotten his shit together! Actually, it’s not such a drastic or strident thing to say, like, “Oh, don’t you feel bad for that fat guy who Will he die alone for sure?” That is Main A novel about fat people.” Recalling the 1990s and two millennial eras of Hollywood fat-suit comedies, Gordon said, “People will say we’re really past ‘Shallow Hal’ and ‘Norbit’ and ‘The Nutty Professor.'” I think it’s getting deeper. Now he exists in the prestige realm.”

When I spoke to Samuel D. Hunter, who is adapting his play for the screen, he recalled that fat-suit comedy with a shudder. “Perhaps subconsciously that was one of the reasons I wrote this, because I’m sick of seeing this spread around so often,” he said. The forty-one-year-old Hunter grew up in Idaho, where almost all of his plays are staged, and attended an evangelical Christian school, where he came out as gay in the eleventh grade. “When I got to college, I just started to sink more and more into depression, and — not everyone is — but for me personally, it manifested itself in very rapid weight gain during my early 20s.” He said he lost the weight over the next 10 years, thanks to the support of his parents, therapist, and partner. In 2009, when he began writing “The Whale,” he was teaching a show-writing class at Rutgers University and “desperately trying to connect with my students,” he recalls. “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 the movie, which is: ‘I guess I need to accept that my life is not going to be so exciting.’”

By the time the play was produced, in 2012, Hunter was shedding “the last pounds I had,” he said. “When I lost the weight, I was shocked at how nice people were to me in general, like cashiers or people on the street. And gay men, I have to say. It really, really hurt.” Charlie’s obesity arose from Hunter’s lived experience, but also from worst-case speculation. “What would happen to me if I didn’t turn that corner? If I didn’t have the support system? I would look at the way I was gaining weight at the time and how fast it was going — I was, like, ‘That could have been me.'” Watch Aronofsky Off Broadway production and immediately showed interest — on stage in Toronto, he said he was drawn to the play’s “rich human characters” — but it took nearly a decade for the film to be made, in part because of the casting.Aronofsky mentioned Fraser early on, but it wasn’t until early 2020 that the actor read the script, in the East Village, and “there was no doubt about who could tell this story better,” Hunter recalls. “

Thinking of the audience’s potential disgust, Hunter told me, “I think when people bring in some prejudice or preconceived notions, Brendan’s performance, and hopefully the depth of this character starts to melt all of that.” But even the fact of putting an actor in a fat suit is a trope a little too far for some viewers. “As long as fat people are represented as half-puppet, you’ll never be able to see that character as fully human,” actor and comedian Guy Brannum told me. Like Gordon, Brannum had not seen the film but read the play with anticipation. “Some people I really respected were telling me what a great, beautiful play it was,” he recalled. “But, you know, it’s a play that starts with a guy who’s not fatter than me almost masturbating to death. And it kind of starts from there.” In the gay movie “Bros,” Brannum plays the saucy sidekick to the main character, a free-spirited, party-going guy who cracks wise. In contrast, The Whale transformed obesity into what Branum called “a metaphor for gay pain”, unable to imagine a life for its hero beyond “confinement in a sad apartment eating KFC”.

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