Things may not be over until the fat lady sings — but, for Brendan Fraser, playing a 600-pound man is a whole new beginning.
When the movie premiered at the 79th Venice International Film Festival on Sept. 4, audience members were so moved that they gave Fraser a six-minute-long standing ovation and brought the actor to tears. It’s been reported that he tried to leave the theater but the applause was so relentless that it seemed to physically freeze him in place. (The film is not due in theaters until Dec. 9.)
Such adoration was a long way from Fraser’s recent years of obscurity, living quietly at his New Bedford, New York horse farm. He has suffered excruciating pain and multiple surgeries deriving from stunts in the action movies, like “The Mummy” franchise, that made him famous and, he has said, put him in and out of the hospital for seven years.
In 2018, Fraser emerged to allege that, in 2003, he was sexually assaulted by Philip Berk, then the head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (Berk has called Fraser’s “version” of the story “a total fabrication.”) The star told GQ that it led him to withdraw from the spotlight: “I became depressed,” he said. “I was blaming myself and I was miserable.”
It even led to him wondering if he had been blacklisted by the HFPA, which oversees the Golden Globes, telling GQ he was rarely invited back to the awards ceremony in the years after. The group said it was unaware of the allegations before the GQ story, while Berk’s response was stinging: “His career declined through no fault of ours.”
While Fraser has continued to make movies — mostly ones you’ve likely never heard of, like “Hair Brained” and “Furry Vengeance” — and TV (including a stint on “The Affair” back in 2016-2017), it’s been a far cry from cry from his glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But his new role in “The Whale,” directed by Oscar nominee Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan.” “The Wrestler”), should bring him back to the forefront. Critics have praised Fraser’s bravura portrayal of Charlie, an obese recluse confined to a wheelchair and struggling to reestablish ties with his estranged daughter.
“It’s a great example of someone willing to play outside of his comfort zone after he had pretty much disappeared. It was not the kind of role that made him famous, but he’s not the hunky jock anymore,” a Hollywood insider told The Post, referring to films like 1997’s “George of the Jungle,” for which a very buff Fraser wore little more than a loincloth. “He’s shown he can adapt to age and a changing world.”
The actor also received respect from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who made his big-screen debut in 2001’s “The Mummy Returns” alongside Fraser. “Man,” he tweeted, “this makes me so happy to see this beautiful ovation for Brendan.”
Fraser’s recent accolades bring a smile to the face of Denise Tyrell, author of “Brendan Fraser,” an unauthorized biography published in 2001. “I always thought he had chops,” Tyrell, now the co-founder of the theater company Too Soon Old Productions, told The Post. “He got in a groove of doing silly comedies, but I really enjoyed his more serious work” — such as “Gods and Monsters,” in which Fraser played the handsome, heterosexual gardener who was uncomfortably fawned over by a gay movie director in 1920s England.
“Now his days of being a romantic leading man and jumping around mummies are over — and maybe that is all for the best,” Tyrell added. “As evidenced by ‘The Whale,’ it’s time for Brendan Fraser to step in and do serious work.”
The son of a Canadian foreign services officer, Fraser lived an itinerant childhood, traveling the world with his family and bouncing through a string of prep schools. At one, he received a serious hazing.
“I was pulled from my bed when I was 13 and thrown in the trunk of a car, then tied to playground equipment with a pillowcase over my head. They ripped my pajama top off of me and tried to rip the bottom off, but I kicked some guy in the head.” He recounted to Movieline magazine in 1999. “Firecrackers were thrown at me. Horrible. The car took off and I realized I was tied up [outside of] the local girl’s school. When I got loose, I ran back to the dormitory and, ah, the nice guys, they gave me the house tie. I got made.”
He landed his first film in 1991 — a small role in “Dogfight,” which starred River Phoenix. From there, he stepped up to star in the silly but successful “Encino Man,” showed off his acting skills as a Jewish prep-school athlete in “School Ties,” and flew to box-office glory with “George of the Jungle.” His portrayal of a man raised by apes generate some $180 million at the box office.
Such was his reputation that when he showed his skills opposite Ian McKellan in “Gods and Monsters,” in 1998, Stephen Baldwin jokingly referred to it as, “The thespian and the meathead.”
If Baldwin was jealous at the time, it was for good reason — Fraser enjoyed the kind of Tinseltown success that had eluded him. Fans were so obsessed that they actually stalked Tyrell when her book came out (“They hoped I could introduce them to Brendan”) and he dated his “George” co-star, Afton Smith. His career was on an upward trajectory and he joked about him and Smith being “more into the collaborative process of making children than in the result.” Nevertheless, after dating for six years, they married in ’98 and went on to have three children.
The next logical step for the rising star was a movie franchise that spun off from “The Mummy,” which dropped in 1999. Fraser played a second-rate Indiana Jones type, but there was nothing second-rate about the movies’ returns. All told, they grossed $416.4 million.
But the films were also Fraser’s physical undoing and, indirectly, led to the unraveling of his career. By the third entry in the series, “The Mummy: Tom of the Dragon Emperor,” in 2008, the star told GQ, he was “put together with tape and ice.” He recalled “being really fetishy and nerdy about icepacks … I was building an exoskeleton for myself daily.”
But that only did so much to help alleviate pain. “I needed a laminectomy. And the lumbar [surgery] didn’t take, so they had to do it a year later,” he told GQ. Additional surgical work was done on his knee, spine and even vocal cords.
Around 2015, he began a slow reinvention, playing a 19th century Texas Ranger in the History Channel series “Texas Rising.”
It was on the show that Fraser fell hard for a horse named Pecas., deciding to bring the animal home from the set in Mexico and keep him on a farm near his home. There, the actor fell in love with how Pecas connected with his son Griffin, now 19, who is on the autism spectrum.
“There’s something good that happens between the two of them,” Fraser has said. “Even if [Griffin] doesn’t ride him. Just give him a brush. The horse loves it, the repetitive motion that kids on the spectrum have that they love. And it just works … “
While Fraser and Smith divorced in 2008, they have remained close as they raise their boys. “We are best friends,” Smith told The Post.
Aronofsky has said that he spent 10 years looking for somebody to don the 60-pound fat suit required to star in “The Whale.” But then he happened to see a trailer for “Journey to the End of the Night,” a gritty B-level 2006 crime flick co-starring Fraser.
As Aronofsky said at a Venice press conference, “I asked Brendan to come meet me … It just kept clicking.”
These days, the same can be said for Fraser’s career. Though he had the bad luck of playing a lead role in the shelved “Batgirl” movie, there are high hopes for his portrayal of a lawyer in Martin Scorsese’s Western, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” slated for a 2023 release.
As to where things are going next for him. Fraser sounded optimistic at Venice. “My crystal ball is broken,” he said at a press conference. “I don’t know if yours works. But meet me after the show and we’ll take a peek together.”