Obese, gay, imprisoned at home, dying. But to "pretend to be" a disgusting pile of pounds through a sophisticated engineering suit is to ridicule the identity of those who carry around real pounds, and maybe even are homosexual.
Brendan Fraser will not win an Oscar for The Whale (most likely). He recently won a SAG, but barring some twist, the Best Actor statuette goes to Austin Butler for Elvis (most likely); the death of Lisa Marie Presley undoubtedly gave the votes a nice sympathy turn. The other blow in favor of the young actor (32) comes from Fraser himself. From the 270 fake pounds of the prosthetic suit (the British more effectively call it a fat suit) he wore to play Charlie, an obese, gay literature professor seeking redemption.
And today it's not like you can, with the demand for identity (physical and character) matching between character and actor, play with these old tricks. Go find him, explained director Darren Aronofsky, a professional actor who would work satisfactorily while pulling a walker and oxygen tank (an insurance company feast). And if he did exist, would he then be as good as Fraser, or as good as Daniel Day Lewis with My Left Foot's Fake Cerebral Palsy (Oscar in 1990)?
But, indeed, "pretending to be" as it has always been in dramatic art, has become the offense that perpetuates the relegation of nonconforming bodies and sexualities. And consequently of the professionals who belong to it. All the more so if the play induces pity and an indifferent sense of relief: my life is ugly but at least it is not as awful as Charlie's.
Matters don't change with biopics of famous people either, but there are varying degrees of condemnation: the only victim-blaming-aborts Marilyn of De Armas in Blonde had to be rehabilitated; fine instead was Butler's kaleidoscopic, two-dimensional Elvis and, now, risen to tragic period document (stuff that marketing departments dream about at night).
The Whale: fake fat and not fake fat, that's the problem
Meanwhile, the Academy, that of #OscarSoWhite seeks a labored moral equilibrium. Candida De Armas, it ignores Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler (black actresses in The Woman King and Till), it also ignores female directors, it continues to like a lot of actors who disappear into the role, whose glamour is no longer seen (Kidman's Oscar-baiting nose in The Hours), but it produces virtuous films. Like Bros, Hollywood's first romantic comedy with an all-gay cast and no stars: a resounding flop. Deserted in the first place by the target audience called to duty – and rebuked for negligence – to make it a blockbuster (tell people to go see a necessary movie and, surprisingly, that one turns on Netflix: ungrateful).
Towards The Whale, homosexuals have been quite benevolent. Accustomed to Oscars won on their skin for roles as an AIDS patient, a prisoner in a kimono, a transgender drug addict (and HIV-positive), a rights activist shot in the commune, perhaps they acquired a Zen-like calm. All except Guy Branum (actor featured in Bros), who called it an ugly "metaphor for the pain of being gay, of hiding."
Different story for the obese. If the word "fat" has to disappear from Roald Dahl's books, let alone elsewhere where it can be shown in a false way. Roxane Gay, a writer and activist who knows about overweight living and has written her best-known book on it, was peremptory in the New York Times:
"Whale is a gratuitous, self-aggrandizing spectacle, it has very little to do with the lives of fat people."
The tale of pain very close to us hits harder
The result, Gay continues, is that of a film that exploits a pathological condition the way an episode of Embarrassing Illness does. With the suspicion of a reloading of abjections by Samuel D. Hunter (author of the play that has been running for 10 years and screenwriter of the film).
Any work of art or mere entertainment that speaks of painful things very close to us hits the hardest, but the "betrayal" of which Roxane speaks – an unseemly exposure that she surely perceived as being stolen private footage, to the opposite effect of Elvis becoming the story of Lisa's dad who died at only 54 – for others may be the discovery (and understanding) of a condition. As well as the beginning of an awareness, of a brutal shake-up.
And that can happen even with an infamous fat suit, so perhaps the overly diligent actor with Method acting is spared diabetes. As well as relegation to always equal parts because of the physique.
But real pounds are like the black and white in the photos; they lend authenticity and remove the doubt of ridicule. Mimicking obesity, on the other hand, is like Natalie Portman's face tacked on to the ballet dancer who performed the most difficult evolutions in Black Swan (another Darren film, and Oscar). Crushed by all these considerations is poor Brendan Fraser, for whom The Whale is the big comeback after a divorce, sexual harassment, depression, and a physical form that is the result of all three. That is, a state for which Charlie is not exactly moonlighting for him.
"A Carnival Shanty"
Miraculously under 2 hours, albeit by only a few minutes, "A Carnival Shanty" according to Roxane takes the classic struggle of Aronofskyan heroes to extremes: the striving toward an inhuman of perfection, which often coincides with an enfranchisement, a liberation from the body as destiny, a prison even in the sense of talent. And the director illustrates it with much control.
For Charlie, this cage is double, nay, triple, in addition to the "walled" house, the pounds, he also has the black square of the cam turned off on Zoom, so as not to be seen by the pupils. He has always been a fleshy person, he says, but after the suicide of his partner (Alan) he lost control.
Having reached the point of no return (physical and spiritual), in 5 days he tries to recover his relationship with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he left with his wife Mary when the girl was 8 years old.
At home, he is assisted by Liz (Hong Chau, nominated for supporting role as a nurse and Alan's sister), who also acts as a filter with the outside world, with a missionary from the sect to which his brother belonged, and with Ellie, a perhaps inevitably compromised, angry and not-so-subtly sadistic teenager seeking explanations and favors. In short, there are those who want to save him and those who want to exploit him, but Charlie is both victim and perpetrator, and everything around him has the rottenness of the end.
Is this a voyeuristic show? Of course
A sum of unrecoverable anger and unhappiness, so expanded that it cannot be reconciled. The claustrophobic space, however, moves. In the midst of the accusations, the shouting, an essay on Moby Dick that is Charlie's only medicine (the author's identity is revealed at the end), The Whale both chills and gives hope. And Fraser renders despair and humanity with great care, making the most of her voice and eyes (for the deniers a squint equal to the woman-robot in Act of Strength).
Is this a voyeuristic performance? Obviously: how do you represent "a train crash" except by shooting it from the most catastrophic point of view as the kid-Spielberg does in The Fablemans. Darren, a manic director less perverse than Lars von Trier, also throws in a masturbation scene à la American Beauty, the great incipit of American cinema in this century, to make it more annoying.
However, he also gives us the gift of Samantha Morton (a superb actress who is always underused), and although he drags out Ellie's hostility for an endless time, he ends the tale with one of the finest endings of 2022 along with that of Blonde (The Whale came out last year).
Most beautiful in the sense of how memories, which social media invite us to share again, have become the measure of nostalgia and lost (earthly) paradise. Charlie regains it in a flash; Marilyn didn't even know what it was. And indeed on her dead (spoiler) the camera lingers, unwilling to leave her alone.