by Darren Aronofsky The whale (and more precisely its main actor Brendan Fraser) was an early conversation favorite of awards season ahead of its Dec. 9 first. However, he has also triggered sharp criticism for its portrayal of obesity, with some who have seen the film before taking issue with the pitiful portrayal of the title character.
Aronofsky defends the character and the story in a new Variety profile, saying, “There are people who will immediately shut up when they see a character like Charlie. I want people to tune in to the film – I hope they do. But sometimes you just do what you need to do artistically and see what happens.
Even beyond the content of the film, big suits in general are reviewed in Hollywood. Fraser wore elaborate prosthetics to portray the 600-pound character, rather than casting someone of a similar body type. “There was a chapter in the making of this movie where we tried to look for obese actors,” says Aronofsky. Variety. “Besides not being able to find an actor who can feel the emotions of the role, it just becomes a mad chase. For example, if you can’t find a 600-pound actor, a 300-pound actor, or a 400-pound actor books enough?
Making a point that perhaps does not soften critics’ view of the situation, the controversial filmmaker adds that someone closer to Charlie’s life size may not have been able to perform at the level required for the role. “From a health point of view, it is prohibitive. It’s an impossible role to fill with a real person dealing with these issues,” he says.
According to Fraser, “I am not a small man. And I don’t know what the metric is to qualify to play the role. I just know I had to give as honest a performance as possible,” the actor said. Newsweek. The Variety The article notes that he “did extensive research, consulted with the Obesity Action Coalition, an advocacy group, and spoke with many people struggling with eating issues.”
“They let me know what their diet was and how obesity had affected their lives in terms of their relationships with loved ones. It was heartbreaking, because very often these people were mocked and made to feel awful about themselves,” says Fraser, who criticizes previous Hollywood depictions of obesity as “one-note” and filled with “crude jokes.” “Vindictive speech is painful. And it does damage because it feeds into the cycle of overeating. I just left those conversations thinking, ‘Hey, this is not your fault. This is an illness. This is an addiction.’”
There is also the argument that the story sprung from the personal experience of Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the screenplay as well as the play the film is based on. “To be clear, this is not a story about everybody who grapples with obesity. It’s how it presented in me,” says Hunter, who, as Variety notes, grew up “gay in the Midwest and the solace he sought in overeating.”
He continues, “My depression manifested physically as I self-medicated with food. Fortunately, I had support in my life. I had parents who loved me, and I was able to deal with some of my demons and go to therapy and become a healthier person. But The Whale is about a person who didn’t have that support system.”
While none of this completely absolves The Whale of criticism (and indeed, Aronofsky’s remarks may fuel further scrutiny), it does provide valuable context for a film that has thus far only been seen on the festival circuit. Audiences can decide for themselves how they feel about the subject when the film premieres in December.