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The tragic real-life story of Brendan Fraser

Published by Daniel Brooks Moore on

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and mental health.

In the summer of 2022, Brendan Fraser returned triumphantly to the limelight with the movie “The Whale.” The premiere screened at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, where it received a six-minute standing ovation. A video clip posted to Twitter by Ramin Setoodeh, co-editor-in-chief of Variety, shows Fraser looking quite clearly overcome with emotion at the audience’s response. He’s always been

Fraser has every reason to become so emotional over his reception. Over the past two decades, his life has seen a lot of low points, both in his career and in his personal life. In 2018, Fraser give an in-depth interview with GQ, in which he discussed all the trauma he’d been through, both physical and mental. From being assaulted by a senior industry professional to public shaming to movie cancellations that left him heartbroken, he’s been through much more than most people might realize. It’s largely because of this that he has such a supportive fanbase and his response to being told this in an online meet-and-greet (via Indy100) shows it clearly means a lot to him. Emotional reactions like these are often the hallmark of someone who’s been through difficult times, and Brendan Fraser has had more than his fair share.

Brendan Fraser was objectified early in his career

The film industry is rife with objectification and, as the World Economic Forum discusses, this overwhelmingly affects women, even in positions of power. Less discussed is the increasing trend of sexualizing men on-screen, as reported by The Economist. Actors have pointed out that this is no less demeaning, and one actor who was heavily objectified early in his career was Brendan Fraser. As GQ notes, a lot of the success in his early career involved going shirtless, particularly in one of his best-known early movies, “George of the Jungle,” in which he spent most of his screen time dressed only in a loincloth.

Fraser holds a less-than-stellar view of how he used to be portrayed, saying, “I look at myself then and I just see a walking steak.” All the same, he admits that this role as a buff but naive himbo was what ultimately earned his image as an action hero. All the same, the demands of this kind of role are exhausting and, according to The Digital Fix, this ultimately led Fraser to turn down a reprisal of the role in “George of the Jungle 2.” Simply, he didn’t want to put himself through that much physical stress a second time. While he may have passed over that role, however, the early objectification would ultimately stay with him, setting the stage for several of his later difficulties.

A sexual assault ruined his confidence

In 2003, though it would be years before he’d be able to speak out publicly, Brendan Fraser was sexually assaulted by Philip Berk, a former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA). In an interview with GQ, he explains how Berk groped him at an HFPA luncheon, in the middle of a crowded room in the Beverley Hills Hotel. At the time, Fraser was left feeling overwhelmed with panic and fear, but the aftermath would be even worse. After receiving a non-apology from Berk and the HFPA, he fell into depression and started to become reclusive, beginning to question who he was and what he was even doing.

This incident calls attention to the fact that sexual assault is common for men in the film industry, with Vox reporting that 43% of men surveyed reported some kind of assault or harassment. For Brendan Fraser, it was the first of many things which would almost destroy his acting career. He speaks about how his work “withered on the vine,” and that he felt like something had been taken from him. As well as retreating from view, he found himself wondering if the HFPA had blacklisted him, as he was seldom invited to the Golden Globes after 2003.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

His acting choices have often reflected his self-worth

Brendan Fraser’s personal life and feelings seem to have often influenced his acting work, and his early confidence shows through in one role which was almost his. In 2002, per a Yahoo Entertainment interview, he was in the running to play none other than Superman – and he was still clearly excited about dressing up as the hero, saying how it made him feel “kind of invincible.” Sadly for Fraser (and his fans), this movie would ultimately be canceled. Speaking with GQ, he took the cancellation to heart and was left feeling like a failure.

This was around 2003, when the incident with Philip Berk had also damaged Fraser’s sense of self-worth. He ended up taking a role in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” purely for the chance to portray the worst version of himself and then publicly punch himself in the face. In his own words, “I had it in my head that I had it coming.” Shortly afterward, feeling humiliated, Fraser largely retreated from public view. In times of difficulty, many people turn to their families for support, but Fraser would soon lose that option too. In 2009, he and his wife of a decade, Afton Smith, divorced, further derailing his career.

He’s been publicly body shamed

The objectification piled on Brendan Fraser in the earlier years of his career seemed to never really go away, and it continued to plague him well into the 2010s. Tabloid newspapers like the Daily Mail, well known for their mean-spirited celebrity gossip pieces, would periodically post unflattering photographs of him together with demeaning comments about his appearance. Via Shared, numerous websites like Gossip Mill skirted over the fact that Fraser was taking a beach vacation to enjoy spending some time with his children, and put the focus on his apparent weight gain.

Over the past decade, people have become increasingly aware of body shaming and its many deeply negative effects, with Psychology Today noting that it’s often linked specifically with fat shaming, using humiliation to exact a form of bullying. In more recent times, mercifully, body shaming has become increasingly unacceptable in the public eye, and many of Fraser’s fans have rallied to his support because of this. For example, one post on Tumblr (via Bored Panda) reposted a tabloid photo to make an insinuation about Fraser’s weight gain, only to be met with an outpouring of replies vigorously in defense of him.

What’s more, as Fraser later explained in an interview with GQ, at the time of all this celebrity gossip, he was actually unable to maintain an athletic physique because he was going through extensive health issues which required regular hospital visits.

Brendan Fraser spent seven years in and out of hospitals

Brendan Fraser’s time as an on-screen action hero came at the expense of his physical health. As he recounts to GQ, around 2008, the filming was underway for the third “Mummy” movie, and he’d adopted a daily routine of covering himself in ice packs and tape, specifically choosing the thin and light ice packs which could be concealed under clothing.

His no-problem approach goes all the way back to “Dogfight,” his first movie from 1991. Fraser recounts the story of how he probably bruised a rib during a stunt, reacting with the attitude of “That’s okay! I’ll take it. I can do it again. If you want, I’ll break it.” Over a decade and a half later, this was taking a severe toll.

Fraser’s body became so badly damaged that he needed to spend the next seven years repeatedly visiting hospital after hospital for numerous surgeries and procedures. The worst of these were extreme. He needed multiple back surgeries to repair damage to his spine, and a partial knee replacement, which both must have also required physical therapy and considerable recovery time. Additionally, he had a throat operation to repair his vocal cords. All of this was costly and, according to the New York Post (via the Huffington Post), it led to some financial difficulties – at the time, he was also bound by law to pay alimony and child support payments to the eye-watering sum of $900,000 a year.

He relates to the horse from Animal Farm

Speaking with GQ, Brendan Fraser makes note of an unusual source of inspiration. He talks about how relatable he finds the horse from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” The horse, Boxer, is a selfless and good-natured character who adopts the mindset that whenever things go wrong, he must simply work harder. Fraser explains how he felt like Boxer the horse, “whose job it was to work and work and work.” Fraser’s demeanor certainly takes after Boxer, with his consistently pleasant personality.

This might be part of why he even rescued a horse from a History Channel set in Mexico. In Fraser’s own words, “He looked like he needed help. Like: Get me out of here, man.” So he adopted the horse, named Pecas, bringing it to live on his farm in Bedford, New York. 

The way Fraser compares himself to the Orwell character also highlights how he got such severe injuries. By his own admission, he was pushing himself too hard, taking it to self-destructive extremes. It’s a testament to his strength of character that he still feels the same way, talking about his desire to rebuild things that had been knocked down. There’s some unspoken subtext in all this, however, carrying some discomfort. Boxer’s role in Orwell’s story is that he’s trusting and never makes trouble, and this leads to him being taken advantage of. In the end, he continues to just keep on going tirelessly, quite literally working himself to death.

Brendan Fraser was left behind by the world

In 2016, Brendan Fraser’s appearance in an interview on AOL’s BUILD channel left many viewers concerned. Soft-spoken and seemingly downcast, the Sydney Morning Herald notes how fans worried that he was depressed. Speaking later with GQ, he explained how he probably didn’t even realize how he was feeling at the time, but during the interview, he was grieving the death of his mother. He also gives a quiet admission that he’d been keeping out of the spotlight for so long that it was a shock to the system to be back in the hotseat.

It had been some time since Fraser had made a formal press appearance, and the show he was promoting was one he’d barely featured in. What’s more, the format of the AOL show felt new and unfamiliar. In his own words, “I felt like: Man, I got f***ing old. Damn, this is the way it’s done now?” Seemingly, while he’d been mostly hidden from the public eye, the world kept on turning without him. Even “The Mummy,” the franchise he was most famous for, no longer involved him. As ScreenRant mentions, “The Mummy” (2017) is a reboot, with Fraser’s role having been recast to Tom Cruise.

He was afraid to speak out during the #MeToo movement

When Brendan Fraser finally spoke out about being a victim of sexual assault, it was 2018, and even then, his GQ interview shows how he was hesitant to do so. This is, of course, totally understandable. As Psychology Today explains, survivors often have trouble coming forward for many reasons, and Fraser’s was that he struggled to contend with how it made him feel and didn’t want it to become a defining part of his life. For 15 years, he kept quiet until empowered to say something by the #MeToo movement, which was in full swing during the late 2010s.

He spoke quite candidly about the difficulty of saying anything at all, explaining that he’d wanted to many times but had talked himself out of it. “Am I still frightened? Absolutely,” he says. “Do I feel like I need to say something? Absolutely.” It wasn’t until he saw others he knew, like Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd, speaking up that he felt ready to add his voice to the movement. In a sense, he ended up following the advice of another celebrity well known for speaking out about difficult things – the late Carrie Fisher, who once said, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway” (via The Sydney Morning Herald).

His return to action movies was cancelled

Action movies are what Brendan Fraser is best known for, and he was supposed to make a triumphant return to them in 2022 with the release of DC’s “Batgirl.” When he was cast, Variety reported that he’d be playing the villainous Firefly, a vengeful and nihilistic pyromaniac. CBR mentions how he describes the character Firefly as “a veteran who lost his benefits,” who takes to villainy in reaction. While Fraser himself is decidedly un-villainous in real life, it’s easy to see how his acting choices may have been informed by his own experiences with financial trouble. 

According to the Huffington Post, following his divorce in 2009, Fraser was paying $900,000 annually in child support and alimony. He tried to petition the courts to reduce the payments because of his lack of income. In return, his ex-wife Afton Smith accused him of fraud, claiming he’d hidden $9 million in new film contracts, even as he was losing thousands every month (via TMZ). While certainly not a direct parallel, the experience of feeling financially trapped is certainly one Fraser could have drawn on for the role of Firefly.

Unfortunately, as Variety explains, “Batgirl” was canceled for tax purposes, relegating it to be shelved indefinitely. The decision was deeply disappointing to everyone involved, with Fraser specifically concerned it might hurt his comeback efforts. As ScreenRant mentions, his attitude remained selfless, graciously praising his co-star Leslie Grace even as his return to action movies would remain forever unreleased.

Brendan Fraser’s comeback in The Whale has received mixed reactions

With all of his life experience, it makes sense for Brendan Fraser to choose an acting role like the one in “The Whale.” As Entertainment Weekly notes, his character is a reclusive man affected by weight gain, both of which are things that Fraser’s had first-hand experience with. Unfortunately, though, according to Marie Claire, the movie has already had mixed reactions over Fraser’s use of a fat suit in the role. Prosthetics like these have a deeply unpleasant history in cinema, having been most often used to perpetuate fatphobia.

Speaking with Vanity Fair, Fraser made a point to explain that, unlike the harmful use of bodysuits in comedy movies of the past, the portrayal in “The Whale” is not just a one-note joke. For the role, he reportedly worked closely with the Obesity Action Coalition. Having mistreated his body for his work in the past and having been a target of fatphobia himself, hopefully, audiences may remain sympathetic about what would otherwise be an extremely questionable creative decision. All the same, portrayals of fat people in cinema have been so repeatedly derisive and mean-spirited for so long, it’s also perfectly understandable for the use of fat suits to still leave a bitter taste in the audience’s collective mouths, regardless of how much work was put into this portrayal (including him gaining significant weight of his own for the role). Sadly, it seems even Brendan Fraser’s much-anticipated comeback isn’t without its sticking points.



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