Brendan Fraser of ‘The Whale’ headlines a messy run
Hugh Jackman in The son and Brendan Fraser in The whale: two Oscar-worthy performances in films that critics despised.
Photo: Rekha Garton/See-Saw Films Limited/Courtesy of See-Saw Films/Sony Pictures Classics/A24
Despite all the hype around the Slap and the Snub, Best Actor still has a reputation as one of the most sleepy categories at the Oscars. Not this year! From what I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, we have to brace ourselves for the 2023 Best Actor race to get messy. Not because I fear one of the contenders is about to burst into punches – although if they do, my money is on Bill Nighy – but for the unfortunate fact that both performances most favorable to TIFF’s Oscars come from films that a significant portion of the critical community absolutely hated.
Ask any expert, and they’ll tell you that the top favorite for Best Actor is The whaleof Brendan Fraser, who GoldDerby currently pegs at 7/2 to win the trophy. The logic is good: Fraser is a former A-lister who makes his return in an arthouse film (verification) in which he undergoes a drastic physical transformation (double verification) to play a 600-pound man trying to reconnect with her daughter (triple check) in what may be the last week of her life (quadruple check). The Oscar nomination began seconds later. The whale ended the screening in Venice, where a clip of Fraser moved to tears by the film’s long standing ovation went viral. The feast of love continued at TIFF, where the actor received the festival’s Tribute Award and charmed the room with a humble and good-natured acceptance speech in which he revealed that the last time he he had won a trophy, it was in an eighth-grade peewee hockey league. .
The Fraser train is going so fast it looks like it’s about to leave The whale himself behind. From where I’m sitting, that might be a good thing, because people who don’t like this movie really do not like it. The film is based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who channeled his own struggles with his weight into the tale. But while a room is contained enough to express a man’s self-loathing, when you fill it with movie stars, put Darren Aronofsky behind the camera and make him the centerpiece of a gold-plated awards campaign, this “self” tends to slip away and you end up with just…disgust. After The whale‘s TIFF premiere, my colleague Alison Willmore Aronofsky criticized Aronofsky for “filming the main character’s body and his depression-fueled cravings like it was the stuff of a monster movie”. Richard Lawson of vanity lounge called it “a sort of haunting horror, a portrait of a man who experienced catastrophic ruin so that we in the audience might tap into our nobler and higher minds and see the dignified human being beneath.” the scary exterior”. Polygon Katie Gir saw only “pity, buried under a thick, suffocating layer of contempt”.
The question for A24, which comes out The whale, is whether any of these dissensions will matter. A frequent refrain in the TIFF newsroom was “I didn’t like the movie, I loved the performance”. (The film has plenty of supporters, including my other esteemed colleague Bilge Ebiri, who called its finale “smashing, beautiful and honest.”) While it’s easy to be cynical about everything The whale represents vis-à-vis the Oscars, it’s hard to work the same acid for Fraser himself – there’s no trickery in his eyes. At the Tribute Awards, a couple at my table wondered about the outpouring of emotion that greeted their entrance. Was this guy really considered a serious actor? I told them it was more like he was an old friend, someone we grew up watching in silly movies who finally had his moment to bask in the glow of prestige. And that was before Fraser delivered his speech, full of jokes about how, although he had never received a trophy before, he had practiced a lot handing them out. “The trick is to hold the left hand, shake the right hand.” Believe it from anyone who was there: it feels good to present awards to Brendan Fraser. Maybe that will be enough.
If the anti-Whale contingent is looking for another competitor to rally, it probably won’t be Florian Zeller’s The son, which many of them despise almost as much. This is Zeller’s sequel to his Oscar-winning escape The father, and like that, it’s also an English adaptation of a drama originally written for the Parisian stage. Hugh Jackman stars as a high-flying Manhattan lawyer with a young wife (Vanessa Kirby) and infant son, having left behind in Brooklyn an ex-wife (Laura Dern) and son (Zen McGrath) whose Teenage boredom begins to look a bit like clinical depression. The solution? The kid will cross the river to live with daddy, and things will be perfect again.
But as we have seen in The father, there are things that proximity does not repair, even if this father, an inveterate optimist, has trouble realizing it. (Jackman’s performance is a case study of what people online call “toxic positivity.”) As he did in his predecessor, Zeller taps into powerful veins of family emotion – denial, guilt , grief – and there weren’t many dry eyes in the house in my TIFF screening as Jackman’s character was finally confronted with the enormity of his failure. Unfortunately the driest belonged to the reviewers I spoke to. In our Reviews newsletterAlison, who loved The father, stunned that this “emotionally fraudulent” film came from the same person: “I was shocked at how bad it was…there is a strange stiltedness to everything.” This is partly because the material has been adapted twice: not just the literal translation, but also the sense of placelessness that comes from casting three of the four leads with Commonwealth actors putting on American accents. But this is also due to the fact that THRby David Rooney calls Zeller’s “elegant austerity of direction”, which turns the film “into a punishing chore”.
Much scorn overwhelmed The son focuses on its final act, which I won’t spoil except to note that Indiewire’s David Ehrlich considered it “the most sadistic ending of any film this side of Lars von Trier Antichrist.” This kind of advance warning creates its own sense of dread – Oh my god they really do that – and my own experience of watching the film was mirrored by the journalist Daniel Jewelswho remembers “a moment towards the end when I said to myself, If it’s as brazenly manipulative as people say, Thing X would be happening randomly right now. And seconds after that thought, Thing X happened.
But like Fraser, Jackman’s performance is slightly overwhelmed as the pans focus their anger on the script and direction. “Infusing the play with just enough ignorant conceit…Jackman extracts the real tragedy from [his character’s] myopia,” says Ehrlich. Considering The sonThe pedigree of and just how open the field for best actor is, he seems a solid bet for a nomination. (GoldDerby ranked him fourth.) If anything else, voters may just feel so bad for him by the end of the movie that they’ll do anything to cheer him up.
Which leaves us with a lead actor race that’s poised for drama, one where the highest-profile contenders come from films that have become critical punching bags, and even each actor’s fans are slightly sheepish about the fact that their long-awaited nominations come from these particular films. But that’s normal for the course on the other side of the ballot. Do we finally have a Best Actor race as messy as Best Actress?