On TIFF Winner Brendan Fraser’s Whale of a Career

Looking back at key films with this year's TIFF Tribute Award for Performance winner

When the pre-fest rumour mill first hinted at an Oscar-worthy performance by Brendan Fraser in The Whale, I laughed. “Brendan Fraser a serious actor? Puh-lease!” I hadn’t been in such disbelief since the Sundance kids whispered about an award-calibre turn by Mo’Nique. As 2009 taught us, never underestimate under-utilised talents. Beneath those George of the Jungle abs is the might of Oscar gold.

George of the Jungle

Moreover, a quick refresh of Fraser’s credits reveals unsung versatility. It’s easy to see why Brendan Fraser is this year’s TIFF Tribute Award for Performance winner and why so many film buffs are excited for The Whale. Once-in-a-lifetime transformative performances are the biggest treats film buffs can enjoy. For The Whale, it’s especially exciting to imagine how Fraser will reinvent himself after director Darren Aronofksy guided Mickey Rourke to a career-defining turn as a broken down piece of meat in The Wrestler, Ellen Burstyn as a pill-popping dreamer in Requiem for a Dream, and Natalie Portman as an ugly duckling who mutated into a black swan in her Oscar-winning performance. Few directors guide such visionary makeovers, Tarantino notwithstanding.

If there’s a Brenaissance, a Fraserrection (a bit too lewd?), a Frasurgence, or just a good old-fashioned comeback to be had with The Whale. It’s years in the making. Last year’s supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh’s totally cool caper No Sudden Move, for example, showed a new phase in the actor’s career, especially for those of us who simply watch too many movies to have time for all those series like The Affair. The TIFF crowd rarely gets to salute a homegrown hero with some Oscar buzz, though, so let the Brenaissance or whatever begin as we look back on the stories whale of a tale that is this Brendan Fraser’s career. – Pat Mullen


From Caveman to Mimbo

The film that took Fraser’s stock to another level offers a nice complement to his breakthrough role in 1992’s Encino Man. Fraser plays a dashing caveman who is discovered in a block of ice by two teens. The usual fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue as Fraser’s caveman, Link, adapts to contemporary life. It’s straight up George of the Jungle plagiarism that was widely panned by critics, yet received a plum A-grade Cinemascore. Pauly Shore earned a Razzie, while Fraser scored reviews as a “block-jawed newcomer” who “seems perpetually, blissfully high” and “has the good grace to look stupid.”

The block jaw and veneer of stupidity would serve him well in later years with the 1997 cheesefest George of the Jungle. Fraser rocks a loincloth pretty well and plays the role of the dim-witted mimbo to perfection. He strikes the right balance between buffoon and baboon as the man who swings with apes. The film is totally silly, but a family friendly hoot. George also gave Fraser box office clout and star power, as it grossed nearly $175 million worldwide on a $55 million budget. It’s the film that got Fraser noticed for his biggest commercial success to date: the Mummy franchise. Everyone needs to start somewhere. – PM

Blast from the Past

Fraser is at his most loveable and goofy in the quirky satire Blast from the Past. A real fish-out-of-water story, Adam Webber (Fraser) has spent his entire life living in an underground bunker with his parents (the perfectly cast Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek), fearing a nuclear fallout from the Cold War. Adam gets his first taste of the outside world when he’s sent on a “dangerous” mission to restock the family’s supplies, coming face-to-face with the modern world for the first time as an adult. A clever set-up with romantic subplot, Blast from the Past is successful thanks to Fraser’s charm. Playing Adam like a wide-eyed puppy suits the story and Fraser just fine, allowing the movie to hit a sweet spot between biting satire and sugary nostalgia fare. Far more watchable than it has any right to be, the actor looks like he’s having such a blast, so it’s impossible not to be entertained. – Rachel West

The Mummy Trilogy

Many modern movies have tried to re-create and re-capture the comedic, romantic adventures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. And the majority have–not to put too fine a point on it–failed. Perhaps it’s because of this fact that producers initially wanted to remake the 1932 Universal classic as a dark, violent and v. v. serious horror flick. But cooler heads prevailed. After many years in development, director Stephen Sommers’ incredibly entertaining take–think Indiana Jones meets Terminator–got the go-ahead. And to think we might’ve had a brooding Daniel Day Lewis (no, really) instead of a delightfully hammy and heroic Brendan Fraser. Co-starring Rachel Weisz, John Hannah and, as the Mummy himself, Arnold Vosloo, the swashbuckling first film of the trilogy is far from perfect. (And we need not address the sequels.) But perhaps the great Roger Ebert said it best in his 1999 review: “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” Amen. – Emma Badame

Everyone’s Gotta Eat

The Mummy was a star-making role for Fraser that continues to endure over 20 years later, but unfortunately, his next three projects wouldn’t reach such heights (to put it kindly). Three months after The Mummy, Dudley Do-Right, a film where Fraser gets in touch with his Canadian roots by playing a dim-witted Mountie, was released to a less than tepid response. Based on a character featured on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the live adaptation failed to capture the dorky whimsy of the cartoon and fell flat on its face — rather fitting given the bumbling character.

Fraser would fare slightly better when he went toe to toe with the bewitching Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled, a remake of the 1967 film of the same name. Directed by the late great Harold Ramis, the Faust adaptation had flashes of greatness but failed to deliver as a whole, though Fraser’s performance was hardly to blame. A talented comedic actor, Fraser’s turn as the besotted Elliot Richards (and Jefe and Mary and Abraham Lincoln) was heartwarming and camp in all the right ways.

Before returning to The Mummy franchise, Fraser starred in Monkeybone, an adaptation of the comic book Dark Town. Fraser led a very talented ensemble, including Whoopi Goldberg, Bridget Fonda, Dave Foley, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Megan Mullally, among others in a film that just never met its potential. Full of interesting stop-motion inserts, Monkeybone is brimming with imagination and creativity that is never fully realised. – Rachel Ho

The Family Man        

Brendan Fraser has a bit of a Nicolas Cage/Adam Sandler/Adrien Brody thing going on in his credits. One can side-eye his IMDb profile and infer that he doesn’t always choose roles based on their dramatic oomph. Surely, the 17 script rewrites for Escape from Planet Earth should have been a warning sign. Admittedly, making a dump truck full of money might outweigh being artistically and creatively challenged. But who is really to say that the family-oriented streak of Fraser’s career, a natural offshoot of his George of the Jungle success, wasn’t artistically satisfying? Voicing a squirrel alongside a Raccoon played by Liam Neeson, who never saw a paycheck he disliked, Fraser showed ample versatility after romping with the animals of Furry Vengeance. The IMDb trivia for the latter notes, “Brendan Fraser admits that he is ashamed of this film” and rightly so. – PM

He’s a Serious Actor!

Fraser actually has some truly great credits that shouldn’t make an Oscar for The Whale such a jaw-dropper. He probably doesn’t get enough credit as a dramatic actor, though, simply because of the other comparatively titanic performances in these films. In Gods and Monsters, for example, he plays the sexy, if simple, gardener to Ian McKellen’s captivating turn as Frankenstein director James Whale. McKellen arguably gives the performance of his career as old queen thirsting after young blood, but Fraser gives the epitome of a well-balanced supporting turn. He’s not there to steal the scenes, but rather to make the star shine.

Ditto in The Quiet American where his performance as a young doctor wooing a Vietnamese woman. The role again lets Fraser play off his boy-next-door charm quite brilliantly, yet he’s simply overshadowed by Michael Caine’s riveting performance as a British reporter who suspects the doctor of being a spy, partly as a convenient narrative to oust a romantic rival. Where Gods and Monsters makes the most of Fraser’s American Boy charm, The Quiet American harnesses his nondescript blandness in a most complimentary way. Thanks to Fraser, Pyle is coolly camouflaged.

The most capital-A Acting that Fraser’s career pre-Whale though is Crash. Playing a hotshot attorney and husband to Sandra Bullock’s prejudiced housewife (until she falls down the stairs and gets cured of racism), Fraser, like the rest of the cast, gets a few choice moments to shout, emote, and get angry. Crash might not age as well as other Oscar Best Picture winners, but the acting is, admittedly, faultless. Fraser holds his own amid a heavyweight ensemble. This unsung and overlooked trio of performances arguably are the small fish in The Whale’s mighty belly. – PM


The TIFF Tribute Awards and Whale premiere are Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022.