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Comeback Kid: The Return of Brendan Fraser

6 min read
The Whale - Brendan Fraser

The Whale - Brendan Fraser - Courtesy of A24

Comeback Kid: The Return of As wordsmith and scholar James T. Smith once eloquently put “don't call it a comeback, I been here for years” and never are those words truer than in Hollywood. It's so often the case that people are in and out of the spotlight at the drop of a hat. Actors have their moments and then it fades for whatever reason only for some director to give them a role that completely changes things.

The most obvious example, outside of Elvis Presley salvaging his career and cementing his legacy with his '68 Special, might be John Travolta. Victim of a slew of poor choices – Travolta turned down roles in An Office and a Gentleman and American Gigolo, both roles made a leading man out of Richard Gere – the Grease legend was handed a lifeline in 1994 by Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction which made him an A-list movie star again, gained him a new legion of fans and an Oscar nomination.

Since then the Hollywood comeback has worked for actors time and time again, not just in movies either, but the birth of prestige television means actors have found new life headlining major television series. Winona Ryder made a huge comeback thanks to Stranger Things, while Neil Patrick Harris turned what could have been a second-rate Joey Tribiani knock-off on How I Met Your Mother into a  launching pad for a very successful second wave of his career.

It's often where the comeback makes the biggest impact. Take Robert Downey Jr, once an 80s heartthrob, in the 90s he cemented himself as a proper actor with works like Chaplin before his infamous firing from TV series Ally McBeal due to his long standing drug addiction issues. The road to the comeback, littered with arrests and stints in prison was hard won. RDJ went from leading films to playing second, third or fourth string in major films like A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac. But his comeback in 08 was perfectly captured by the one-two punch of box office juggernaut Iron Man, placing him as the head of the MCU for it's first ten years and catapulting him to the top of the Box Office and an Academy Award nomination for his scene stealing turn in comedy Tropic Thunder.

Think of Mickey Rourke, aside from the odd supporting performance in films by Tony Scott or , his career was over after he denounced Hollywood for boxing. His boost came when Rodriguez made him unrecognisable for his role as tough thug Marv in comic book thriller Sin City, but the bigger break came, and a tasty slew of awards and nominations, when cast him as a washed puncher in The Wrestler. It's Aronofsky again who is bringing someone back.

The long road back to the A-list for Brendan Fraser is a little darker and more upsetting than most. Unlike Rourke, or Downey or even Ryder who were all looked down on for their personal and legal issues, Fraser was a victim of the same blacklisting that became the backbone of what the MeToo movement was all about. Fraser was, for those who might have forgotten, a bona fide movie star in the 90s and early 00s. Heading up enjoyable comedies like Encino Man and School Ties, Fraser showed his range with family film George of the Jungle and his dramatic range with biographical drama Gods and Monsters opposite Ian McKellen.

It wasn't until 1999's The Mummy that Fraser became a proper leading man though. The , Stephen Sommers big budget blockbusting take on the classic Universal horror film saw Fraser head up an ensemble cast as the gun-toting swashbuckling American adventurer Rick O'Connell. As O'Connell Fraser channelled his inner Erroll Flynn and Harrison Ford for the roguish lead who romances bookish English flower Evelyn Carnahan (). The film mixed state-of-the-art visual effects to bring Arnold Voosloo's titular villain to life with good old fashioned adventure filmmaking.

At it's heart what made work was that Fraser got the memo, he was in on the joke. The central cast of Fraser, Weisz and John Hannah made the film an easy to like summer blockbuster based on their easy chemistry and the energy they brought to the film. What could have been a flop spawned not only two sequels – and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – but an entire sub-franchise with The Scorpion King and it's many sequels.

Fraser capitalised on the success of The Mummy by continuing to diversify. Not only did he do those lucrative sequels but returned to intimate dramas for The Quiet American with Michael Caine and Best Picture winner Crash. He headed up comedy remake Bedazzled, and family animation-hybrid Looney Tunes: Back in Action as well as under seen but immensely enjoyable fantasy film Inkheart.

What has given a resonance and weight to the comeback trail for Fraser and his participation in Aronofsky's The Whale is that his blacklisting was because he dared to speak out about abuse in Hollywood circles. While he was never out of work, the work was never what it should have been for a proper leading man. Fraser was, essentially, the pre-curser to Chris Pratt. A funny guy who became a dramatic lead and action hero thanks to a single film. Even in the run up to The Whale, Fraser showed his range with a suitably sinister turn in drama series The Affair as a nasty prison warden, a supporting role in drama Gimme Shelter and perhaps most beloved his turn as Robot-Man in CW favourite Doom Patrol.

What makes The Whale so significant and the importance of Brendan Fraser's comeback is the fact that this is the first major post-MeToo return and one that coincides with the rise in millennials and General Z's in film journalism. A film these days cannot just exist and make money, money is important but almost more than that is it's internet presence, it's memes, it's cult following. A film like Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom can make over a billion dollars but has no life in the internet conversation.

However, the generation that grew up on films like Scooby-Doo or The Mummy can pretty much demand a career be brought back on the power of their nostalgic joy. Hayden Christensen's return to the Star Wars universe is no mistake when children who grew up on the prequels are now adults with genuine clout and say. The now twenty and thirty year olds who hold films like The Mummy in high regard due to their childhood memories are the target audience for big studio films.

The recurrent meme about The Mummy is that the sexual chemistry between Fraser and Weisz was so much that it pretty much made an entire generation bisexual, now that might not be entirely true (though we have yet to compile a full report on everyone born between 1993 and 2003) but the memes based on The Mummy means that it still draws strong viewing numbers on television, it still remains spoken about and the stars of that film have remained popular.

Fraser's turn in The Whale also reminds us that he was always a proper actor as well as a leading man. The now cancelled Batgirl film might have been a chance to satisfy those who hunger for him in a big studio film, but The Whale is a work that perhaps allows Fraser the room to show something he might not have been able to when The Mummy was still a viable franchise – this sensitivity. It's interesting to see that his next project is also an awards contender, next year's Martin Scorsese crime epic Killers of the Flower Moon.

The affection with which the internet treats Fraser is only going to intensify during the awards season, and with good reason, for a whole generation he is their Indiana Jones, and people are willing him to do well after what he went through. It shows that when a work, no matter how silly or throwaway it may seem, resonates with people it can often be what keeps both yourself and those who love it going. There may well be people who grew up rewatching their VHS of The Mummy or George of the Jungle who will take a chance on a small drama film about an obese man purely because they want to see a movie star they used to enjoy on screen again.

What this proves, and what this cements for certain, is that as far as comebacks go – it couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy. Oscar or no on Oscar night, it doesn't matter, the truth of what happened to Brendan Fraser is out there and he is finally getting the love and the praise he has long since deserved. And now we wait for The Mummy 4. 

Photo courtesy of A24