“I could relate to many, many, many of the experiences and emotions that Charlie, which is Brendan Fraser’s character, was portraying,” Patricia Nece recalls after watching a preview copy of the new film “The Whale.”
Much of the movie “rang true and hit home for me as things that I, too, had experienced,” Ms. Nece, the board of directors’ chair of the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) and a person living with obesity, shares with this news organization.
In theaters as of December 9, The Whale chronicles the experience of a 600-lb, middle-aged man named Charlie. Throughout the film, Charlie seeks to rebuild his relationship with his estranged teenage daughter. Charlie had left his daughter and family to pursue a relationship with a man, who eventually died. As he navigates the pain surrounding his partner’s death and his lack of community, Charlie turns to food for comfort.
When the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Mr. Fraser received a 6-minute standing ovation. However, activists criticized the movie for casting Fraser over an actor with obesity as well as its depiction of people with obesity.
Representatives from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance contend that casting an actor without obesity only contributes to ongoing bias against people of size. “Medical weight stigma and other socio-political determinants of health for people of all sizes cause far more harm to fat people than body fat does. Bias endangers fat people’s health. Anti-obesity organizations, such as those consulted with for this movie, contribute to stigma rather than reducing it as they claim,” NAAFA wrote in a statement to this news organization.
And they added that though the fat suit used in the movie may be superior to previous ones, it is still not an accurate depiction: “The creators of The Whale consider its CGI-generated fat suit to be superior to tactile fat suits, but we don’t. The issue with fat suits in Hollywood is not that they aren’t realistic enough. The issue is that they are used rather than using performers who actually live in bodies like the ones being depicted. If there is a 600-pound character in a movie, there should be a 600-pound human in that role. Rather than concentrate on the hype around the fake fat body created for The Whale, we want to see Hollywood create more opportunities for fat people across the size spectrum, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.”
Prosthetics vs. reality?
Ms. Nece says she understands the controversy surrounding the use of fat suits but believes that it was not done in poor taste.
“OAC got involved with the movie after Brendan was already chosen for the part, and we never would have gotten involved with it had the prosthetics or fat suit been used to ridicule or make fun of people with obesity, which is usually the case,” she explains.
“But we knew from the start that that was never the intent of anyone involved with The Whale. And I think that’s shown by the fact that Brendan and Darren Aronofsky, the director, reached out to people who live with obesity on a daily basis to find out and learn more about it and to educate themselves about it,” Ms. Nece continues.
In a Daily Mail article, Mr. Fraser credited his son Griffin, who is autistic and obese, with helping him understand the struggles that people with obesity face.
Rachel Goldman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York and a professor in the psychology department at New York University, notes that there are other considerations that played into casting. “I know there was some pushback in terms of could, a say 600-lb individual, even be able to go to be on set every day and do this kind of work, and the answer is we don’t know.”
“I’m sure Darren chose Brendan for many reasons above and beyond just his body. I think that’s very important to keep in mind that just as much as representation is very important, I think it is also about finding the right person for the right role,” adds Dr. Goldman, who served as a consultant to the film.