Jake Godfrey takes a look at the eclectic mix of film roles star Brendan Fraser has taken over his 30 years on screen.
There are few actors that are so universally loved, by peers and public alike, as Brendan Fraser. Enjoying a string of successes in the 1990s that would propel him to superstardom, Fraser is the archetypal leading man. From amiable airheads to intense introverts, Fraser combines the looks of a Hollywood heartthrob with the easygoing charm of an everyman. But unlike many actors of his vintage, Fraser was unashamedly brave in his film choices.
He began his movie career as an extra in 1991, appearing in Dogfight as an extra in a fight scene. In an interview, Fraser explained that “They gave me a sailor outfit, along with some other guys, and we did a punch-up scene with some Marines. And I got my Screen Actors Guild card and an extra 50 bucks for the stunt adjustment, ’cause they threw me into a pinball machine. I think I bruised a rib, but I was like: That’s okay! I’ll take it. I can do it again. If you want, I’ll break it. You want me to do it again?”.
He obviously made an impact, because it was only the following year that he landed his first starring role, in Les Mayfield’s directorial debut Encino Man (entitled California Man here in the UK). Playing a caveman frozen for thousands of years who is thawed out in the modern day, the film utilised many of the traits that would become his trademarks: wide eyed optimism, the comic timing of a seasoned pro and the ability to elevate any material through sheer force of personality.
There followed a run of indie films that cemented Fraser as a character actor of high repute, starting with School Ties. It’s a movie with what now looks like the starriest of ensembles, including future Batman and Robin Ben Affleck and Chris O’Donnell, as well as Matt Damon and Cole Hauser. With Honors saw Fraser in a similar setting, in a much more straight-laced role opposite Joe Pesci. Each film Fraser did at this point challenged him to present new facets of himself onscreen, perhaps none more so that cult classic Airheads. Arguably the first time he really got to show off his comedic chops, the film saw him verbally sparring with Adam Sandler and Steve Buscemi as a group of moronic musicians who take the staff of a radio station hostage.
Although uneven as a whole, Fraser takes his stereotype and runs with it, relishing his ridiculous character who emerges as the heart of the film, particularly in a surprisingly emotional speech to his girlfriend during the climax.
But it was a Disney adaptation of a classic American cartoon that really propelled Fraser into the higher echelons of Hollywood.
What remains to this day one of the most delightful live action family films of its, George Of The Jungle – adapted from the cartoon of the same name – sees Fraser utilising his natural charm to bring to innocence of George to life.
The sharp script allows not only for countless slapstick gags (I’m not sure any other film has committed so completely to a single gag quite as well as this film does to George swinging into trees) but also lots of meta and in-jokes about filmmaking and the fourth wall, right down to two of the villains arguing with the narrator. If the film doesn’t convince you of Fraser’s affability, I urge you to watch the moment when he surprised co-star Leslie Mann on talk show Busy Tonight in 2019. Mann proceeds to fawn over Fraser as they discuss memories from the production (including the day Mann’s husband Judd Apatow sneaked onto the set). It’s quite wonderful.
Lightening, however, did not strike twice when he took on another iconic animated character. Dudley Do Right received a critical and commercial drubbing, and while there are some great slapstick sequences, not to mention the chance to see Alfred Molina in full on Terry Jones mode, Fraser is miscast as the straight man.
But before we get to The Mummy, Fraser showed a refreshingly eclectic taste in the film he chose to do next, giving arguably the greatest performance of his career opposite Sir Ian McKellen in Bill Condon’s Gods And Monsters.
The film charts the relationship between original Frankenstein director James Whale and his gardener Clayton Boone, the latter played by Fraser. In complete contrast to the slapstick shenanigans of George, here Fraser was called upon to play a far more complex character, full of self-doubt as Whale becomes infatuated with him. Several scenes called for intense introspection as Boone resists Whale’s advances, Fraser’s features contorted in confusion. McKellen and Fraser duel with delicious dialogue throughout, and the former frequently praised the latter in interviews, saying that felt “total wonder about his performance, there is such subtlety, naturalism and control at the same time”.
Arguably most important film of Fraser’s blockbuster career is The Mummy. Spawning two sequels and an animated series, it sees Fraser as the rough, rugged Rick O’Connell. If George showed off his affability, this allowed him far wider scope to display the full gamut of gallantry, flair and style that constitutes a classic Hollywood hero.
After The Mummy hit big, the offers came flowing, but instead of conforming to the classic Hollywood formula, Fraser continued to take left field roles. Monkeybone, a surreal but sharply scripted story that pairs Fraser with an imaginary monkey, had the potential to become a dark, cult classic in the vein of Danny DeVito’s Death To Smoochy. Sadly, Henry Selick’s film didn’t connect with audiences. Immediately it was followed by another majestic tete-a-tete, this time opposite Michael Caine in Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American. Fraser was well on his way to the being amongst the apex of actors in Hollywood.
There followed a quiet period between The Mummy Returns and his next big hits Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and the second Mummy sequel Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, both in 2008. It was only during the recent MeToo era that Fraser revealed what happened to him, the details of which we’ll skate over in an article celebrating Fraser and his work, but the fallout affected his career in the years between hit films.
In recent times however, Fraser has been prolific. From the aforementioned Journey film to the, in my opinion, far more interesting Inkheart, Fraser’s proclivity for projects that challenge him as an actor is as strong as ever. Take Breakout. Released straight to DVD in 2013 in the UK, Fraser is this time cast in a role that, in the 90s, would have gone straight to Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal. A father breaks out of prison to protect his family, who are being pursued through the jungle by sadistic killers.
Aside from the odd dud, like 2011’s frankly abysmal Furry Vengeance, Fraser is now set for a high profile career comeback, as he films western epic Killers Of The Flower Moon for Martin Scorsese. He takes his place in an ensemble cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jesse Plemons. He has also been cast as the lead in Darren Aronofsky’s next film, The Whale, playing an obese man who spurned his family in favour of a relationship. These roles will likely put him back on people’s radars, but also once again challenge him to play the kinds of parts he hasn’t yet tackled.
Yet one of the best things to happen in recent years is the sheer outpouring of love for the man. When he did a virtual meet and greet in 2020, several videos began circulating of people of all backgrounds singing his praises as he became overwhelmed with the amount of support. You only have to look at his appearances on talk shows to see what a positive force he is, not to mention his co-stars and peers praising him whenever his name crops up.
His reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood is assured and, hopefully, with Scorsese and Aronofsky on the horizon, we will be seeing a lot more of Fraser on the big screen before too long.
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The wonderfully eclectic film choices of Brendan Fraser – Film Stories