Brendan ‘Tarzan’ Fraser: To Hollywood hell and back
How the star was smacked down in his prime, but through the love of his fans came right back
It’s very difficult for a once-famous actor to disappear. Especially in an era of Peak TV, mass-produced scripted content from everyone from Amazon to Facebook, and tabloids hounding even C-list sitcom actors from yesteryear currently paying the bills by working in supermarkets.
But Brendan Fraser, that handsome prince of rubber-faced 1990s comedy, did indeed vanish – suddenly disappearing into a void usually reserved for the disgraced, the disliked or the plain deceased.
When a removal from the spotlight doesn’t fit into one of those three categories, it’s usually motivated by abuse of power – actions of the same sort of lurking industry ghoul that snuffed out the careers of, say, Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, just two women whose own inexplicable vanishings were exposed in the past year as being engineered rather than arbitrary.
But Fraser’s own disappearing act was, somewhat unusually for a man, one and the same, involving an allegation of assault, paranoia over subsequent blacklisting, and an abruptly curtailed career that once again exposed the rot often found at the heart of Hollywood.
Now Fraser returns to screens in Danny Boyle’s Getty kidnapping series Trust, his most high-profile role in nearly a decade. Starring as the “family fixer” tasked with finding the kidnapped John Paul Getty III, Fraser is a little older, a little rounder, but just as intriguingly magnetic as he was in films like George of the Jungle, Gods and Monsters and The Mummy, a trio of star vehicles mightily impressive in their diversity and the responsibilities they placed on him.
Born in Indianapolis but raised in Canada, Fraser studied theatre at university, before migrating to Los Angeles to find acting work. Cast as a 1950s prep school student encouraged to hide his Jewish background in 1992’s School Ties, Fraser was one of a number of the film’s stars (among them Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris O’Donnell) to be earmarked for future success.
But early on he diversified – following up the social drama with the cult caveman comedy Encino Man and the very 1990s hair-metal satire Airheads, along with the bizarre religious-fundamentalist thriller The Passion of Darkly Noon, in which he terrorised a mute Viggo Mortensen and, in an odd coincidence, Ashley Judd, all the while half-naked and covered in blood. That to-ing and fro-ing continued throughout the decade.
“He’s that magic combination of a really good-looking man who’s funny and yet a wonderfully serious actor too,” his Gods and Monsters costar Lynn Redgrave told People Magazine in 1999. “He’s going to be big, big, big.”
For a while, he was. He was the charming blank locked up in a bomb shelter for 30 years in the Alicia Silverstone romcom Blast From the Past, the unfulfilled office drone wooed by Elizabeth Hurley’s Devil in the mystifyingly popular remake of Bedazzled, and impressively managed to go toe to toe with Michael Caine as a shifty colonialist CIA operative in The Quiet American.
But most prolifically for a generation of kids born at some point in the 1990s, Fraser was as synonymous with big-budget, live-action family comedies as Robin Williams in his Flubber and Jumanji days. Capturing an on-screen persona somewhere between Harrison Ford and Chris Pratt, Fraser could be as much a swoon-worthy leading man as he could be a lovable goof, a talent put to strong use in George of the Jungle and films like Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But in many respects they, and his trilogy of Mummy movies, were also an albatross – big, showy comedy performances in the kinds of movies that simply don’t get made anymore.
While Fraser was always careful to balance the comedic with the dramatic in selecting his work, his bread and butter were “fun for the whole family” comedy crowd-pleasers, a sub-genre eventually phased out in favour of superhero movies and animation. The idea of a major studio financing a kids’ movie today that entirely revolves around a 40-something land developer being attacked by various CGI animals, as in Fraser’s 2010 comedy vehicle Furry Vengeance, is unthinkable.
Furry Vengeance would be Fraser’s last starring role in a studio movie, a box office bomb arriving just two years after his attempt at launching his own fantasy franchise in the form of Inkheart similarly floundered, along with the belated third entry in the Mummy series – a film that original leading lady Rachel Weisz, by then an Oscar winner, smartly sat out.
On the heels of Furry Vengeance, Fraser seemed to vanish. He worked here and there, on indies with titles like Whole Lotta Sole and supplying his voice to second-tier animated films like The Nut Job and Escape from Planet Earth, but his profile diminished practically overnight.
It was a mystifying drop-off. Rather Fraser only seemed to populate the meaner tabloids, which continue to post unflattering present-day pictures side by side with images of his ripped George of the Jungle bod from over 20 years ago. But despite his disappearance from the big screen, fondness for Fraser’s past work kept intact his not insignificant fan base.
In 2016, a Change.org petition was launched which called on “all networks to please consider Brendan for any upcoming shows/movies that are planned”, adding that he has “[recently] appeared to be very down and out, and us loyal fans feel like we are obliged to help him in any way possible. Please help us get Brendan back on his feet again, we miss him.” The petition ultimately garnered just under 46,000 signatures, claiming victory when he was cast in the Getty series.
Such abundance of empathy appeared to stem from a now infamous interview with AOL’s Build series in December 2016, Fraser sitting down to discuss his recurring role on the critically-acclaimed drama series The Affair. But while The Affair was billed as the start of a comeback for the actor, his demeanour during the talk provoked greater online debate than his actual work, along with numerous cruel memes.
It was, to reference another 1990s comedy superstar turned viral melancholic, an interview not quite as spacey as modern-day Jim Carrey, with all his existential angst and worry, but one that still felt oddly sad. Fraser spoke quietly and scratchily, his eyes down, with questions about his glory days ending up feeling less like an attempt to wring fun anecdotes from his past and more like bullets aimed squarely at a fragile man.
As the interview gained traction across the Internet, many were quick to impart meaning onto his apparent sadness. Some blamed the fact that Tom Cruise had been cast in the leading role of the Mummy reboot, a move fans of the original trilogy considered a kick in the teeth to Fraser. Others blamed Fraser’s 2009 divorce, a messy split that had oddly turned him into a poster boy for men’s rights activists. “This is what alimony does to a man,” states the most popular comment on the interview’s YouTube upload.
The divorce was, disappointingly, the only reason Fraser had been in the headlines since Furry Vengeance. In 2013, Fraser requested a reduction in his alimony payments to ex-wife Afton Smith, the mother of his three children, as he could no longer afford the $50,000 a month in spousal support ordered by the courts.
According to his filing, he was losing $87,000 a month as a result of the alimony, medical bills for a back injury and his various business expenses. Five months later, Smith accused him of hiding his assets to get out of paying. Fraser implied in his AOL interview that the pair were now on good terms, but the legal snafu continues to dog him.
Speaking to GQ earlier this year, Fraser denied that it was a factor in his apparent sadness. Rather he revealed that his mother had died shortly before the AOL interview took place, adding further pressure to an already tense situation – it was Fraser’s first high-profile bit of press in years.
The GQ profile also saw Fraser open up about the physical toll his work took on his body during his prime, from leaping through the jungle to being bashed in the face by stuntmen (“I felt like the horse from Animal Farm, whose job it was to work and work and work”). It was something he previously discussed with AOL.
“I think I asked myself: ‘Why am I running so far and so fast all at once?’ And I won’t lie, it was part and parcel from having done a lot of stunt work in movies like The Mummy,” he said. “I think I was just so game and ready to go, no matter what, that they figured: ‘Well, heck, he’s here, he’s made up, he’s paid for – we might as well have him jump off the cliff or whatever he has to do – light him on fire!’”
Additionally, he alleged that his personal and professional lives were thrown off course by a sexual assault he experienced in 2003 at a Golden Globes party. Fraser claimed that Philip Berk, a former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), touched him inappropriately and assaulted him while attending a Golden Globes party. Berk has strongly denied the allegation, telling GQ that Fraser’s account of the incident, which Berk had previously claimed involved “a pinch” of his rear end, was “a total fabrication”.
In recalling the incident, Fraser claimed he was paralysed with fear in the moment, and later became withdrawn and depressed, wondering if his decision to raise the issue with the HFPA led to a possible blacklisting. An investigation conducted by the HFPA at the time declared that the incident was meant as a joke rather than a sexual advance, with Berk subsequently writing Fraser a letter of apology.
“I became depressed,” Fraser said. “I was blaming myself and I was miserable – because I was saying: ‘This is nothing; this guy reached around and he copped a feel.’ … [It] made me retreat. It made me feel reclusive. I don’t know if this curried disfavour with the group, with the HFPA. But the silence was deafening.”
The HFPA investigated the incident again after the publication of the GQ profile, but found the same conclusion as before. In a statement, the HFPA said that they wanted “to reiterate that the HFPA understands today – as it did 15 years ago – that what Mr Fraser experienced was inappropriate”. Berk remains a HFPA member and Golden Globe voter.
Fraser’s GQ profile was a viral smash, not only for its arrival in the immediate wake of the #MeToo movement, or its ability to answer one of Hollywood’s biggest movie star mysteries of the 21st century (the profile was titled, quite literally, “What ever happened to Brendan Fraser?”) but because of Fraser’s unique openness.
He spoke about his insecurities, how lack of work contributed to fears that he was unpopular or disliked, and the surreal oddness of suddenly becoming incredibly famous and then having it all go away. It was everything a famous face isn’t supposed to talk about in public, months before the public shaming of Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens led to an outpouring of support from jobbing actors, and humanised a man who for so long existed as an image, then a memory, and then a TMZ punchline.
Fraser’s comeback will inevitably remind audiences of his striking versatility as a performer, but it also marks a Hollywood in the throes of trying to right itself for the sins of its past, slowly helping fix the many scattered individuals it has over the years attempted to wear down and break.
- © The Daily Telegraph