“This is new for me,” Fraser said at Sunday’s fourth annual TIFF Tribute Awards, where he made a charming and self-deprecating speech that played like an early rehearsal for the ones awaiting him on the Oscar trail. “Normally, I’m the guy at the podium who hands these things out.”
Fraser teared up at a thunderous ovation that followed the premiere of “The Whale” in Venice, but TIFF threw him a homecoming party. After Darren Aronofsky’s new film made its North American premiere, TIFF recognized the actor and former Torontonian for his surprising turn as a 600-pound gay man who has alienated his family and spends most of his time binge-eating on the couch.
An adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, “The Whale” is risky even by Aronofsky’s standards. The premise could easily devolve into exploitation, were it not for Fraser’s sensitive and believable performance at its center that’s unlike anything in his career to date. The montage introducing his award included snippets of everything from “The Mummy” and “George of the Jungle” to “Encino Man,” as well as dramatic tangents like “Gods and Monsters,” but none of those roles contained the jolting, transformational power of watching Fraser inhabit a broken figure at the end of his life. (The actor’s own self-imposed exile from the industry as a result of experiencing a sexual assault adds another dimension to the performance.)
Colin Farrell took home the acting prize in Venice for hilarious turn in Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but that fun and soulful delivery is unlikely to generate the hype of Fraser’s comeback narrative. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine other Best Actor candidates — which range from Bill Nighy in “Living” to Austin Butler in “Elvis” — gaining as much enthusiasm in the months ahead as Fraser absorbed in a matter of days for “The Whale.”
Like “The Wrestler,” the movie finds its antihero enduring tremendous physical hurdles as an extension of his internal grief. That film had Mickey Rourke; this one involved a lot of fancy prosthetics. Makeup artist Adrien Morot (“X-Men: Dark Phoenix”) assembled the silicon suit Fraser wore for the movie out of a body scan built by a 3D printer.
“Charlie’s body is so exact down to the size of the pores, the placement of each hair,” Fraser told a TIFF audience during the Q&A for “The Whale” ahead of the awards ceremony. “The first time I saw his torso on a mannequin I thought somebody had ripped off the Tate Modern, because there was a work of art in front of me.”
Hunter’s personal experiences as a closeted gay man who turned to stress-eating while living in northern Idaho informed “The Whale” and the movie seems like a shoo-in for the adapted screenplay category alongside the likes of “Women Talking.”
“Obesity manifests itself in many different ways,” Hunter said at the tribute gala, introducing Fraser and echoing remarks he made at the Q&A earlier in the night. “Many people are big and happy and healthy, but that wasn’t me. … I found an off ramp. With ‘The Whale,’ I wanted to tell the story of a person who so easily could’ve been me. Giving this role to an actor felt like I was giving my heart to someone for safekeeping, and thank god I was able to give it to someone so brilliant, so caring, so loving, so human.”
A similar narrative has formed around Yeoh, whose alternately wacky and charming turn as a Chinese immigrant-turned-multiverse-spanning heroine of surprise summer hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was inspired by co-writer-director Daniel Kwan’s mom. (Also notable: A24, a company that excels at folding its campaigns into festival buzz, produced both “The Whale” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”)
Renewed appreciation for Yeoh has been in the air ever since she walked the stage of SXSW opening night back in March, but the past week cranked up the enthusiasm. Of course, this field already has major competition: Cate Blanchett’s haunting and immersive performance in “TÁR” scored her an acting prize in Venice as well as a tribute in Telluride, but Yeoh also made the rounds there thanks to an in-person appearance for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” tied to the 30th anniversary of distributor Sony Pictures Classics.
At TIFF, she accepted the inaugural TIFF Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award with a galvanizing speech that acknowledged her complicated relationship to Hollywood.
“As women, we are privileged to work in one of the most forward-thinking and open-minded industries, yet women are still glaringly underrepresented in the top levels of our industry,” she said. “So the privilege of being women filmmakers also comes with a heavy burden. In addition to often needing to be twice as good and often only half as compensated, we must also be leaders, role models, and beacons for the next generation, which is why we need to amplify our voices, challenge the status quo, and empower women to get involved both in front of and behind the camera.”
More celebrations are ahead for both actors. Fraser will travel to the London Film Festival with “The Whale” in early October, while Yeoh receives the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on December 9, the same day that “The Whale” opens in theaters. Meanwhile, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” continues to perform at theaters nationwide weeks after its VOD release. That staying power ensures that she will maintain a strong presence in awards season even if she manages to take a break.