Essays · Movies

The Multifaceted Career of Brendan Fraser

There is a Brendan Fraserssance on the horizon, which is overdue for this versatile performer.
Brendan Fraser The Mummy
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on August 17th, 2020

Brendan Fraser has worn many hats during his career, from his role as the suave Rick O’Connell in the Mummy franchise to playing the titular wild man in George of the Jungle. He was a leading man for blockbusters throughout the 1990s, his physicality and charm winning the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. Fraser is an actor known for his versatility, too, delivering laughs in comedies such as Monkeybone and reeling it in for more serious efforts such as Crash.

But his skill was taken for granted during his prime. As Zach Baron writes in a 2018 profile on Fraser for GQ magazine, “He’d continue to take more traditional leading-man parts, [but] he ultimately found most of his success with his shirt off.” Fraser became known as a beefcake, often showing off his body, starting with his unfrozen caveman character in Encino Man in 1992 and continuing through The Mummy Returns in 2001. This is what brought people to movie theaters. It wasn’t about his acting; audiences only cared about his appearance.

Fraser capitalized on what drew in moviegoers, however, to then additionally showcase his other talents. Many of his roles involved physical comedy, where he would throw his body around and yell as he tumbled through the air or trip over his own feet. Fraser used his size to his advantage, as his stocky frame only exaggerated these moments, making the audience laugh at the big, dumb man who just keeps getting hurt. He’s a great slapstick performer and built a career around his willingness to get as beat up as possible.

However, while Fraser’s physicality was the initial draw — both in its visual appeal and for his goofy stunts — he proved himself capable of playing more than just loveable idiots. He demonstrates a duality in his characters that elevate them beyond stereotypical figures. There is a gentleness to Fraser as he contrasts his intense physicality with soft facial expressions.

His true talent is evident early in his career, particularly with the 1994 stoner comedy Airheads. Fraser co-stars as one of the members of a failing rock trio who wind up hijacking a radio station. As Chazz, the infuriating yet endearing bandleader, he portrays sexy bad boy charisma that veers towards silliness. He just never takes himself too seriously. His long, wavy hair is reminiscent of hair metal bands of the ’80s, and his smoldering look is something out of a music video, but then he is quick to flip that pout it into a wide-eyed look of incredulity or an expression of panic, combined with his trademark deep yet shrill voice.

Fraser also uses his well-known movements to portray Chazz’s more emotional side as he progressively softens his body throughout the film. He stands tall and brave when he is first introduced, intimidating, and standoffish. But as we get to know him, Fraser relaxes and is much looser. Through his body language, we can see that his emotional walls are crumbling down. This is not the usual annoying punk of ’90s comedies.

While it’s rather obvious that Chazz and his bandmates are delusional musicians who want nothing more than fame, Fraser also portrays a tender, understandable guy who just wants to achieve his dreams. Anyone can identify with that desire and that drive to do what will make you feel fulfilled. While this is taken to the extreme with a hostage situation, that empathy never goes away. These three guys just want to be famous and are by no means violent. They just love their music.

Fast forward five years and Fraser’s career had really taken off. He starred as the wild George of the Jungle and the sweet yet naive Adam in Blast From The Past. These roles again emphasized Fraser’s comedic work, which is based on the physicality of a larger man. He is meant to start the film looking intimidating and end the film by showing his sweet side — not unlike what is seen in Airheads; this is obviously what Fraser does best.

However, this shifted with the 1999 horror-action film The Mummy. It is perhaps the best confluence of Fraser’s skills, with his character Rick O’Connell exemplifying how easily he can meld elements of comedy, drama, action, and horror into one charming character. Again, Fraser is able to manipulate his body to portray the brave stance of the action star and the panicked running of a horror movie’s potential next victim. He puts his own twist on the iconic adventurer Indiana Jones and makes it his own with comedic timing and his talent for exaggerated body movements.

The comedic timing releases tension in some of the film’s scariest moments. And his screams of terror create some of the film’s funniest. While the comedy comes from cleverly written lines, he is still able to make them uniquely his in the way he uses his face. He widens his big eyes in fear until they look like they’ll pop out of his head. His mouth is often stretched as big as possible when he screams. When he runs, it is with his whole body as arms and legs flail about. Fraser is able to use the physicality that is expected of him and in doing so creates a hilarious action hero who isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself.

Despite his skills and his range as a performer, Fraser stopped appearing in major films in the late 2000s. One reason for his decline as an action and comedy star was the degradation of his body after doing a lot of his own stunts. That physicality he was so known for and which made him stand out as a star eventually just brought his body to the point of exhaustion. He underwent multiple surgeries to help repair his injuries, but it all began to take a toll on his ability to perform. 

More than a decade later, his career is on the rise again, thanks to the DC series Doom Patrol. In his role as Cliff Steele/Robotman, Fraser deftly weaves dramatic and comedic performances to create a complex vision of a superhuman being. Because he’s only the voice of Robotman, he is not able to rely on his expressive eyes and body movement. So he uses his distinctively deep yet shrill vocal delivery as he lets out a stream of curses, making the audience laugh and also realize the gravity of the situation at hand.

Fraser’s shift to voice acting proves that he is not a one-trick pony. While he’s known for having created memorable comedy performances with his body, he is now showing that he can be funny with just his voice, too. This adaptability, paired with his ability to maneuver between drama and comedy, is what makes Fraser such an engaging and multifaceted performer. While he has stopped relying so much on his physical talents, Fraser has entered a new era of his career.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)