The Brenaissance is here. The cinematic comeback of Brendan Fraser has proven one of the true pop culture highlights of 2022, a moment of rare unity as those on and offline gathered to celebrate the actor’s work and overdue return to stardom. While reviews for The Whale, the movie that has him at the front of the Oscar race, have been divided, Fraser’s performance has been nearly universally heralded as one of the year’s best. Part of the allure of the Brenaissance lies in Fraser’s seeming evolution from hunky goofball leading man to character actor and muse of auteurs. It’s a sharp binary with evident appeal, but not entirely accurate to Fraser’s career. He may not have had many opportunities during his career peak to stretch his acting muscles but the chances he took showed off his range. Perhaps the best example of this is 2002’s The Quiet American.
Based on the novel by Graham Greene, The Quiet American was all but abandoned by its distributors Miramax (a less-than-novel occurrence). After initially paying $5.5 million for the rights, they kept the film on the shelf for a year after 9/11, fearful that its themes of American culpability in the escalation of the Vietnam War would be seen as unpatriotic. It was only when the film’s other leading man, Michael Caine, lobbied for a release that Miramax yielded, and he eventually landed The Quiet American‘s sole Oscar nomination. While it is true that this is one of Caine’s best performances (no mean feat in a career like his), Fraser, the actual American, easily matches him beat for beat, often overshadowing the veteran.
Fraser plays Alden Pyle, a seeming idealist who arrives in Saigon in 1952 and meets Thomas Fowler, a disenfranchised English journalist who spends most of his time taking opium and indulging in his lover, Phuong (Đỗ Thị Hải Yến.) Initially presenting himself as an aid worker, Pyle is soon revealed as a CIA operative, one of many in the region working to steer the machinations of the first Indochina war in favor of American interests. The men’s tentative friendship is torn apart not only by politics but for their mutual fetishism towards Phuong, who they both believe they can “save” in their own ways.
By 2002, Fraser was best known to audiences as an action leading man with slapstick chops, the natural halfway point between Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey. Few actors in his generation seemed so primed for the burgeoning franchise era (you do not get to Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok or the entire Guardians of the Galaxy franchise without Fraser laying the path in The Mummy and George of the Jungle.) At his best, Fraser seemed like a throwback to a different era of leading man, more Errol Flynn than Schwarzenegger.
It makes him a perfect fit for Pyle, an amiable-seeming good old American boy with a sharp jaw and the kind of physicality that would have made him the hero of many a war propaganda poster. He represents the sinister faux-heroism at the heart of the nation’s foreign policy. If you’re going to try and overthrow a nation’s government and claim it’s for their own good, why not send the most likeable guy in Hollywood to do the job? It’s a sharp contrast from the 1958 version of the film, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, where Pyle became the hero of an anti-communist screed.
Fraser does not play Pyle as a snickering villain or a gullible fool. His Pyle is all the more dangerous because he truly seems to believe in his anti-democratic agenda. He knows the seductive power of colonialism to men like him, wannabe heroes who prefer brain to brawn. When he shares his beliefs, the notion of a “third force” whose duty is to restore so-called order to the region by taking over both the locals and the colonizers, he comes scarily close to giving a heroic monologue. It’s not hard to see how Fraser could convince the world to do his bidding. Then the veil drops and Pyle’s cowardly side emerges, and Fraser makes the switch seamlessly.
Many a floppy-haired heartthrob has struggled to be taken seriously in an industry where such beefcakes are replaceable the moment they get older or pass their prime. Fraser knows this better than anyone, shunted by Hollywood after a series of work-related injuries and an allegation of sexual assault against the then-president of the HFPA. It feels like a true privilege to see Fraser get his second act, stealing the scene with quirkier, more abrasive characters who spit in the face of heroism or seem confused by the entire concept. Yet, at the heart of every performance he gives is that core of likeability he has always possessed. You want to trust Brendan Fraser, and when he subverts that audience hunger, it’s a thrill to watch. The Brenaissance was a long time coming, but for those who knew where to look, his talent was always there for us to appreciate.