When I sent out a tweet asking my followers to share their favourite examples of the Female Gaze in film and television, the responses were as varied as they were revealing. The usual suspects came up - Outlander, the Magic Mike movies, basically every Hollywood Chris - and a deeper discussion evolved on how to define the gaze as well as unconventional ways it could be implemented. Everyone got a look in, from Harvey Keitel in The Piano to the Amazons in Wonder Woman, but there was one name who kept coming up in huge numbers from my followers that surprised me.
A Tumblr post gained popularity a couple of years ago for arguing in favour of George of the Jungle being the perfect example of the Female Gaze in film. It’s a convincing piece that lays out a detailed case, and it reminded a lot of women of this generation of how potent a figure actor Brendan Fraser was as a leading man for the short burst of time he dominated the big screen. Now, with Universal rebooting The Mummy yet again simultaneously as fresh franchise bait and a star vehicle for one of the industry’s most ubiquitous stars, audiences are returning to the Fraser films, remembering, free of the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, just how good he could be.
The first thing to remember about the Stephen Sommers action-adventure take on the classic horror story is that it’s fun. The Mummy prides itself on its old-school approach to the genre, lifting elements from the same source material that inspired Indiana Jones. Sure, the special effects are ropey and the sequels offered diminishing returns, but a film that many critics wrote off at the time as a misfire has retained much of its audience enthusiasm by merit of being unabashedly enjoyable. It embraces the silliness, throws in a convincing romance, has a few genuine scares, and revels in its retro appeal. It’s an ideal vehicle for Fraser, and much of the film’s success can be traced back to his performance. Fraser’s Rick O’Connell is a hero who knows he’s the hero of an adventure romp: Cocky without being off-putting, charming yet not above getting messy, a gleam in his eye and a gun in his hand. Fraser seems keenly influenced by old Errol Flynn movies, but with a slapstick edge. Imagine if Robin Hood were ready to take a pie in the face at any moment. He’s also an immensely appealing partner in an equally balanced romantic pairing, something that’s depressingly rare in popcorn fare.
Fraser as O’Connell shares many qualities with his performance in George of the Jungle, as well as several of his earlier comedic roles. The willingness to wholeheartedly delve into goofball territory is instantly endearing, and he does it so well. Tom Cruise may run, but Brendan Fraser pratfalls on a whole new level of skill. As the eponymous George, his physicality balances a fine line between Tarzan and Jim Carrey. He slams into trees, trips into the dirt, and has one particularly memorable post-shower scene that sent Tumblr ablaze a decade and a half later. His comedic styling seems out of time, a call-back to classic slapstick that is best exemplified in non-modern stories like George of the Jungle, as well as Blast From the Past and even Dudley Do-Right. It’s a performance that could so easily have come across as infantilized or too guileless, but there’s always a self-knowing smile on standby. Like a cartoon, it’s fun to see stupid things happen to him, but even more satisfying when he secretly has the upper hand. Fraser never seems to give anything less than 100%, even in mediocre fare like Bedazzled and the catastrophic flop Monkeybone, which grossed a mere $7.6m on a $75m budget.
His dramatic chops were nothing to be sneezed at either, with standout performances in Gods and Monsters, where he played the Marine turned gardener who forms a tentative friendship with director James Whale (Ian McKellen), and The Quiet American, alongside Michael Caine, as a CIA agent sent to 1950s Vietnam to take care of America’s interests, which may be his most striking role. While his range is not expansive, he works well within those limitations and harnesses that sardonic sweetness so well used in comedy to great effect in roles like James Whale’s pseudo-companion or the idealistic American who views the turmoil of invasion and war in blindly black and white terms. Hell, he’s even pretty good in Crash.
There’s a line in Roger Ebert’s review of Gods and Monsters, where he says, “Fraser is subtle and attuned to the role, but doesn’t project strong sexuality”. That’s something that I would argue only adds to his appeal - in his prime, he was undoubtedly sexy, but never overbearing in his physicality or condescending in his personality. With Rachel Weisz in The Mummy and Leslie Mann in George of the Jungle, you completely buy that this man sees these women as his equals, or possibly even his superiors, and he respects that. The default mode of the romantic subplot in modern blockbusters is that of a less interesting and more combative Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, where un-witty hostilities suddenly make way for male dominance and a happy ending. Fraser worked best as the romantic hero in an equally balanced game, giving the women a stronger dynamic to work with and for the ultimate final kiss to feel wholly earned. No wonder so many women see the Female Gaze in his most famous works.
Fraser’s career went into decline around the time The Mummy trilogy ended. He worked consistently but never in a film as high-profile as the series that crowned him as a proper leading man. 2010’s Furry Vengeance, a film Fraser also executive produced, was a low-point, although he completely threw himself into 90 minutes of being attacked by wild animals. Maybe the roles weren’t there for him anymore, or maybe his contentious divorce got in the way (in 2013, Fraser petitioned the courts to reduce his alimony and child support payments, asserting he could no longer meet the high costs). Perhaps his greatest crime was simply to visibly age. In an industry where such a thing is an affront and Tom Cruise is forced to be distractingly ageless in the new take on The Mummy, there’s a strange kind of dignity in Fraser refusing to conceal how time actually impacts the body. No nips, tucks or laughable dye-jobs: Fraser just got older, and that seemed unforgivable to the industry, who have an assembly line of leading men waiting to be shipped for maximum efficiency. He’s a 48 year old father of three who looks like one - larger, a bit balder, his face softened at the edges - and that’s meant to be a bad thing.
It does seem as though Fraser is on the up once again. He appeared in season 3 of The Affair as a menacing prison guard and received many positive reviews for his work. Apparently, creepiness is the accepted alternative to faded beauty. Next, he’ll take a leading role in Danny Boyle’s FX anthology series Trust, as the eccentric private investigator hired to return the kidnapped heir John Paul Getty III to his family, and then join the TV remake of Three Days of the Condor. It seems that Peak TV could be good for Brendan Fraser.
In a recent TV interview, Fraser was asked about the new version of The Mummy, and while his answer was diplomatic, one couldn’t help but feel rather sad for Fraser. Fortunately, he can sleep soundly knowing that everyone likes his hero better than they like Tom Cruise.