Brendan Fraser’s supposedly making a comeback, or a Brenaissance. You may have heard as much. Those are strong words, too, because they presuppose that Fraser went somewhere and emerged, fully formed, into Martin Scorsese’s new project, Killers of the Flower Moon, that’s currently shooting in Oklahoma. News of that casting met with dramatic results. People were incredibly happy for Fraser to land this role, years after his career ceased to flow like gangbusters, during a period when Fraser had a lot going on otherwise. For one thing, he believes that he was blacklisted from Hollywood following alleged sexual misconduct by producer Peter Berk. For another, Fraser’s suffered some injuries that required surgery. He’s been through some sh*t and recently, Fraser grew visibly moved upon hearing that people were rooting for him.
Well, the thing is, Fraser never completely disappeared. Sure, the blockbuster roles faded — yet people still remember how charismatic he was in The Mummy, George of the Jungle, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Airheads, Bedazzled, and so on — but he’s been regularly acting in smaller gigs. There’s also a fantastic role that Fraser picked up a handful of years ago. And it’s a role that he is absolutely crushing. If you’ve ever considered yourself to be a Brendan Fraser fan, you’d be doing yourself a genuine disservice if you didn’t indulge in this one.
I’m talking about Doom Patrol, the DC Universe show that got picked up by HBO Max and is now streaming its third season. It’s a show about f*cked up, misfit superheroes and stacked with a wonderful cast including Matt Bomer, who gives a layered portrayal of a gay superhero, the bandaged-up Negative Man (Matt Bomer), and Diane Guerrero as 64 incarnations of Crazy Jane (including a Karen before her time). Y’all, Diane is phenomenal and gets to do so much more than play the cliché that we saw in Orange Is the New Black, but we’re here to talk about Brendan Fraser.
He’s a guy who’s adept at being funny and using his physicality, often using his looming size (along with exaggerated facial expressions) to advantage for stunts, like swinging from vines, and he wasn’t afraid to push things for action pictures like The Mummy to his eventual detriment. In 2018, Fraser told GQ that he really f*cked up his body in movies. Knee and back surgeries are no joke and probably made him long for the days when Weezing the Juice in Encino Man was the most dangerous move on the agenda. Action and comedy aside, though, Fraser has also taken dramatic turns, as with Crash and Gods and Monsters, which proved that he could have lot going on under the surface.
With Doom Patrol, Fraser gets to do it all in an unusually hefty voice role:
– He gets to be tragic and angry and funny and frustrated and soft and harsh and caring and, paradoxically, very human, despite his character enduring a living nightmare in a robot’s body. He’s the tin man with a heart, kind-of, only that we’re talking about a brain.
– Fraser portrays a former race car-driving superstar, Cliff Steele, who suffers a tragic, seemingly life-ending accident. His body is destroyed (and there are particulars that I don’t want to spoil here), but Dr. Niles Caulder is able to extract Cliff’s brain, which he places into a robot’s body. This transforms Cliff into Robotman and, of course, technically preserves Cliff’s “life” and gives him superhuman strength and all that jazz, and makes him virtually indestructible. Yet what kind of life, really, is Cliff able to enjoy?
– Cliff can see and hear through Caulder’s engineering, but he can’t feel anything. And I’m not talking about emotions here. There are plenty of those when Cliff sorts out residual feelings about his wife or attempts to reconnect with his daughter. Rather, I’m talking about the sense of touch. Cliff can no longer reach out and pet a dog, for example, or touch a person and feel anything. Nothing tactile registers to him. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, and it’s a heartbreaking realization for viewers to witness. Physical sensations are foreign now; he can’t orgasm (though he can fake it). That’s a source of comedy, sure, but even Cliff’s memories of tactile sensations are fading:
“You know how they say the longer you’re away from people, the harder it is to remember what they look like? I have that but with sensations. I used to hold my arm out when it was raining, feeling the drops hit my skin. I remember doing that but not the feeling. Running my hands through my wife’s hair. In my head, I know it felt amazing. But I don’t know at the same time.”
– Not being able to feel sensations would be difficult for any actor to fathom. However, it’s particularly impressive because Fraser’s most endearing turns on film usually saw him engage in high physical comedy. In Doom Patrol, he’s doing the opposite. His character’s physicality, or should I say, the non-physicality of it all, opens the hatch to a great deal of emotion that he must communicate with only his voice; for the most part, we don’t actually see Fraser in this show, beyond racing flashbacks. It must also be noted that Fraser has given credit where credit is due to his character’s robotic movements. That’s actually Riley Shanahan inside of the suit, as Fraser revealed while reuniting with Scrubs-stars-turned-podcasters Zach Braff and Donald Faison during an episode of Fake Doctors, Real Friends:
“[Riley] is a wonderful comedic performer with fantastic timing, and he is full-on playing the character through a mask. He does the heavy lifting there… It’s like a dream job. Somebody else wears the thing, shows up for you, and in recent months I don’t even go in the studio. I can do ADR on a cell phone.”
Yet Fraser downplaying what he is really doing here. This can’t be an ordinary voice gig. This doesn’t roll out like what Chris Rock described as his typical voice work process while presenting at the Oscars. According to Rock, his experience is what one would ordinarily perceive: he stands in a booth and repeats a few lines (while playing a Madagascar zebra with the boisterous version of Chris Rock’s own personality), and “they pay me a million dollars!”
The voice work required to play Cliff/Robotman seems much more intense. Imagine how difficult it would be to portray someone who cannot feel sensations. Cliff’s consciousness is stuck in a robot body, possibly forever. It’s hell, and he’s frustrated as f*ck while also helping to save the world. It’s a lot of work to be able to express that anguish and balance all those moods, through only a voice when one is also trying to communicate everything that Cliff’s also feeling inside of his soul. It’s a disembodied portrayal, by nature, and Fraser, a very physical actor, must convincingly run the gamut of moods as Riley pulls off Cliff’s often-stilted movements, whether that’s while dancing or perching next to a curb while Fraser purges all of that emotion.
To Fraser’s credit, he expresses Cliff’s frustration and anguish (and his crudeness) while still injecting humor. Metaphorically, he’s swinging from vines here, and you can hear it in his voice. It’s nuts, how he pulls it off, working out his rage by dropping enough f-bombs to rival Sam Jackson. Cliff’s failingly macho struggles come to a surprisingly poignant place, as well, which illustrates the careful, almost precarious balance achieved by the writers. Cliff Steele is a group effort, for sure, yet it’s Fraser’s emotional execution that makes him work (and makes Cliff a believably better person, in time).
Granted, I’m really laying things on thick here, but Doom Patrol deserves all the accolades for being ahead of its time (in comic-book form) and lovingly rendered onscreen by Warner Bros. And Fraser’s role, as he portrays it, feels authentic and earnest. I’m not sure whether this is happening because Fraser has experienced plenty of wars against his own body, and he’s gone through some hell. Yet he’s really doling out even more than Cliff Steele, at least as he was as a human, deserves. Yet that’s the beauty of it all. Fraser’s performance in Doom Patrol is unexpectedly transcendent. He’s at the top of the mountain, man, hacking into consciousness from inside a robot bod. Robotman’s a tough gig, and Fraser’s gonna crush that Scorsese role, too.
‘Doom Patrol’ is currently barreling through Season 3 on HBO Max.