I remember going in to watch 1994’s Airheads at the cinema, at the time tempted to do so more by the name of Michael Lehmann on the end credits than Adam Sandler and Brendan Fraser above the title. Steve Buscemi’s presence helped too, of course. But Lehmann had, after all, come to the project off the back of the unfairly maligned Hudson Hawk, and also, this is the man who gave the world Heathers. Can’t grumble with that.
I’d not seen Brendan Fraser on the big screen before, although even by this stage, he’d earned some currency. Encino Man – California Man in the UK – had overcome savage reviews to prove a decent hit. School Ties, that I’d catch up with a few years later, was earning its ensemble deserved plaudits. Airheads alerted me to his natural comic touch though, but I’d be lying if I foresaw what lay ahead for him over the decade that followed.
For a short period, after all, he became one of the most popular movie stars in the world.
Watch Out For That Tree
The ascent at the box office started in earnest with a surprise hit. Whilst Disney hoped for decent returns for its 1997 Christmas release George Of The Jungle, it can’t quite have predicted its level of success. Off a $55m expenditure, the movie tripled its budget, earning just shy of $175m at the global box office, and lots more when it landed on video and DVD.
Crucially, George Of The Jungle was and is a delight, a winking-at-the-audience live action family film, that nurtures, loves and repeats its one core joke: that George keeps swinging into trees. Rarely has a film embraced a single gag so successfully. But then, of course, it had a leading man who could sell it. Time and time again.
Brendan Fraser’s performance as George displays the kind of easy, relatable charm that makes a movie star. Because he’s an easy hook for the audience: funny, someone you can root for, and, well, funny. I still mourn that we didn’t get a cinematic universe of George Of The Jungle films with Fraser in the leading role, with Disney instead pissing out a forgettable straight to video/DVD sequel instead. It’d be remiss not to point out the strength of the entire ensemble in the original film – Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church, Richard Roundtree – but I’d also suggest it’s Fraser strongly leading it. It was a breakthrough film for him. The bit where the rest of the world started to notice him.
George Of The Jungle was the start of the purple patch for Fraser, and what was refreshing was there was little sense he was compromising on the films he wanted to make in the midst of it. After all, 1998 saw one of his best outright acting performances, opposite Sir Ian McKellen in Bill Condon’s wonderful Gods & Monsters, quickly followed up with the charming and moderately successful romcom Blast From The Past. And it was in that period of critical and commercial success that Fraser’s first summer blockbuster was released.
Show Me The Mummy
There are lots of reasons for the success of 1999’s The Mummy reboot. Writer/director Stephen Sommers got the tone right for a start, fusing a horror story with a bit of an Indiana Jones-style adventure. But it was the casting that outright sold it. Fraser, as Rick O’Connell, was a proper, old-style leading man. The Indiana Jones tones to his performance too were and are clear, but there’s enough in his work to make him a matinee star in his own right. He’s convincing with the action, effective with the quips, and along with Rachel Weisz (absolutely his equal here, in one of her most fun roles), sits at the core of a really fun movie. In the summer of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Mummy became a – yes!- monster hit, and Fraser’s name was linked with more and more prominent roles.
But he didn’t take them.
Instead, he kept mixing up commercial fare with projects he was keen to put his new-found box office heft behind. Dudley Do-Right, his immediate follow-on from The Mummy (and a movie that had been shot before The Mummy landed), is a film I’d wager even the people who worked on barely remember, and it quickly collapsed out of cinemas following its late summer ’99 release.
Yet Fraser was already deep into further projects. He signed up for the remake of Bedazzled for the late Harold Ramis, a middling hit co-starring Elizabeth Hurley. The Fraser peak, though came with the three films that he made next. But there was a familiar paradox: at the height of someone’s fame came the seeds to their commercial fall.
Henry Selick’s Monkeybone was the moment, I’d suggest, when Hollywood got suspicious of Fraser’s box office appeal. A deliciously offbeat project, and not entirely a successful one, I wonder if Monkeybone would even had got the greenlight if Fraser hadn’t become attached. But he did, and it did, and whilst the movie is now regarded as a box office failure, I’d argue it’s a very noble one, with lots in to enjoy and admire. That’s not supposed to sound like faint praise, either.
However, crucially for Fox, Fraser’s name above the title couldn’t sell it, and that would have rung an alarm bell. Given the nature of the project, could a Tom Cruise or a Tom Hanks have brought in more punters? Maybe, maybe not. For the purposes of Fraser, he didn’t. I wonder if that’s when studios started getting a bit more guarded with their chequebooks towards him.
That said, a huge success would follow. I’m not much of a fan of The Mummy Returns, that subsequently landed in the summer of 2001. I found it a film criminally hampered by the bizarre decision to bring in a kid sidekick and – with due respect to the kid concerned – not a very good one. But plenty disagreed. It outgrossed the original comfortably, and Fraser’s Rick O’Connell was pretty much the agreed highlight. That easy charm, Nathan Drake before Nathan Drake existed, echoed through and got those of us who struggled with the movie to the end credits. It remains the highest grossing film of Fraser’s career.
But at this stage, I first wondered if he actually wanted to be a movie star. The success of The Mummy Returns triggered a moment when Fraser could pick projects that’d see him competing with the likes of Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, even Nicolas Cage for the big movie star roles in the early 2000s. Instead, commendably, he went off-piste. He opted for a turn in Phillip Noyce’s quietly impressive adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, an excellent support for Michael Caine in the movie. And he would take his part in the ensemble of Best Picture Oscar winner, Crash.
I do wonder what happens in the moment when someone realises they could be a movie star, or an actor, and chooses their path. Appreciating that there are grey areas in the middle, I got the sense that Fraser picked the actor route, and it cost him his marquee status. He had a minor box office resurgence with The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, but few hold the film with much regard. It crept over the $100m mark at the US box office in 2008, as did his other big project, Journey To The Center Of The Earth. The latter, though, was sold more off the back of its 3D gimmick than Fraser’s name (Avatar was still just over a year away). The same year, he also headlined the far more interesting Inkheart, but that quickly died a death.
The nadir for me, a fan of Fraser’s work, came with the lord-does-it-really-exist Furry Vengeance, the 2011 film that saw one of the most charming leading men of his generation opposite CG animals in a film most had forgotten even while they were watching it. And when his supporting role opposite Harrison Ford in Extraordinary Measures didn’t really resonate, it seemed game set and match for Fraser’s big screen leading man career, a decade after he’d been one of the biggest stars in the world.
Fraser hasn’t been out of work in recent times, instead taking on regular roles in TV shows as varied as The Affair, Trust and Texas Rising. In the episodes of those that I’ve seen, I still see the screen persona that made looking up the next Brendan Fraser movie such a welcome pastime in the late 90s and early 2000s.
But I do wonder if, particularly in an era when bona fide movie stars are an endangered species, if Brendan Fraser is the one we let get away. That he took gambles his audience didn’t follow him to, and as a consequence, it’s Tom Cruise – the most enduring movie star of his generation – that headlines the new Mummy (and the international box office, albeit not the US take, seems to just about justify that decision). The closest Fraser gets to any of this summer’s blockbusters though is if he buys a ticket.
Thing is, given the body of work he’s impressively built up, I’m not altogether certain that he’d mind that….