I’m Selina, Awards Circuit’s queer Girl Friday for everything LGBTQIA+ on film and TV! In the last few weeks leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be taking a closer look at the Oscar nominees and the LGBTQIA+ representation in them: the good, the bad, and what it means for mainstream LGBTQIA+ visibility. Last week I tackled Oscar contender “The Favourite,” the lesbian period drama of my dreams. This time around, I’m taking a closer look at “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the life of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, and what respectful storytelling about LGBTQIA+ people does (and doesn’t) look like.
Rami Malek and the Issues With Straight Actors Playing LGBTQIA+ Characters
If you’ve heard anything about “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s been about Rami Malek’s stunning transformation into Freddie Mercury. With a mustache and some prosthetic teeth, Malek was able to suspend audiences’ disbelief and truly embody the music god. His performance is meticulous as per usual with the character actor, making it easy to forget Malek isn’t actually Mercury. But some fans, especially those in the LGBTQIA+ community, could find fault with the idea of a straight actor playing a bisexual icon.
As I said last week, no actor should be forced to reveal their sexual orientation, no matter who they portray on film or TV. Sure, “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” success would have been all the sweeter with a queer person in the leading role, but there simply isn’t another famous actor who could’ve done better. Perhaps an unknown queer actor would’ve made a decent fist of it, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a juggernaut of a film that needed star power to put butts in seats. Malek gave an impressive performance and pulled in some extra eyeballs; really, that’s all you can ask for.
The Problem With Queer Rock Star Lives and PG-13 Ratings
Malek’s performance aside, the PG-13 rated “Bohemian Rhapsody” was unsurprisingly tame on the whole sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll story of Mercury’s life. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the family-friendly highlights reel of Mercury’s life, often spliced together out of order for a more appealing narrative. Malek’s Mercury is rarely seen taking drugs, and the parties seem more boring than out-of-control. Jim Hutton, Mercury’s long-time partner, barely makes an appearance, while Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) became the movie’s gay villain against angel Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Even the date of Mercury’s HIV diagnosis is pushed forward for the sake of a more dramatic lead-up to the Live Aid concert.
While watching the film, it felt like I was watching a white-washed synopsis of Mercury’s life, which was ultimately what it was. In my opinion, that’s not good LGBTQIA+ representation or truly great storytelling. LGBTQIA+ folx are just as messy and complicated as straight people, and editing our histories to make us more “family-friendly” after the fact is plain wrong. Yes, it’s nice that a biopic about an uber-talented bisexual musician made bank at the box office, but not when it’s watered down to become more fiction than truth. Good queer representation doesn’t involve whitewashing and softening stories about LGBTQIA+ folx just to make more money: we deserve to be remembered as we are, in life and in death.
The Bryan Singer Assault Allegations
And then there’s Bryan Singer, “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” former director and current Achilles heel. Singer was ostensibly fired from production after lengthy absences and rumored fighting with Malek, but was more likely fired for the slew of sexual assault and misconduct accusations that came out during filming. Allegations have continued to pile onto Singer, with many LGBTQIA+ fans boycotting “Bohemian Rhapsody” due to its ties to Singer, who still received a directing credit. The GLAAD Media Awards even removed “Bohemian Rhapsody” from contention for its best film accolade, citing the allegations; the British Academy has also suspended Singer’s BAFTA nomination.
At this point, it’s fairly obvious Singer represents the worst of our community, allegedly preying on younger gay men and covering it up, time and time again. But does his involvement in “Bohemian Rhapsody” disqualify the entire film’s worth? This is a question I’ve been pondering since the Singer allegations came out. On one hand, I don’t want a director’s alleged misconduct to take away from an important queer story. Mercury, after all, didn’t do these things, so why should a film about his life suffer the consequences?
But here’s the bit that throws that point out the window: Singer will be making serious bank (over $40 million) from the success of this film. The film’s success will go towards supporting an alleged abuser who’s been preying on people in our own community. He may have been fired, but he’ll still be making a lot of money from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and already earned a Golden Globe for it. That’s a huge problem, and it knocks out what good “Bohemian Rhapsody” does for LGBTQIA+ representation, even with its PG-13 framing.
And Finally, The Music of Queen
Before my final thoughts about the film, I have to commend “Bohemian Rhapsody” for that full-length Live Aid performance, a shot-to-shot recreation of the 1985 rock concert that really took center stage in the film. Despite its historical inaccuracies, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was careful to respect and showcase the power of Queen at its peak, peppering in their greatest hits at high points of the film before that blowout ending. “Bohemian Rhapsody” honored Queen’s legacy to a T, crediting the all of Queen for their golden hits and showcasing the entire group’s musical prowess in its own right. For a man like Mercury, who spent his last days recording as much music as he could with a band he loved, this would’ve been his main concern. For better or worse, “Bohemian Rhapsody” got the sound right. For that (and Malek, the only other good thing about this film), “Bohemian Rhapsody” is to be commended.
So, Is “Bohemian Rhapsody” Good Representation?
Here’s my verdict: for what it was made to be– a family-friendly, PG-13 version of a musician’s life’s work, with some bits of his personal life sprinkled in– it delivers. We believe Malek as Mercury and the music rocks. But if you’re looking for a clear, positive example of LGBTQIA+ representation, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t hit the mark. Singer’s involvement in the film and the film’s whitewashing of Mercury’s life forces “Bohemian Rhapsody” into an awkward corner, attempting to honor a man without fully accepting him, while benefiting another man who allegedly preys upon young men in the LGBTQIA+ community.