Bohemian Rhapsody, supposedly an “electrifying” biopic on Queen, reached American cinemas November 2018: the perfect time to be considered a major contender in the 2019 Oscar nominees.
Fresh in the minds of the American public and the judges, it was promptly nominated for Best Picture, along with Black Panther, Vice, Green Book, The Favourite, BlacKkKlansman, A Star is Born, and Roma.
I found this to be a surprise, and quite frankly, an utter disappointment. As a lifelong Queen fan, I was entirely let down by the film’s sloppy attempt to bring Freddie Mercury to life. With a title as grand and infamous as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the film did not only fall short in the writing and editing style, it did a disservice to the queer community.
The film was publicly announced last March, although rumors had been circulating of its production ever since 2010. I awaited anxiously for its release, and I looked forward to learning more about Freddie Mercury the person, rather than the icon, as well as diving deeper into the band behind Queen. But as his story unfolded, I didn’t feel like I was given a closer look. Instead, I saw a dramatized, Hollywood version of Mercury who only spoke in diva-like one-liners.
That being said, Rami Malek, the actor cast as this larger-than-life role, did an excellent job with what he was given. He embodied Mercury with style and grace, but was ultimately let down by the writing. As for the rest of the cast, the movie portrayed them as static background characters. By the end, I was left confused whether this was a biopic of Queen, or just a Hollywood version of Mercury’s questionable path to fame.
The movie begins with Mercury’s tumultuous adolescent life and finding his calling in creating music when he meets the other band members at a small show in London. From then on, Mercury begins to find himself as a singer and performer, experimenting in cross-dressing and performance art.
However, as Mercury discovers his sexuality and pushes gender boundaries, the plot takes a dark turn. As he comes to terms with his queer identity, he simultaneously becomes self-possessed, promiscuous, and materialistic. Subtly, the film links his sexuality with his biggest and darkest mistakes: leaving his devoted girlfriend, Mary Austin, and turning his back on the band.
Fear of the Queer Identity
The way the writers and producers of this film portrayed his queer identity is almost blatantly homophobic. It does little to celebrate who he really was, but instead exploits the common debaucherous narrative of gay men in the ’80s; seedy sex clubs, drugs, and extravagant partying. However, this is where I grapple with the film the most. On one hand, queer culture during the ’80s did operate underground, existing on the periphery of society, and in rebellious, counter-cultural parties. Queerness was not talked about or accepted in mainstream media, but rampantly exploited to serve a heteronormative audience.
This can be seen everywhere from Bowie to George Michael. The American public of the era loved to use thinly masked adoration to gawk at queer performers, but when it came down to seeing them as full, dynamic human beings, they were quickly cast aside.
The AIDS crisis received little public sympathy and often took a backseat in the medical narrative, as most heteronormative people felt it was a consequence of their “behavior.” So my question is, was Hollywood aware of how they were casting Mercury? Was this a commentary on the queer exploitation and negative stereotyping in the name of historical accuracy? Or were the writers just as unaware of the rampant capitalization of queerdom as the public was thirty years ago?
Bohemian Rhapsody is now the highest grossing LGBTQ+ film of all time, bringing in a staggering $607.8 million. Many people have seen this as a huge step in inclusion, but did the film do anything for the queer community?
The hard line between gay and straight is one of the biggest problems I took with the movie. In an intimate scene between Mercury and Austin, he tells her he is bisexual. She responds, “no Freddie, you’re gay.” This dismissal of a bisexuality is common, although women are often more accepted as bisexuals than males. Out Magazine cites Indiewire writer Jude Dry on the perpetuation of binaries.
“The movie reinforces a heteronormative view of queerness, and says it through a straight mouthpiece.”
I’ve heard it time and time again, “bisexuality is a lie men tell before they’re comfortable coming out.” This narrow minded myth erases the complexities of bisexuality and is disrespectful and invalidating. The fluidity of sexuality and gender is new to a mainstream audience, but should not be dismissed.
I want so badly to believe the generalization of Mercury’s queerness was purposeful to shine light to these issues, but a blind trust in Hollywood’s intentions is downright naive. Additionally, if the writers were trying to expand upon the dismissal of the gay community at the time, it should have been explicitly clear for the purpose of starting dialogue among viewers. Instead, the homophobia is subtle and permeates into the heteronormative views of the majority of the audience.
In the 21st century, film is one of — if not, the most — wide-reaching platform to send a message. The producers of Bohemian Rhapsody had a chance to send a positive, sensitive, and insightful message to people of all sexualities. But, ultimately, it reduced Mercury to a series of sordid and shameful sexual encounters that result in him letting down his beloved wife. Mercury’s relationship with James Hutton was a seven year long monogamous partnership in real life. Bohemian Rhapsody opted instead to depict their relationship as nothing more than a single kiss.
This hasty and lazy portrayal of queer relationships is unfortunately all too common in Hollywood. With the legalization of gay marriage in 2015, mainstream media has taken baby steps to accept and portray gay relationships. Featuring queer people is a small step, but more important is normalizing and celebrating their romantic relationships. It’s not enough to have the funny gay best friend, or in Bohemian Rhapsody’s case, the larger-than-life diva queen and his sex toy boyfriend. Gay romantic relationships are full, dynamic, and loving bonds between two people. Movies featuring queer characters must take a step further to portray them as three-dimensional people.
I write this as someone who performed the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” for my kindergarten talent show as a solo (yes, including the multi-voice opera part). I write this as someone who looks up to and respects my own father who identifies as bisexual, who introduced me to icons such as Mercury, Prince, Bowie, and George Michael at a young age. Queerdom is a wonderful part of my life and is for so many others.
So, my purpose in writing this is not to entirely bash the highest grossing LGBTQ+ film. My purpose is to call attention to the ways that it shapes and perpetuates the stereotypical narrative of a queer person.
Violet Selznick is a Cal Poly anthropology & geography sophomore and a KCPR staff member. She wrote the article. Image credit to Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.