As the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody becomes a Best Picture Oscar nominee, the controversies surrounding it and the alleged abuses of its director Bryan Singer should not be ignored. Leading up to the 91st Academy Award nominations, it seemed all but inevitable that Bohemian Rhapsody would garner a Best Picture nomination. Despite mixed reviews and a mountain of controversy surrounding it, audiences loved the film and propelled it to a worldwide box office gross of just under $800 million, making it the seventh highest grossing movie of 2018 (ahead of Mission: Impossible – Fallout).
Already in the awards race, the film took home the Golden Globe for Best Drama, ahead of favorite A Star is Born, and pushed actor Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, to the front of the Best Actor race. The film is a front-runner at the upcoming Baftas as well, where it is nominated for, among other awards, Best British Film. Listed as part of that nomination is director Bryan Singer, who has been notably absent from the film’s promotional cycle.
The elephant in the room that is Bryan Singer is one of many issues the film and its cast and crew have tried to avoid in their quest for Oscar glory, and now the biggest problem of all. It was a glaring issue before, but now, it has become an impossible task, one they should not continue.
It’s important to note that, in the grand scheme of things surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody, the question of whether or not it will win Best Picture is clearly not the most pressing issue. To talk about this film is to talk about the ethics of the biopic, the erasure of queerness, and the culpability of an industry in protecting an alleged abuser with over twenty years of allegations and lawsuits to his name. In that context, talking about whether a movie will win a statue of a little gold man feels frivolous. However, it remains important to contextualize why that Oscar and the hunger for it has fuelled many of the issues we talk about now when we talk about Bohemian Rhapsody.
The Oscars represent power: the power of our biggest entertainment industry, the people who run it, and those within the structure who impact how we see the world and ourselves. Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Picture wouldn’t just be a bad decision in terms of merit: It would be confirmation of the industry’s worst excesses and the ways it has ignored a decades-long problem of systemic abuse.
- This Page: The Problems With Bohemian Rhapsody As A Film
- Page 2: How Bryan Singer’s Assault Allegations Impact Bohemian Rhapsody
- Page 3: Why Bohemian Rhapsody Shouldn’t Get Away With Bryan Singer
Why Bohemian Rhapsody’s Story Remains Controversial
The problems with Bohemian Rhapsody are not exclusively rooted in the Bryan Singer problem. Even if you are able to completely exclude him from the narrative, the film’s narrative and handling of the story of Freddie Mercury remains highly questionable at best. Questions over the priorities and agenda of the surviving band members of Queen in regards to this film have existed long before Bohemian Rhapsody went into production. Sacha Baron Cohen was initially attached to the project in the role of Mercury, but he left due to creative differences, which he later described to Howard Stern. Allegedly, the early draft of the film would have featured Mercury’s death happening halfway through the film, with the rest of the narrative focused on the surviving band members of Queen pulling together to continue making music. While this is not what happens in the finished producer, Bohemian Rhapsody nevertheless changes to history and depiction of Mercury still raised many questions over accuracy and the intent of band members Roger Taylor and Bryan May, both of whom exerted heavy creative control over the final product.
Various events of Mercury’s life were rearranged for dramatic effect in the film. Fake band drama was created and Mercury’s sexuality was sanitized for a PG-13 rating. The most egregious example of this dramatic license came with the decision to move Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis up by two years in order to use it as the chief motivating factor for him choosing to perform at Live Aid. Coupled with how Mercury’s sexuality and notorious party lifestyle are heavily downplayed in the story and framed as something to be embarrassed about, the overall effect created by Bohemian Rhapsody about Mercury’s life is one of shame.
Biopics change history all the time. It’s an expected part of taking a life, with all its mundane and decidedly uncinematic elements, and making it into a succinct narrative. However, those creative necessities cannot help but fall under scrutiny when the story being told so drastically changes history to the hindrance of its late subject and to the benefit of the people helping to craft the narrative. It’s no surprise the film has been accused of being a historical whitewash, one more concerned with Taylor and May’s egos than the memory of a man no longer here to defend himself. Audiences may not have minded about the changes going by the box office, but the problem remains and it is one that will come up time and time again during the next month of the Oscar race. Of course, that is the least of Bohemian Rhapsody’s problems.
Bohemian Rhapsody’s Bryan Singer Problem
This week, The Atlantic published a piece on the two decades of abuse, rape and misconduct allegations that have followed Bryan Singer for his entire career. This piece had been expected by many, not least because Singer himself had taken to Instagram last year to pre-emptively deny any claims being made (originally, the piece was to be published by Esquire but it was killed, according to a statement from The Atlantic, by executives at the Hearst Corporation). The article involves statements from several alleged victims of Singer, many of whom talk of abuse leveled against them when they were underage. Singer denies the claims.
What’s striking about the piece is how much of the discussed allegations were already known to the public, including the various lawsuits Singer has faced in regards to sexual misconduct. The article is extensively detailed in documenting an alleged pattern of behavior from Singer in which adolescent boys were targeted and the industry overlooked it while bolstering his career. On top of that, his extensively covered unprofessional behavior on sets is documented. Once again, all of this was already well discussed in the industry and press. The myriad allegations were well-known when Fox signed Singer on to direct Bohemian Rhapsody, at the behest of the surviving band members of Queen.
As detailed by many publications but particularly The Atlantic, Singer’s hiring as director on Bohemian Rhapsody came with two rules from Fox executives Stacey Snider and Emma Watts: “Don’t break the law. And show up for work.” As reported by The Atlantic, Malek and Singer feuded on set, “Singer threw tantrums” and at one point ripped a video monitor off a rig and slammed it to the ground. Co-star Tom Hollander reportedly found Singer’s behavior so inexcusable that he was said to have briefly quit the film. Singer stormed off set on November 21, 2017 and didn’t leave his London hotel suite for four days. He abandoned the set five days later and returned to Los Angeles. A week later, Fox fired him. Singer claimed that he was forced to leave the project due to personal health matters concerning a family member. The final weeks of production were directed by Dexter Fletcher, although Singer retains sole directorial credit due to the rules of the Directors Guild of America.
How Bohemian Rhapsody’s Cast and Crew Are Handling Bryan Singer
With Singer absent yet credited, Bohemian Rhapsody‘s release was a curious PR exercise where the producers and cast attempted to sideline him entirely from the promotional and awards process. So far, they have managed to bypass this awkward situation by having Malek and producer Graham King do the lion’s share of promotion, as well as Roger and May. However, the obvious awkwardness of this situation remains tough to avoid, as was the case during the film’s Golden Globes victory when Singer was notably absent and never mentioned in any speeches. At that point in time, the big story around Singer had not yet broken, although many knew that it could drop at any moment, in large part thanks to Singer preemptively denying the unknown accusations. Of course, by that time, Fox was aware of the many accusations against him as well as his well-documented by behavior on sets, mostly because so much of that happened while he was working on various Fox productions.
The cast and crew of Bohemian Rhapsody, as of the writing of this piece, have not responded officially to the allegations put forward by The Atlantic. Rami Malek is the only one to have said anything pertaining to the abuse allegations, but those comments, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, came before that piece was published. Malek claimed that “the allegations and things were, believe it or not, honestly something I was not aware of, and that is what it is.” He then also bizarrely theorized that “perhaps it was Freddie himself” keeping Malek shielded from Singer’s reputation “because we wanted to make a product that was worthy of him.” May took to Instagram to respond to a fan asking him to unfollow Singer by saying, “You need to look after your own business and stop telling me what to do. And you need to learn to respect the fact that a man or woman is innocent until proven guilty.” May would quickly issue an apology to this on Instagram, but he does not address the comments in The Atlantic that say he was one of the driving forces in hiring Singer in the first place. So far, we have the star of the film denying any prior involvement of something that was an industry open secret for over twenty years – a plausible scenario but one that many are cynical about – and the creative power behind it implicitly taking Singer’s side. At best, this seems like misguided PR and at worst, it feels like culpability.
Why The Bohemian Rhapsody Team Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Get Away With It
A couple of years ago, it would have been plausible for Malek, May and the crew of Bohemian Rhapsody to make the claim that they did not know about Singer’s reputation or the countless allegations against him. However, in the post-Weinstein age, willful deniability is seldom given the benefit of the doubt. It’s also impossible for Fox to play the fool on this issue either because they’re the studio who had Singer on the books for close to two decades and pulled him from promoting X-Men: Days of Future Past when he was facing another lawsuit for improper sexual conduct.
One detail in The Atlantic article that bears repeating is the descriptions of Singer’s firing from Bohemian Rhapsody due to perpetual late-coming and refusal to turn up on sets as well as an incident in which Singer allegedly smashed a piece of equipment. Singer claimed he left the film of his own free will due to family illness, an excuse that the film’s producer, Graham King, has backed up. The Atlantic’s piece refutes King and Singer’s defenses, thus further calling into question what the team behind the film knew about Singer’s behavior and how far they were willing to go to conceal it. Plausible deniability becomes less and less possible for this team with each passing day.
It’s important to emphasize the magnitude of what Singer is accused of. Bryan Singer has been accused of multiple instances of rape of underage boys, as well as further accusations of statutory rape. As detailed by The Atlantic, many of Singer’s alleged victims were scarred for life by what they describe, and Singer was allegedly protected by powerful figures in the industry who were all aware of his actions. What he is accused of is on a level of horror and scale comparable to Harvey Weinstein. Defenders may talk about “innocent until proven guilty” and how one should separate the art from the artist, but at least when the Weinstein allegations came out, he wasn’t actively on the Oscar trail with a slew of awards under his arm.
Related: Oscars 2019 Best Picture Predictions
Awards empower people. The Oscars, while never a signal of merit or quality, remain the most potent symbol of Hollywood and the image it wishes to project of itself to the world. They remain the biggest sign of prestige in the entertainment business. It was through the Oscars that Harvey Weinstein bolstered his industry clout and garnered the level of power that enabled him to manipulate and allegedly abuse dozens, possibly hundreds of women. Through his uncanny business skills and ability to win massive amounts of Oscars, Weinstein commanded the industry’s respect and its silence. We’re seeing that repeated with Bohemian Rhapsody. The cast and crew have avoided the elephant in the room for many months but now that will be impossible for them to do so. And it should be impossible. They shouldn’t be allowed to sidestep Singer, the many allegations against him, and the very real concerns regarding how complicit behavior for over twenty years made him seemingly untouchable.
Separation of the art from the artist is near non-existent in a context where the artist is being actively rewarded by an industry that refused to acknowledge their actions in the first place. It’s easy to pretend that giving Bohemian Rhapsody a Best Picture Oscar won’t empower Singer, that him being fired from the picture took away the responsibility of having to think about those allegations, but that’s not the reality of the situation. It may be a popular movie, but between its questionable artistic merit, its historical whitewash, and the all too real possibility of it being used to empower an alleged serial abuser, a win for Bohemian Rhapsody would become one of the Academy’s most regrettable errors.