There has been much hand-wringing over the portrayal of iconic bisexual Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” From the film’s inception in 2010, media critics, rock biographers, and queer writers have (justifiably) worried the film would leave out, or at least soft pedal, Mercury’s AIDS-related death and relationships with men. An initial trailer appeared to confirm these fears, prompting gay TV writer Bryan Fuller to tweet his frustration (in all caps, of course).
Rami Malek, who threw himself into the role of Mercury, also threw himself into the fray when he stumbled over a question of whether Mercury was a gay icon. “What’s really great about him is he never, uh, wanted to or thought of himself as being boxed into anything. He just was,” he stammered. “If he’s an icon to one, there’s no reason that it requires another adjective, as far I see.” When asked about the movie’s purported “straightwashing,” actress Lucy Boynton, who plays Mercury’s former fiancée Mary Austin, suggested “people want to have something to criticize.”
Audiences looking to decide for themselves won’t find much clarity in “Bohemian Rhapsody;” most confused of all is the film itself.
The first half focuses on the formation of Queen, and on Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin. They began dating when the band was just starting out, and he proposed marriage in between tours. Their love is portrayed as playful, innocent, and naive to the impending temptations of fame. There’s no deficit of Hollywood clichés, and the couple gets the requisite rollicking, post-coital, semi-nude scene that is hilariously interrupted by the arrival of other band members.
In one short scene, Mercury leans against a phone booth, distractedly talking to Mary long distance while he stares down a beefy man heading into the bathroom. Mary sits on the other end of the line in pajamas — the poor little lady stuck at home, the fate of their romance sealed.
The movie’s first queer moment arrives courtesy of Mercury’s manager Paul Prenter, played by Irish actor Allen Leech, best known for his role as Tom Branson in “Downton Abbey.” While Mercury is playing the piano, Paul grabs his face and kisses him. Mercury seems surprised, but doesn’t stop Paul. It’s a familiar move in Hollywood movies, but it also presents queerness as something thrust upon Freddie, not an autonomous and healthy part of his sexuality.
The real Prenter eventually outed Mercury in a tell-all interview to British tabloid the Sun, which the movie changes to a TV interview. Needing a villain, “Bohemian Rhapsody” views him as an ambitious con-man who urged Mercury to take a solo deal and pushes him into a world of drugs and gay sex parties. (Though this may sound like fun to some, the movie positions it as part of Mercury’s demise).
When Mercury meets the kindly Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), he is the last one at his own party, all alone in his mansion surrounded by shiny things. This time, it is Mercury who grabs Jim without his consent, mistaking him for one more shiny plaything. Queer desire, in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is always malicious.
Not only does the movie frame queerness negatively, but it completely erases Mercury’s bisexuality, preferring an either/or view. By all accounts, Mercury slept with men and women throughout his life, including with the Austrian actress Barbara Valentin, who remained a close friend until his death. In the movie, when Mercury tells Austin he likes boys, too, she says: “Freddie, you’re gay.” By erasing his bisexuality, the movie reinforces a heteronormative view of queerness, and says it through a straight mouthpiece.
“Queen’s management spent decades trying to convince the world that Freddie was heterosexual while he was alive, but then conceded to his homosexuality after he had died,” Mercury biographer Lesley-Ann Jones told Them. “All their efforts to preserve Freddie in memory as, effectively, a straight man who was in love with one woman — his soulmate Mary — but who was ‘corrupted’ by factions of the music industry (and wasn’t really gay) are ridiculous to me … He was clearly bisexual.”
Produced by 20th Century Fox with the participation of remaining members of Queen Brian May and Roger Taylor, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an authorized biopic gone incredibly wrong. The movie doesn’t understand Mercury’s sexuality because May and Taylor don’t understand it, either. They understand even less about his Parsi background, portraying Mercury as hiding his immigrant background, another disputed characterization.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” crushes the life of a dynamic, free-thinking, explosive talent into easily digestible, hackneyed Hollywood stereotypes. It paints Freddie Mercury with broad brushstrokes in black and white, when we all know he would have used the whole rainbow.