The Unicorn Scale: Bohemian Rhapsody

11/ 20/2018

I grew up loving groups like KISS, The Beatles, and Queen – long before I understood their music or could comprehend that the bands were made up of people who were far more than their public personas. I could not resist the theatricality, the costumes, the catchy songs. So I was really excited when word first came out in 2010 that there would be a major motion picture about Queen and its frontman, Freddie Mercury.

Almost a decade later, Bohemian Rhapsody was finally released after a tumultuous production process that included losing its original star, Sacha Baron Cohen, who complained of micromanagement, sugarcoating, and questionable agendas coming from the remaining members of Queen. When the first trailer came out 6 months before the film’s release, the LGBT community was alarmed over what appeared to be straight-washing and erasure of the fact that Freddie Mercury died after a battle with AIDS. But I remained cautiously optimistic and was happy when early reviews revealed that the film did, in fact, provide a more accurate portrayal of Freddie Mercury than many had feared.

You see, Freddie Mercury was bi. And like many famous bi men in history, his bisexuality is often erased and portrayed as homosexuality instead. Many gays and lesbians seem to assume that his relationships with women were a result of societal pressure or, perhaps worse, hypersexuality (a biphobic stereotype too often applied to people who don’t limit their love interests to one gender) and therefore weren’t real. They like to say Freddie Mercury was gay. Straight people also tend to erase bisexuality in part to create greater distance between themselves and queerness.

A movie with widespread distribution that actually depicts bisexuality accurately would be a major milestone for bi representation, helping the mainstream public better understand the largest and yet least-understood group under the LGBT umbrella. And Freddie Mercury is one of the most famous bi people in history. So I went to the theater hoping for a small miracle: a film where a bi man’s sexuality would be presented accurately, unapologetically, and inclusively.

What I liked:

This is obviously a big budget film with all the shine and polish that comes with that. The cast do a startlingly good job depicting the band members of Queen with Rami Malek expected to get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury. The sets are great, the cinematography and costuming are fantastic, and the sound? Wow! The film has already become a sing-along hit in some markets. Time and time again, I felt like I was really there during amazing moments in the band’s history, most excitingly their famous Live Aid performance in 1985, which serves as the climax of the film.  Bohemian Rhapsody recreates that moment detail by detail, gesture by gesture, in remarkable, carefully choreographed, cutting edge, ScreenX resolution. As someone who was too young and too broke at the time to ever see Queen in concert, I really enjoyed the opportunity to experience them – sort of – in the theater.

What I didn’t like:

Like I said, I went into this movie feeling cautiously optimistic that Freddie Mercury’s life might inspire good bi representation in this biopic. Unfortunately, that optimism didn’t quite pan out. While we get to see Mary Austin become the love of Freddie Mercury’s life and inspire him to write the song “Love of My Life,” the film completely leaves out his ongoing relationships with other women such as Barbara Valentin.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Freddie’s attraction to men in a lurid and sometimes bizarre fashion. First we see Freddie Mercury staring longingly at a seedy bathhouse, but he seems so timid we are left unsure if he actually goes in. But only moments later, he confidently calls himself a “hysterical queen” to his bandmates, as if he were a full-fledged, big city, gay socialite. Then, a few scenes later, he seems confused and afraid as he confesses to Mary Austin, essentially to his wife, that he “might be bisexual.” Which brings us to the film’s major F-you to the bi community.

Without losing a beat, Mary replies “Freddie, you’re gay.” In this film largely about a bi man, we have a straight mouthpiece erasing his bisexuality. We get to watch a woman who had years of sexual history with Freddie Mercury, and who was not even his last female partner, reinforce a clichéd binary view of sexuality – either you’re gay or you’re straight. Even when the tangible facts scream otherwise.

Speaking of facts, throughout the movie the writers play loose with historic details to make them fit the story they want to tell. There is a not-too-subtle anger at Freddie Mercury that comes through again and again in Bohemian Rhapsody as well as a strong undertow of homophobia, an inability to understand bisexuality, and a big dose of heteronormativity.

As for anger, the film depicts Freddie Mercury as a diva who selfishly broke up Queen for a $4 million solo deal and then, after failing in that endeavor, had to beg the band to forgive him and come back together. In reality, he was the 3rd band member to embark on a solo project, his album did well, and there is no record of Queen ever breaking up, although they did take a short, amicable break in 1983 after a decade of recording and touring. Freddie is consistently shown as hard-partying, debauched, and perpetually late, while his bandmates are punctual, reasonable, wholesome men.  In one scene they actually admonish Freddie, saying that they cannot stay out late because they have to go home to their wives and kids. None of this is very convincing given the realities of the music industry in the 1970s and 80s. Biographies of the band show them all struggling with punctuality at times and all participating in orgies during that era. Given those realities, it’s remarkable to see this scene attempt to create a contrast between the straight men who supposedly lead “normal,” grounded, respectable lives and the bi man who can’t stop his wild partying and gets HIV.

The first time we see Freddie kiss another man, it is literally thrust upon him by their manager who later turns out to be a treacherous snake. While Freddie resists at first, he soon finds himself seduced into a self-destructive lifestyle of frivolous parties and drugged-out group sex. The film spends quite a bit of time developing his relationship with Mary Austin which on one hand is good since Freddie Mercury is so frequently gay-washed, but on the other hand it does so in a way that portrays her rather rosily as a wholesome, virginal, monogamous partner with whom he could have led a respectable life – if only he were heterosexual. I’m convinced that the filmmakers left out his other female love interests in part to emphasize this point.

Whatever the case, queer sexuality in this film involves furtive glances that lead to offscreen orgies and AIDS. Eventually, Freddie Mercury learns to “love himself,” which in Bohemian Rhapsody apparently means to give up wild partying and settle down into a something close to a traditional marriage with Jim Hutton. Jim Hutton was Freddie’s real life partner for the last 7 years of Freddie’s life, and yet all we get to see of their relationship is a single conversation, a kiss, a hand squeeze, and Jim standing around quietly in the final scenes like a faithful sidekick. We don’t get a sense of love or lust; Jim feels more like a human teddy bear or Freddie’s nurse, seemingly there to help Freddie face his impending death from AIDS with dignity. It’s worth noting that despite the large role HIV plays in the film, particularly in the climactic Live Aid scene, in real life Freddie didn’t test positive until 1987, years after the events shown. Bohemian Rhapsody is a huge box office hit and I have to wonder how all these historical inaccuracies will influence popular memory of Freddie Mercury.

The Rating:

This film is beautifully shot and the music is a delight. Please let me be clear: I enjoyed the spectacle of Bohemian Rhapsody, but this is The Unicorn Scale and we’re here to consider this film as a depiction of bisexuality. In that capacity, it fails utterly. I never expected – or wanted – the film to make Freddie a poster child for bisexuality. But since it decides to delve into his love life, I would have appreciated more accuracy and less moral condemnation. At no point does it seem to occur to anyone involved in the project that Freddie Mercury may have been so brilliant and creative and interesting precisely because of his sexuality. Instead, his queerness is depicted as a ticking time bomb that will ultimately lead him, and Queen, to ruin. His female love interests are edited down to a one, Mary Austin, who is presented as the ideal, healthy path-not-chosen; their relationship doomed by his sexuality. Male-male attractions are depicted in unflattering terms when shown at all. The film seems sanitized to avoid alienating mainstream, heterosexual audiences.

I’ll leave you with insightful words by Lesley-Ann Jones, author of two biographies on Freddie Mercury, from an interview with Them 6 months before Bohemian Rhapsody was released:

“It is still fascinating to me, after all these years, that 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. They would not, however, allow for his bisexuality — even though they embraced and promoted Mary Austin (Mercury’s longtime girlfriend) as his one true love! 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.”

Ian Lawrence-Tourinho
Ian Lawrence-Tourinho is a Director of the American Institute of Bisexuality and heads amBi, a growing network of socially-focused bi communities. As an activist, he is particularly interested in mutual support networks as a health and human rights intervention for bi people. You can follow him on Twitter @IanLourinho