In case you missed the most exciting news to come out of this year’s Academy Awards, Olivia Colman won Best Actress for her role as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.
The movie, written by Australian Tony McNamara with Deborah Davis, is a brilliant piece of cinema, and many LGBT film buffs (myself included) are thrilled with the win. Not least because of what would have happened if it had been shut out of the awards entirely.
While the fact that Glenn Close has to continue living her life without an Oscar is a terrible tragedy, Colman’s win is definitely deserved.
The Favourite has been cited as an example of LGBT representation in cinema done right, and that’s even when you consider the fact that the majority of the cast is straight.
Straight people portraying queer characters can be done, and done well, and two of this year’s Best Picture nominees can serve as case studies for how it can be done well, and how to do it in a way that fails spectacularly.
Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by Bryan Singer, who has faced numerous allegations of sexual misconduct since the film’s release, has been repeatedly criticised for the way it handled the issue of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality.
Setting aside the fact that we don’t know whether Mercury identified as gay or bi, we do know that he had relationships with men, and that his tragic death was a result of HIV/AIDS, and that he’s since become a hugely important figure for millions of LGBT people.
Many of those people feel that Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic for which Rami Malek won Best Actor at this year’s Oscars ceremony, overlooked these aspects of Mercury’s life in favour of a straight-washed and sanitised version of events that would be more palatable to mainstream audiences.
Writing for Vox, Aja Romano says of the movie:
“Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that consciously tries to position a gay man at its center while strategically disengaging with the “gay’ part as much as it can, flitting briefly over his emotional and sexual experiences and fixating on his platonic relationship with an ex-girlfriend instead.”
Self-described ‘gay historian’ Laurie Marhoefer wrote for The Conversation:
“Mercury, along with all the other men and women who tested positive for HIV in the 1980s, was a victim not just of a pandemic but of the failures of his own governments and of the scorn of his fellow citizens. The laughable initial response to the HIV pandemic helped seal Mercury’s fate.”
The context in which Mercury existed and, tragically, suffered, is important, especially when seeking to create a somewhat realistic biographical film. While celebrating Mercury’s successes and impact is important and worthwhile, his impact cannot be divorced from his sexuality and the impact he had on several generations of LGBT people.
Meanwhile, The Favourite doesn’t shy away from depicting queer sexuality on screen. Between the lovers spats and tastefully-filmed sex scenes, the relationships between the three women at the centre of the film are brought to life by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Their obvious love for each other – both on and off-screen – is evident, and makes the film a joy to watch.
This chemistry is missing from Bohemian Rhapsody, because it isn’t even given a chance to exist – the main relationship in Mercury’s life, if the film is to be believed, is with his ex-girlfriend.
Gay characters have often been desexualised in film so as to make them seem less threatening, and despite being directed by a gay man, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t escape this trap.
The Favourite does an excellent job of depicting female sexuality in a balanced way, showing them as sexual beings without falling into any traps of hyper-sexualisation or fetishisation of lesbians.
Maybe it was easier in the case of The Favourite because anyone who would have objected to the overt queerness in the film, or would have criticised the film’s inaccuracies, is long dead, while in Bohemian Rhapsody‘s case, the surviving members of Queen served as creative consultants, and have attended the majority of award shows this season alongside the cast and crew of the film (save for Bryan Singer, who has been conspicuously absent).
But creating the ‘definitive’ biopic about a beloved LGBT icon while overlooking his sexuality in favour of a message about platonic love does both the icon in question and the LGBT community a disservice.
For many LGBT people, especially those who were young in the late 70s and 80s when Queen were at their height, Freddie was one of the first queer celebrities they’d seen. Where is the movie about his life that targets those fans as its main audience? Because Bohemian Rhapsody certainly isn’t it.