In telling Freddie Mercury’s authentic story, Bohemian Rhapsody had a difficult task. The Queen singer was notoriously private about many aspects of his life, but one particular aspect has remained a point of interest among fans even today, nearly 30 years after his passing: his sexuality.
During one emotionally fraught scene in the new biopic, Mercury (portrayed vividly by Rami Malek) cautiously looks up at his fiancée and soon-to-be-friend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and says, “I think I’m bisexual.” His lover looks down at him, almost pityingly, and retorts. “No, Freddie. You’re gay.”
For many out there, this particular moment almost rang too true to real life. Bisexual people face the reality of bi-erasure on a near-daily basis, being told that they’re either “too gay” or “not gay enough,” with little to no attention paid to their actual sexual identity. So it’s natural that many critics and Twitter users would call Bohemian Rhapsody out for attempting to erase Mercury’s bisexuality in this scene, especially in a film meant to celebrate him.
But was it really erased?
In the almost 10 years leading up to the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, fans of Queen and Mercury have all nervously waited to see how his story would be translated to the big screen. Many worried that the superstar’s sexuality, which he refused to publicly identify during his lifetime, and his contraction of and death by AIDS would be absent from the story presented to a wider audience.
But telling the “real” story of Freddie Mercury’s life is more complicated than many are willing to admit. The rock icon was extremely secretive about his private life, and wanted his fans and the press to focus on his music. Since his tragic death in 1991, fellow founding members Brian May and Roger Taylor have fiercely protected his privacy, often declining to talk extensively about the frontman’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis in interviews.
Yet even without being openly bisexual, Mercury still laid claim to his queerness when performing. He never compromised his appearance, his music or his behavior to appeal to a mainstream heteronormative audience — in fact, he constantly dared to challenge their aggressive normality.
The film itself has seen plenty of drama surrounding the direction in which its story would be taken. Actor Sacha Baron Cohen famously walked away from the role after clashing with May and Taylor, telling Howard Stern in 2016 that he wanted to tell a “warts and all” story about Mercury’s life, while the band members seemed more interested in “protecting their legacy.” All of this is not even to mention the constant creative struggles that led to original director Bryan Singer’s firing.
When the first trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody was released, fans flocked to social media to express their outrage over what they perceived to be the queer erasure they were half-expecting to see. And they were correct in their assessment — the initial trailer showed Mercury and Austin dancing and flirting, but showed absolutely no indication of any same-sex romance or even interest.
The final product does, though, look at Mercury’s life through a pragmatic, albeit somewhat rose-tinted, lens. His struggle with his own sexuality is explored at length throughout the film, along with entire sections dedicated to his drug-fueled benders through gay clubs in Berlin, his complex romance with his manager Paul Prenter, his constant love and admiration for Austin and his eventual AIDS diagnosis.
So is Mercury’s bisexuality erased in that fateful scene with Mary Austin? No, it is made to be real. The singer spent most of his life battling the public, the press and even some in his personal life about how he chose to identify himself. Many labeled him as gay, some denied his queerness, and very few chose to validate his inherent bisexuality. It’s upsetting to watch on screen because real life is often more bleak than fantasy.
That internal and external battle for self-realization is present in another of the film’s prominent scenes, when a massive press conference turns into a public trial about Freddie’s personal life. With reporters asking Mercury about his sexuality, his relationships, his drug habits and more, he slowly begins to fall into a dizzying haze where he loses control.
Malek’s well-crafted portrayal of Mr. Fahrenheit is a credit to the film’s desire to explore each aspect of the iconic singer’s personality. In the scenes where Freddie is confronted with his own sexual demons, Malek manages to both unite and alienate the audience in their sympathy and astonishment for the singer’s scenario.
All of this is not to say that the film handles everything regarding Mercury’s queerness well. Bohemian Rhapsody’s approach to those aforementioned benders in gay clubs and the singer’s eventual diagnosis with AIDS are inaccurate at best, and at worst, insulting to Mercury’s life and the LGBTQ community at large.
For example, after months of being coerced into a pattern of constant sex and partying by his assistant and lover, the film’s Freddie leaves him and receives his diagnosis, almost as if it were a punishment. His discovery of AIDS rings true less as the heartbreaking reality for a queer man in the 1980s, and more as a price that he paid for what the film deems his “bad behavior.”
Rhapsody’s treatment of Paul Prenter also presents itself as problematic from early on in the film. While Mercury’s former lover and assistant is often considered a villain in real life for outing the singer in a 1987 interview with British tabloid The Sun, the film goes to great lengths to make Prenter out to be the gay devil on Mercury’s shoulder, encouraging him at every turn to indulge in a stereotypically queer lifestyle only to be later vilified for it.
With missteps in telling the story of Mercury’s sexual identity, the film deserves criticism for its portrayal of the rock icon’s life. But it should also be considered that had these moments been handled in a better, more accurate way, the film likely would have still drawn criticism.
The chief problem that Bohemian Rhapsody runs into throughout its nearly two and a half hour runtime is that it wants to be everything to everyone. It aims to satisfy the fans of Queen who want a behind-the-scenes look at the making of some of their favorite songs. It aims to satisfy fans of Mercury, who want to see the icon’s personal life reflected in an accurate, all-encompassing light. It aims to satisfy moviegoers who simply want to see an entertaining film about a rockstar.
The truth is that there likely is no satisfactory way to portray Freddie Mercury’s life on the big screen, as it contained multitudes. Throughout his life, Mercury refused to be defined by one particular aspect of himself and favored reinvention and change over stasis. No matter how much we think we know about the superstar’s life, we will always be left to wonder about some things.
And maybe that’s for the best. When all is said and done, maybe what makes Freddie Mercury one of the most fascinating musicians of all time is that while his queerness cannot be denied, it will always be shrouded in his own distinct mystique.