Does Bryan Singer’s Film Bohemian Rhapsody Deserve to Get Awards Love?
Two FASHION staffers discuss whether the film should be shut out of the awards race because of its controversial director
The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was about controversial Christmas song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and today we’re discussing whether Bryan Singer-directed Bohemian Rhapsody should be snapping up any prizes this awards season. Two of our staffers—from the men’s corner, Greg Hudson, and from the women’s, Pahull Bains—talk it out.
PB: When Bohemian Rhapsody won the Best Picture (Drama) award at the Golden Globes last weekend, in addition to perplexity from critics who had largely panned the film, there was a fair bit of outrage on the internet. Evan Rachel Wood tweeted, “So we just..we are all still supposed to be pretending we don’t know about Bryan Singer? Cause it worked out really well with #Spacey and #Weinstein.” Now, I’m all for men finally getting their comeuppance but I also think it’s unfair that the entire cast and crew of a film be punished for the misdeeds of one person, whose shadiness wasn’t known until the #MeToo Flood of 2017. Or so I thought.
Yes, in 2017 Singer was fired as director of the film partway through shooting for causing “on-set chaos”: showing up late, being unavailable for days at a time, disappearing without the studio’s permission. Just a few days later, it emerged that Singer had been accused of rape by Cesar Sanchez-Guzman, who had been 17 at the time of the assault in 2003. So, I thought to myself, production on this film began before this news came out, so we can’t blame the team for working with him. I’m no fan of the movie, but let them have their moment of glory, thought I, wee innocent one.
As it turns out, allegations against Singer—who has directed films like The Usual Suspects and X-Men: First Class—go way, way back. In December 2017, IndieWire published “The Bryan Singer Timeline: a History of Allegations and Defenses, from Troubled Films to Sexual Assault Claims,” and lets just say it’s not a short list, going as far back as 1994 and ranging from allegations of sexual assault and rape to accusations of filming minor boys naked without their permission.
So, now that we’re caught up on Singer’s problematic history, what does it mean for Bohemian Rhapsody as an awards contender? No one was expecting it to win two big awards at the Globes, which has led understandably to increased scrutiny as we make our way through awards season, with the Critics’ Choice Awards, the SAGs, the BAFTAs, and of course the Oscars ahead of us. Do you think the film’s shot at these shiny statuettes should be diminished because of Singer’s involvement?
FIRST REFORMED, but about Ethan Hawke struggling to find hope in a world where Bohemian Rhapsody is probably gonna be nominated for Best Picture. pic.twitter.com/dI4D7kxfJ7
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) January 4, 2019
GH: Before I single-handedly bring down Bryan Singer with my rhetoric and rage, I just want to point a couple of things out that are probably not all that relevant. Why do this? Because I’m a man, and we enjoy talking like experts on subjects we just did some half-assed internet research about.
Point 1: The Golden Globes matter to the Oscar race about as much as the Iowa Caucuses do to the Presidential election. You’ll recall, being the astute political observer that you are, that the Iowa Caucuses happen early in the American election cycle. That’s really the only reason they are covered so closely every four years. Sometimes they are a predictor of who the eventual nominee (and president) will be, but often not. Just ask Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz. And, similarly, the only reason the Golden Globes seem important is that they happen early in award season. But they are judged by such a niche group that their picks can seem downright baffling at times. Remember the 2010 flop The Tourist starring Johnny Depp? That was nominated for best picture at the Golden Globes. Have you ever seen Mozart in the Jungle? No! No one has! And yet, it’s a Golden Globe-winning television show.
So, do I think Bryan Singer’s creepiness will effect Bohemian Rhapsody’s Oscar chances? No. I think the fact that it’s a paint-by-numbers musical biopic will hurt its chances. (Seriously, the movie could have been called Walk Hard 2: This Time the Rockstar is Gay). I mean, Rami Malek and his mouthguard might still get a nod, but if you want a good Oscar predictor, the TIFF People’s Choice selection has a better track record. (So, get ready for a lot of Green Book hot takes!)
Point 2: Though she has already addressed and expressed regret about it—and she did so even before #MeToo made it a thing—Evan Rachel Wood starred in a Woody Allen movie in 2009. As with Singer, the allegations against Allen were pretty well-known even back then, but she still worked with him.
I’m not saying Wood is a hypocrite, or that her outrage is disingenuous. Not at all. I bring it up only to say that Wood clearly understands that sometimes actors work with gross directors, even if they should—or at least realistically could—know better. So maybe cut the cast a break when they celebrate what was clearly a huge surprise.
But 2009 was a very different time. And that’s good! If Bryan Singer never works again, that’s awesome. (Even if he happens to be innocent of all the many, many, many allegations–no one should be able to make the garbage Superman Returns and escape with their career). The real problem that’s complicating how we view Bohemian Rhapsody is that Singer is trying to get attention from it. If he didn’t rear his Botoxed head to claim credit for the Golden Globe, we might all be cool with forgetting he was a part of the film at all. Even if he kept the directing credit.
My question that rises from all of this is: why haven’t there been the public apologies and disavowals from actors who have worked with him in the past, the way there were for Woody Allen? So many of Allen’s former collaborators spoke out about how much they regret working with him, and how they’d never do it again. Actors who didn’t, or who expressed ambivalence toward Allen earned their own blowback. But no one is reaching out to Oscar Isaac or Jennifer Lawrence or, I don’t know, Stephen Baldwin, and asking them how they feel about having worked with an accused sex offender.
My theory: it’s because he, and his alleged victims, are gay. After all, it’s easier to ignore crimes in marginalized communities. Maybe there’s some discomfort because straight folks think they don’t understand gay sexuality in the first place—isn’t that normal for the gays—which, yes, is totally a homophobic holdover from when homosexuality was unfairly associated with pedophilia. And while I tend to think the retroactive shaming of actors is mostly performative, it’s still fucked up that we let Singer be Singer for so long.
PB: Hmm, I don’t know. Kevin Spacey’s accused of similar crimes and he’s been getting plenty of heat. I mean, he’s basically radioactive to anyone in the industry now. (Just for the record, though, Singer is married to a woman with whom he has a child, and has said publicly in interviews that he’s bisexual.)
I think maybe the reason Hollywood was slow to cool on Singer is because some of the allegations against him were dropped. As TIME notes, “he has faced two civil suits alleging sexual assault, one of which was dropped and one of which was dismissed.” In the wake of those lawsuits though, a bunch of stories began coming out about sordid “sex parties” Singer either threw or was present at but nothing was ever conclusively substantiated. A Buzzfeed story from 2014 details how Singer was brought “into regular orbit with 18- to 20-year-olds at parties sustained by large amounts of alcohol and drugs — edging precariously close to the line between legality and illegality,” but most of the sources quoted in the piece are unnamed and Singer wasn’t directly accused of misconduct. I think that sort of gave people the license to pull the whole “but nothing was ever proven” card.
Thanks to this latest lawsuit from 2017, though, which is ongoing, people are being denied an easy out. There is now a young man on the record claiming that he was raped by Singer, so there isn’t really any room for equivocating. Also, like you said, the climate has changed a lot in the past couple of years and stories that have been circulating on the whisper network for decades aren’t quite as easy to ignore anymore.
I know you brought up how Globe results aren’t a good indication of what’s coming down the pike—mainly because there’s no overlap between HFPA voters and Academy voters—but the film is still getting a lot of recognition from prestigious awards bodies. BAFTA noms came out yesterday and Bohemian Rhapsody features prominently on the list. So I’m just wondering—what’s an organization to do? I don’t think the film’s going to snag any more big prizes going forward; the backlash from the Globes has been substantial and other awards bodies probably don’t want to be tainted by a similar response on their big night. (By the way, did you see how poor 15-year-old Elsie Fisher, star of Eighth Grade, was dragged on Twitter for congratulating the team on their win?)
Why is everyone being so mean about this? I’m genuinely sorry if I did something wrong :(
— Elsie Fisher (@ElsieKFisher) January 7, 2019
Anyhow, I think what’s going to end up happening is: Malek’s going to continue getting recognition and maybe even some awards for his work, and the rest of the film is going to be shut out from any major wins. It’s the easiest way for them to award the film without really awarding the film, you know? And I don’t think anyone’s going to begrudge Malek a win. He’s got a ton of goodwill in the industry as well as critical praise for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury.
What I do hope for though—especially because we still have many, many awards shows and appearances ahead of us—is for everyone involved to get together and figure out how they want to address the elephant in the room. At the press conference after their Globes wins, the team flat-out refused to answer journalists’ questions about Singer. “That’s not something we should talk about tonight,” said producer Graham King, while Queen member Brian May quipped, “Good question though.” Malek then stepped up, saying, “I will take this one. There’s only one thing we needed to do, and that was to celebrate Freddie Mercury. Nothing was going to compromise us and giving him the love and celebration he deserves.”
They’re going to have to do a bit better than that. Don’t you think?
GH: It always baffles me when public figures don’t have thoughtful, satisfying answers to obvious questions. What are their publicists doing? Actors might not be the best at answering thorny ethical question on the spot (who is?), but they are pretty great at memorizing a script. Someone write that cast some talking points!
Having said that, I don’t really know what the satisfying answer would be. Because I realized, too, after you challenged my interpretation of the case, another reason why there hasn’t been the same retroactive hand-wringing from actors about having worked with Bryan Singer as there was about Woody Allen: It’s because it’s Bryan Singer. Woody Allen is an auteur—being in one of his films was an honour, a sign that you had arrived, or were at least arriving. Bryan Singer made some crowd-pleasing pictures, but no one is calling him an auteur.
I can’t decide whether that makes crafting an appropriate response easier or more difficult. On the one hand, because “working with Woody Allen” was such a cliche Hollywood status symbol, it was easy to understand when actors worked with him, despite credible allegations. Singer doesn’t have the same reputation. No actress has gushed about being granted the opportunity to be in an X-Men reboot. In that light, working with Singer seems less understandable.
But, that also could make it easier. And this seems to be where the cast is headed: you lean in on the Freddie Mercury Tribute and imply that, in the shadow of such an amazing performer, the director is practically immaterial. Bryan Singer? Who’s Bryan Singer? This was basically directed by the spirit of Freddie Mercury!
Also, lingering in the back of my mind, there’s that nagging concern that being fired or denied work because of an unproven allegation is a little dangerous as a precedent. After all, some of the rumours around Singer aren’t about illegal activity so much as being gross in a decadent, predatory, Hollywood way. Of course, the “nothing has been proven in court” defence is the least satisfying argument.
So maybe honesty would be best. Something that says they understand why people might feel ambivalent about the film, because of the director. That that is something, as a cast, they are dealing with, too. But, while we don’t want to shut down the conversation about how we should feel about problematic artists, the opportunity to celebrate Freddie Mercury is an unalloyed good. Then go on to talk about all the things Mercury did for human rights and the LGBTQ community.
And then just ignore the fact that the movie changes so much of Mercury’s story that it’s questionable whether it celebrates the real Freddie Mercury, or some postmodern, nostalgic construct we call Freddie Mercury.
But hating on Elsie Fisher? Let’s get some perspective people. The Oscars have a way of bringing out the darkness in people. That can be good (holding Casey Affleck to account for bad behaviour) and some can be not so good (rage-tweeting a teenager you don’t know). What should award bodies do to mitigate this? Should they vet nominees? And if so, what behaviour is disqualifying? What’s the statute of limitations? Or do problematic award winners just need to give better answers?
PB: Award bodies haven’t had to deal with a lot of scrutiny until fairly recently, so they’ve been able to skirt some of these issues without really shouldering any blame. Now though, their feet are being held to the fire and it’s not going to be as easy to just sit by and say nothing. It’s tricky; there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all solution but in my opinion, nor should there be. We’re dealing with complex issues here and I think everything needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. I really appreciate the diversity requirements the BAFTAs put in place last year: for the two awards categories specifically for British films (Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer), they’re only accepting films that meet two of the British Film Institute’s quartet of core diversity standards.
But of course, different award bodies have different nomination processes. The Academy, for instance, has over 8000 people who submit their nominees for various categories, which then cycle through some complicated process before the final nominees are selected. Because there are so many people involved, it’s easy to play the avoidance game. Who do you hold accountable? But if the final list of five or ten nominees includes some problematic faves that have been in the news for x or y reason, I think it’s the award body’s duty to call for a meeting of their board to figure out the steps forward. Interestingly, I just Googled “Who is BAFTA president” and it turns out it’s Prince William, since 2010! Obviously he can’t weigh in on this stuff but there are other people who can, namely the VPs for film, television and games (?). The Academy, meanwhile, has a Board of Governors that includes Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Dern and Steven Spielberg.
Whatever these governing bodies decide, it’s something they should be able to defend when asked about it. Because they will be asked about it. Sorry guys, changing the subject isn’t an option anymore.