Let’s Get Real About Biopics

How ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ reviews highlight a double standard.
Bohemian Rhapsody
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on November 5th, 2018

Biopics, as a genre, are like gold-painted cardboard—gold, because they win awards, and cardboard, because they are flat and tasteless and you’d probably be better off not consuming them.

If you have read anything about the new Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, you might have been left with the impression that something unexpectedly terrible had occurred. “There are some poor, strange choices when deciding where to focus, not least committing so much time to his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and virtually none to any happy gay relationship, romantic or otherwise,” wrote Olly Richards for Empire magazine. Meanwhile, over at NBC, Ani Bundel was left wondering, “So what went wrong? How could the story of one of the most fascinating figures in rock music descend into a color-by-numbers tale more suitable for VH1 than the Academy Awards?”

Unfortunately, Ani, nothing went wrong. Bohemian Rhapsody was not an example of the unexpectedly terrible, but the what-totally-should-have-been-expected-ly terrible. And though several reviews have brought up the potential role that the drama culminating in the firing of director Bryan Singer midway through filming (Dexter Fletcher stepped in to fill the role) might have played in what they deemed a surprisingly bad end product, the ultimate fact of the matter is this: by biopic standards, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t bad. The only really good thing about it is Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury, but there is not a single shortcoming that Bohemian Rhapsody has, from misrepresenting the timing of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis and the progression of his illness to the emphasis on his relationship with Mary Austin to being a “color-by-numbers tale,” that another biopic has not already done and won at least one Oscar nonetheless in the past twenty years.

The only actual difference between Bohemian Rhapsody and these other films is that Freddie Mercury is a much more beloved and well-known figure than most. And I don’t just mean “well-known” in the sense of name or face recognition, but in the sense that a lot of people love Mercury and Queen enough to know a little bit of background going into the film—and therefore, enough to know when things veer significantly from the historical record. Because every sort of license Bohemian Rhapsody takes has been taken before, and for the same narrative reasons, but there have been a lot of cases where these liberties have totally flown under the radar due to the central figure being not a rock star.

But I’m making a lot of claims here without backing things up, so let me turn to my two favorite examples of total biopic BS, The Imitation Game and A Beautiful Mind. You will notice these are both about mathematicians. The benefit of choosing someone like a mathematician as a subject for a biopic is that even if they did something like win a Nobel prize, there are probably still only like twenty people who are not mathematicians who know anything about them besides maybe their name and the fact that they won a Nobel prize.

Let us first consider Bohemian Rhapsody‘s creative license with Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, as around a third of the reviews I’ve encountered thus far have made a point of mentioning that Mercury was not actually diagnosed with AIDS until two years after the Live Aid concert. A smaller but still substantial fraction also goes on to lament how the film manipulates it to seem like Mercury practically keeled over and died the minute he walked off stage. Have both of my examples Oscar-winning biopics—and Best Screenplay-winning, no less—taken comparable medical creative licenses? You betcha.

As all of you who have seen A Beautiful Mind likely remember, John Nash had paranoid schizophrenia. You likely remember this because the film makes excellent use of Nash as an unreliable narrator and introduces a roommate character, Charles, who ends up only existing in Nash’s head. It’s incredibly effective filmmaking. The one caveat is that Nash did not actually suffer from visual hallucinations, but auditory hallucinations.

And then, moving on to The Imitation Game. If you’ve seen it, you might remember that the film goes all the way through Alan Turing’s 1952 prosecution for “homosexual acts,” leading to court-mandated chemical castration and hormone treatments. You might remember the way that the film frames the tragedy of the way these drugs wreck his otherworldly mind. How they destroy the genius the entire film has waxed rhapsodically about, leaving Turing unable to solve a simple crossword puzzle.

This is utter stuff and nonsense. Turing continued to publish hugely influential work, especially in theoretical biology regarding pattern formation, until he died by suicide. The court-mandated drug therapies did, however, have a huge impact on his physical body, including causing him to basically grow breasts, among other things—an imaginably traumatic metamorphosis given the circumstances, but perhaps that kind of trauma was just a little too David Cronenberg for what screenwriter Graham Moore was going for, so he changed it. And ended up winning an Oscar.

Okay, so let’s look at a second Bohemian Rhapsody complaint: the emphasis on Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who is also an unfortunately weak character. Going to our first point of comparison, A Beautiful Mind, we have Alicia Nash, the long-suffering wife of John Nash. It’s quite hard to describe her as anything else, considering the film does not give her any agency or individual identity at all besides being Nash’s wife and the mother of his son, even though she, too, was a physicist, and divorced Nash after six years of marriage, only remarrying nearly 40 years later. Much like the current case with Mary Austin, reviews of A Beautiful Mind took note of her paltry characterization, with The Hollywood Reporter’s review referring to Alicia’s “sketchily” written character as “the major drawback” of the film. Not only did Akiva Goldsman go on to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, but also Jennifer Connelly won Best Supporting Actress for playing Alicia.

Hollywood loves boy-meets-girl, but for some reason, while romance has died down in literally every other genre that isn’t romance itself, the biopic still has a particularly strong dependence on that age-old trope, even when the boy in question is unequivocally gay. Maybe it’s because women remain the cinema’s go-to humanizing figures, as I have written about before. Or who knows, really? I just know that Mary Austin is to Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody as Joan Clarke is to Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Movies do love their patterns.

And look, I could go on giving more examples all day, but hopefully what I’ve laid out is sufficient to prove my point: all of the criticisms that have been pouring out about Bohemian Rhapsody are valid. What they are not is special. And if the film gets shut out come awards season, it’s not because people care about biopics sticking to the facts, or avoiding trite narrative tropes. It’s because, for some reason, they only care about those things when the subject in question happens to be a rock star.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.