This Year’s Award-Worthy Performances in Bad Movies

Rami Malek and Glenn Close were strong Oscar contenders — until their movies were actually seen.
Rami Malek In Bohemian Rhapsody
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on November 2nd, 2018

Oscar predictions tend to begin way before anyone’s had a chance to see the would-be Oscar contenders. Pundits look at the type of movie and the talent involved for what might be a given come awards season. Biopics with actors we already know to be great? That’s an easy frontrunner sight unseen. Veteran nominees in character-driven dramas are another plausible possibility. Ahead of the performances actually being on display, Rami Malek was a hopeful for Bohemian Rhapsody and Glenn Close seemed a sure thing for her work in The Wife. Unfortunately, once they debuted, while the actors may have lived up to expectations, the movies themselves didn’t do them any favors.

As explored by Ryan C. Showers at the awards website Next Best Picture, plenty of lead actors and actresses manage lone nominations from otherwise unrecognized movies. And many of them, as noted by Will Mavity of the same site, have even come out of films with predominantly negative reviews. Bohemian Rhapsody is opening with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 61%, which is fair enough for such a standard and contrived biopic without a focused theme. Even Malek has divided critics on whether he actually gives a great performance or not. The gig consists of a lot of lip-synching and mimicked movements for the musical sequences, yet Malek does hold well during the dramatic scenes, as well. Those scenes just aren’t written well enough for him to shine in them.

There is something to be said for how much the material needs to support the performance when you look at music biopics in particular. Almost all of the cast of Bohemian Rhapsody is better than what they’re given, including Lucy Boynton and the actors playing the other Queen members (Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello) yet nobody’s character, not even Malek’s Freddie Mercury, feels fleshed out enough. Perhaps it’s intentional to keep Mercury somewhat of a mystery on the inside, but the performance also comes off as soulless at times, Malek functioning as just a physical vessel for the real voice of Mercury to pass through. And he doesn’t do anything above and beyond what’s required to make his performance, rather than his portrayal, memorable in its own right.

Not all Oscar-nominated actors in music biopics sing their own parts (Jamie Foxx didn’t in Ray), though the effort can help in recognizing the achievement in those cases (Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line) where they do. The real star of Bohemian Rhapsody is Mercury, not Malek (whose voice is mixed with Mercury and singer Marc Matel). Especially in the lengthy climactic depiction of Queen’s performance at Live Aid, which has an ironic feeling after an earlier scene with the band protesting ahead of their appearance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops when asked to just pretend to play as their recording of “Killer Queen” fills the speakers. Considering the band’s significance to the history of music videos (this could have been an interesting aspect of their legacy to touch on more), maybe it’s fitting that much of the movie offers little more than artificial stagings set to music.

Bohemian Rhapsody is mostly a failure for being so dull and formulaic while its real-life subjects constantly — not even ironically so much as contradictorily — claim to be against such conventionality (and given the involvement of the band’s surviving members and manager, that contradiction is, in part, on them). Similarly, The Wife is also a movie that fails for being so incompatible with the story being told. Its script, adapted by Jane Anderson from a book by Meg Wolitzer, is so poorly written that its main characters, including a Nobel Prize-winning novelist and his also-literarily-talented spouse, would die of embarrassment in how they’re presented if they were actual people.

Glenn Close In The Wife

Among its problems, a lot of which involves an issue of execution from maybe a foreign filmmaker (Bjorn Runge) not grasping the language enough in his English debut, there’s one moment in The Wife that I just couldn’t get past. Jonathan Pryce, as the Nobel honoree, tells the title character, played by Close, that he’s not attracted to a young woman they’ve just met upon their arrival in Stockholm. She says, “I could care less” (verified via subtitles on my awards screener). One of the most widely wrongly stated phrases in America, sure, but from a person as erudite as she? I don’t think so. Not only are we shown that she is an excellent wordsmith on her own but even if she weren’t also a great grammarian, there’s no way her former professor turned highfalutin husband wouldn’t correct her, or at the very least cringe at such a commoner mistake.

Is that line that way in the screenplay? Or was the line said by mistake by Close and not caught by Runge? If it’s Close’s fault, then I certainly can’t properly consider her for an award for her performance. Seriously. That’s the sort of thing that shows a lack of care from the actor. It’s not nitpicking when it’s a matter of character believability in such a sober dramatic work. This is the worst grammatic offense since the blatant “you and I” mistake in Geostorm (worse, since at least that movie is ridiculous, and okay with being such). And it’s not the only weak element of the movie’s writing, which is full of cliches and contrivances, including a main character’s sudden total change of attitude about her whole life, that just doesn’t go well with the subject matter, especially whenever criticisms about writings within the story also apply to the film’s storytelling itself.

Otherwise, Close’s performance is very good to great. It’s the sort of performance that’s very lived in and, aside from the one misspoken phrase and the greater mishandling of her character’s evolution in such a short period, is believable. It’s never showy and only briefly does it entail any big-moment acting, as in the sort that comes with an argument scene. But you can sense the character’s soul in Close’s expressions. You can see deliberation in the actress’ every blink of an eye, yet she also comes off very natural in the part. But is it peak Close? I don’t think so and while I take her acting for granted for sure, this is rather minimal-effort work from such a talent, and it only really stands out because everyone and everything else in The Wife is so terrible, particularly the writing and performance of her son (Max Irons) and the nosy biographer (Christian Slater), and the stale flashbacks with Close’s own daughter, Annie Starke, playing the younger version of the character.

One of the rules I have for whether a performance is award-worthy in spite of its surroundings is if the performance is remarkable enough to recommend the movie on that achievement alone. Just as I might suggest a movie for its visuals alone or its dialogue alone. Close’s performance in The Wife is not special enough to warrant anyone watching the film for it — I think it’s ludicrous that she alone may be the reason The Wife has a Certified Fresh score of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. I am also surprised that she remains on most of the major pundits’ lists of frontrunners for the Best Actress Oscar nominations, even if merely as an attempt to guess the Academy’s favor for a name they’ve already nominated (with no win yet) six times.

Malek’s dramatic performance in Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, is also probably not exceptional enough to recommend the movie or give it any awards on that alone. However, combined with his lip-synching embodiment of Mercury on stage in the recording and concert scenes, especially the Live Aid bit, is good enough to endorse the movie specifically for any major Queen fan. There’s nothing to get angry about with Bohemian Rhapsody — although the Mike Myers meta casting with overemphasized Wayne’s World referencing is groan-inducing. It’s watchable and occasionally even really enjoyable in its basic genre conformity. If anything, Malek at least proves that he was perfectly cast. Close, however, was not. She deserves much better.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.