Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.
So whichever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.
Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.
There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.
In the runup to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is looking at each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes each film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Here, we talk about Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie about Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury that made bank at the box office but split critics sharply. Partly directed by Bryan Singer — before he was fired for abusive on-set behavior and then just not showing up — the film stars Rami Malek, in a performance that has won some accolades this season, as Mercury.
Joining the conversation are Aja Romano and Alissa Wilkinson, both culture reporters at Vox, and Noam Hassenfeld, a reporter and producer at Vox’s daily podcast Today, Explained.
On the laziness of Bohemian Rhapsody
Alissa Wilkinson: Bohemian Rhapsody is among the year’s most controversial Best Picture nominees, for a whole bunch of reasons. There’s its director, Bryan Singer, who was fired from the movie but is still credited as its director and who has been accused of sexually assaulting underage boys. And as you’ve written about previously, Aja, there’s its controversial handling of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality.
But we also have to talk about its filmmaking, which is just ... not good. I wrote about Bohemian Rhapsody’s deficiencies when I reviewed the movie, but recently, on a plane, someone in front of me was watching it, and I was reminded while catching occasional glimpses of it over their shoulder that even its lighting is weird and unwieldy.
Yet people loved this movie, and it made a lot of money, largely because Queen has such a massive fan base. Which makes perfect sense. What I want to know from the two of you is this: What did you think of the movie? And how did this film that so divided critics become a Best Picture nominee?
Aja Romano: I think Bohemian Rhapsody is one of those films that managed to scratch different generations of Oscar voters in different places. Despite Singer’s on-set reputation and the allegations against him, there’s a huge amount of support for him in Hollywood, both because Hollywood is slow to change and because many people just don’t care. And his name on the picture wouldn’t have hurt its standing with a lot of people who arguably would be swayed by its hefty box office haul.
That haul, in my opinion, was crucial to elevating Bohemian Rhapsody’s stature among Oscar voters. It’s not a big summer action blockbuster, an animated kids’ film, or a superhero franchise installment, yet it made a bunch of money and achieved substantial overseas success. I think that signaled “quality” to a lot of voters who don’t care about the film’s tricky politics and who otherwise wouldn’t have paid it much attention. In the Best Picture nominee list, we might say it’s filling the Greatest Showman slot.
I also think there’s a contingent of Oscar voters who not only don’t care about the film’s tricky politics but are happy to see Bohemian Rhapsody’s blandness as a selling point in its favor. It conforms well enough to a feel-good Oscar-bait narrative, in that it nominally checks all the “serious biopic” boxes, and it’s buoyed by two unassailable selling points: the perfection of its score and of Rami Malek’s turn as Mercury. I suspect the combo of those selling points gave a lot of people tacit permission to kick back, relax, and just enjoy the two-hour Queen concert.
Judging by the heated reaction to my criticism of the film’s portrayal of queerness, many of Bohemian Rhapsody’s fans were entirely satisfied by its depiction of the band and of Mercury, and found the film deeply enjoyable, almost soothing. I have no problem believing that some of these fans were Oscar voters.
I think perhaps what rankles me the most, in addition to its queerphobia, is that the film has done so little work to deserve the support it’s garnered. Its director was frequently absent from the set, its script is mind-numbingly blasé, its characters outside Mercury and his common-law wife are barely sketched-in, and the music itself is often used in the film to the music’s detriment. For example: Imagine having a song like “Another One Bites the Dust” at your fingertips and deciding to pair it with a montage of gay bathhouses that foreshadows Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, thus turning the song itself into something deeply offensive and homophobic instead of the fun, jubilant anthem it should be.
Bohemian Rhapsody is full of lazy, offensive narrative shortcuts like that. And most of those shortcuts rob us of the richer, more three-dimensional look at Mercury and his relationships that this movie could have been. But despite how annoyed and offended I and many others were by the film, I’ve talked to plenty of other queer people who felt it was a respectful, sensitive handling of Mercury’s life and sexuality. And maybe that reaction is due, again, to the film’s blandness. Its glass is either half-full or half-empty, depending on how you want to see it.
Noam, what did you think?
Noam Hassenfeld: I like the way you emphasize the laziness of the movie. That’s what stood out to me the most. We’re talking about one of the greatest bands of all time, one of the most exciting and infectious frontmen ever, but Bohemian Rhapsody is basically Queen’s greatest hits with a little bit of plot cartilage to connect them. I don’t feel like the movie is remotely interested in Freddie Mercury as a character (nor does it seem interested in any of the other members of Queen, either), and the entire thing comes off as pretty superficial.
Whenever I watch a biopic, I ask myself if the movie would be compelling without recognizable impersonations, songs, or events, and Bohemian Rhapsody is exhibit A of the type of movie that seems content to add nothing to the general outline of a Wikipedia article. (I sort of felt this way about Vice as well, I think.)
I think about one of my favorite biopics, 2013’s All Is by My Side, where André 3000 portrayed Jimi Hendrix without the benefit of playing any of his actual songs (the Hendrix estate didn’t allow it). The filmmakers used that limitation to their advantage, though, making a movie that examines a small slice of Hendrix’s life (’66 and ’67) in often strange and idiosyncratic ways. It would be exciting and original whether or not the main character was named Jimi Hendrix.
Also, Aja: I have to say, I really didn’t love Rami Malek’s performance. I felt like his portrayal of Freddie Mercury was pretty off — especially his accent — and he never seemed to get the energy and physicality right. It sometimes felt like he was playing Elliot from Mr. Robot with a British accent. What drew you to his performance?
Aja: I love this question because I think love for Malek’s performance is one reason many people have been so reticent to criticize the movie. I think what he really encapsulated well was Mercury’s internality and his nervous energy. Since most of what I know of Freddie Mercury comes from interviews and public performances, I was really looking for how well Malek took what I knew of Mercury’s public persona and mixed it into whatever was going on behind the scenes.
With that said, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t really give a shit about what was going on behind the scenes. It positions Mercury as a confused prodigal son who just needs to come home to a heterosexual relationship, so I’m not really sure how faithful Malek was to that personal side of him. But every moment he was onscreen, I felt like he was bringing a full, complex picture of a version of Freddie Mercury to life, one that was strategic and introspective and wry without being too lost in his own head. And I think he delivered much of that despite a script that undermined him in many ways.
Does Queen’s music help or hurt Bohemian Rhapsody?
Alissa: It’s been so interesting to see how divided the conversation has been around Malek’s performance — some say it’s great, while others say it’s not. I’m more on the side of “this is an imitation, not acting,” but as you say, Aja, he’s doing something interesting with what is a very flatly written portrait of the character.
But the other obvious element of Bohemian Rhapsody’s appeal is the music. And it’s especially important to the movie, in a way that isn’t always true for musician biopics or movies about bands. Why do you think that is? Is it possible the emphasis on the music is what resulted in such a shortchanged portrayal of its central figure? Or is there some other factor at work?
Noam: I definitely think there’s a sense in which the iconic nature of Queen’s songs works against the movie. When we first hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Freddie Mercury says “it’s opera,” the song doesn’t feel organic because we know exactly what we’re about to hear. The same goes true for “We Will Rock You” (“clap on the third beat”) or “Another One Bites the Dust” (“we don’t do disco”). All of these scenes feel like the setup was written well after the punchline.
It’s certainly a challenge to work with such iconic material, but I wish the filmmakers had limited themselves to using just a few songs, or tried something a bit more creative in depicting the music.
Aja: I think this is a great point that speaks, again, to just how lazy the screenplay is. The object of Bohemian Rhapsody so often seems to be to cram in as many Queen songs as possible, ostensibly to remind the audience — as if the audience needs reminding! — just how many culturally iconic hits Queen gave us.
When the credits rolled and the film managed to sandwich in a few more songs, I felt as if I’d essentially paid a full movie ticket price to listen to a really loud Spotify playlist.
The songs feel so superfluous to the movie’s narrative, especially compared to the much more sophisticated ways many other composer/musician biopics and dramas have handled the integration of the music into the storytelling (think of Walk the Line or What’s Love Got to Do With It, for example, or even 8 Mile). And imagine if Bohemian Rhapsody’s approach to Queen’s creative and collaborative process had been less worshipful and more deliberately irreverent and exploratory — perhaps we could have gotten a modern Amadeus. (Too many octaves, Freddie!)
The musician biopics that get it right
Alissa: Aside from the filmmaking, my main beef with this movie is that it plays more like an informational skit about a musician than a story about that musician’s life and work.
In trying to explain that stance to a friend recently, I contrasted Bohemian Rhapsody with my favorite musician biopic: Love and Mercy, about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. What I admire about Love and Mercy is the way it helped me learn all kinds of things about its subject, while also really brilliantly showing the band and Wilson at work. Bohemian Rhapsody and Love and Mercy have a lot in common as far as raw material to work with, but Love and Mercy told its story much more artfully.
Do you have a favorite musician biopic that you’d encourage Bohemian Rhapsody fans (and foes) to check out?
Noam: One of the main things the movie lacked for me was any sense originality or a particular perspective, so I would point people to two biopics that really seemed to think hard about how to present iconic characters. I’ve already mentioned All Is by My Side, and it’s worth noting how much that movie accomplishes by bypassing both Hendrix’s music and most of his life. It’s almost shocking to see someone that famous through such a narrow opening.
The other would be I’m Not There, which goes to the opposite extreme, depicting Bob Dylan as different characters, in disparate timelines, and with wildly different styles. It’s not my favorite movie, but it’s a refreshing take on a figure whose fame makes him almost impossible to portray originally.
Aja: Ooh, I was also thinking about I’m Not There because of how its use of different actors to portray Dylan really gets at the impossibility of ever truly being able to encompass everything about a figure like Dylan or Mercury — someone who’s become such a huge figure that their persona transcends their lived reality. For me, the film that comes closest to actually doing this using just one actor is Ray, mainly thanks to Jamie Foxx’s unbelievable performance and the backing of a superb ensemble and nuanced script.
But of course Bohemian Rhapsody also teased the idea of a great ensemble film about a group of brilliant creators, and if we’re looking at great ensemble biopics, the one that springs instantly to mind is Straight Outta Compton, which was woefully overlooked by critics but is, in my opinion, brilliant in the way it captures complicated, contentious group dynamics without losing its creative sparkle. It balances backstage drama and dazzling onstage showmanship in a way that’s engaging, entertaining, and educational. It’s everything Bohemian Rhapsody was never self-aware enough to be.
Alissa: In a way, I’m glad Bohemian Rhapsody happened, because it gave us an excuse to talk about all these great movies. Perhaps it even introduced some people to Queen and to Freddie Mercury who wouldn’t have heard of them otherwise.
It’s definitely not the movie Mercury deserves. Hopefully he’ll get that movie someday. But in the meantime, there are plenty of other movies about musicians to explore.
Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees: