(Editor’s note: This piece was published prior to the 2019 Oscars ceremony. Malek did end up winning in the Best Actor category.)
Bohemian Rhapsody has engendered a wide range of responses since its release last fall. Some people (including much of the public, apparently) consider it rousing, crowd-pleasing entertainment; others (mainly film critics) have labeled it flimsy, borderline offensive trash. But even those who loathe Bohemian Rhapsody agree with the film’s fans on one crucial issue — Rami Malek’s “transformative” performance as Freddie Mercury.
“Transformative” gets used a lot to describe Malek’s lauded turn as the rock icon, including this recent Hollywood Reporter profile that also declares him the current frontrunner for a Best Actor Oscar. Malek has already won a Golden Globe and a SAG award for the role. An Oscar would complete an impressive trifecta of acclaim. But admiration for the performance already seems unanimous. Typically, critics who hated Bohemian Rhapsody have singled Malek out for praise. (“The single star of this review is for Malek’s performance.”) As for the people who liked the movie, like Jimmy Kimmel, they’ve treated Malek like he’s really Freddie Mercury.
However, I have an important question: Is Malek, you know, actually any good in this movie?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since I saw Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time in October. Upon my initial viewing, I found the movie to be (1) pretty bad and (2) also pretty entertaining. I love Queen and I also love trashy movies about musicians, so the very real problems with Bohemian Rhapsody — the factual errors, the problematic depiction of Mercury’s love life, the laughably squeaky clean depiction of backstage ’70s arena-rock life — didn’t prevent me from enjoying myself. As for Malek, I thought he held the whole shaky and scandal-ridden enterprise together. He is, as always, a committed and charismatic actor. Similar to his role on Mr. Robot, Malek is required to be on screen in nearly every scene, and he’s remarkably good at making you empathize with lonely outsiders who have trouble connecting with those around them. Ultimately, he was called upon to dominate Bohemian Rhapsody, and he succeeded.
As I thought more about Bohemian Rhapsody in retrospect, however, Malek’s depiction of Mercury seemed increasingly … off. Like, completely wrong, actually. After watching Bohemian Rhapsody again this week, I’m frankly baffled by all of this “transformation” talk. He’s not bad in the movie, exactly — he’s still a likable and relatable screen presence. But he’s not Freddie Mercury. He’s an idea of Freddie Mercury, and a rather broad one at that.