(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.
This is an interview that Mercury conducted in Munich in 1984, about a year before Queen’s historic concert at Live Aid. I’m guessing he would have been promoting Queen’s 11th album, The Works, at the time.
It’s actually a fairly unique clip, considering the surprising lack of good Freddie Mercury video, particularly when it comes to interviews. In the ’70s, Mercury was a private man who mistrusted the press, especially music writers who continually slagged Queen as pompous corporate rock. By the ’80s, this wariness curdled to full-blown hatred, as Mercury came to be hounded by tabloids over the state of his health.
As a result, Mercury only spoke to reporters when he had to — which, given Queen’s massive popularity, wasn’t often. And when Queen’s commercial fortunes in the U.S. took a hit in the early ’80s, the band essentially chose to exit the American market, which made Mercury even more scarce. He wasn’t a fixture on MTV at the time, and he never sat with Johnny Carson or David Letterman. Queen’s 1982 appearance on Saturday Night Live, which occurred almost a full decade before his death in 1991, was Mercury’s last performance in North America.
In the Munich clip, as well as other videos you can find on YouTube of Mercury speaking in conversation, certain mannerisms and character traits are immediately apparent. He speaks thoughtfully, but with discernible intensity, which causes his rate of speech to be fairly rapid. He’s not impolite, exactly, but he can be sarcastic and cutting. He clearly doesn’t suffer fools (all journalists are fools to Freddie Mercury) but he can also be self-effacing. He occasionally lapses into camp (“Daarling“), but he doesn’t stay there. He smokes a lot. He seems a little unsettled, like he has an abundance of energy that he must expend on stage as soon as possible. He is thrillingly alive.
Now’s let’s review this clip of Malek as Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
He speaks thoughtfully, but with obvious sleepiness, which causes his rate of speech to be a bit slow. He’s often glum. He’s not groggy, exactly, but he sounds like a man who has a mouth full of prosthetic teeth and doesn’t have quite enough vocal dexterity. He is always campy .. or maybe he’s doing an impression of Dracula? Is that the right comparison? I can’t place it. The point is, Malek sometimes seems like the opposite of the real Freddie Mercury.
Here’s the crux of where Mercury and Malek diverge: Mercury always had a lot of things he wanted to accomplish and was propelled forward by his creativity and ambition, whereas Malek plays Mercury as a man weighed down by the burden of his eventual fate. The real Mercury thought he might live forever, but Malek plays him as a person who will one day die.
Again, I don’t think Malek is bad, necessarily. My issue is with the idea that any actor “transforms” into a famous person in a movie. These types of performances in biopics are always commentaries on a person’s life, rather than straight-forward replications. You take one aspect of the subject’s personality and you make it the entirety of their existence. When Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison in The Doors, he exaggerated the Lizard King’s drunken poutiness, because that’s what most interested the movie’s director, Oliver Stone. When Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon portrayed Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, they emphasized the redemptive aspects of their relationship, which served the film’s romantic melodrama structure. When Chadwick Boseman strapped on James Brown’s bouffant in Get On Up, he played up his indefatigable professionalism, as that worked for the character’s tendency to break the fourth wall in the midst of his myriad personal breakdowns.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek is tasked with portraying Mercury as a martyr who will ultimately transcend his untimely death. Structuring the film to end with Live Aid, and fudging the timeline of Mercury’s illness to frame it as a “farewell,” imbues Mercury with an overwhelming tragic melancholy that simply wasn’t present in his public life when he was alive.
Given the film’s prodigious box office take, perhaps this was the smart approach. But reverse-engineering Freddie Mercury as the product of his fate, rather than as a man who lived on his own terms from one moment to the next, inevitably diminishes him. In the end, it’s not the actor who is transformed into something else, but the real-life character.