The film that won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, Motion Picture last night may as well have been directed by a ghost. When producer Graham King accepted the award for that movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, he neatly sidestepped mentioning the name of the film’s credited director. When the film’s star, Rami Malek, won an award for his performance as Queen front man Freddie Mercury, he didn’t breathe that filmmaker’s name, either. It’s as if Bohemian Rhapsody had miraculously directed itself. It would be more convenient for everyone—including audiences who loved the film—if only that were true.
But the reality is that the man with the director’s credit on Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer, isn’t someone anyone is eager to bring up. Singer was fired from the movie approximately two weeks before shooting was completed. (The picture was completed by Dexter Fletcher, who, in accordance with Directors Guild of America rules, did not receive a directing credit.) Singer, reportedly, had failed to show up on set on numerous occasions. There were rumors of discord with Malek, and at one point Singer is said to have picked up a piece of lighting equipment and hurled it, though the target was no one in particular. (Singer has denied fighting with Malek and says he left the set to care for a sick parent.) But perhaps most significant was the news that broke just after Singer was fired: The filmmaker was facing a lawsuit connected with an allegation that he’d raped 17-year-old Cesar Sanchez-Guzman at a yacht party in 2003. Singer already had a reputation as a difficult director: People involved with his previous film, the 2016 X-Men: Apocalypse, have spoken of petulant or unprofessional behavior and sudden absences. But rumors of unseemly sexual activity, had dogged Singer for years, though he consistently denied the allegations and none had resulted in any judgment against him.
Now, no one involved with Bohemian Rhapsody wants to talk about Singer. And while the film received a number of negative reviews from critics—though not, incidentally, from me—audiences loved it. It’s just the latest film, and certainly not the last, to be tainted by what we euphemistically and vaguely call a problematic director. Anyone who loves the film is required to love it with an asterisk.
Asterisks of this sort are piling up, and as they do, they become the enemy of art, a specter force dogging even our initial unconscious response to a work, not to mention any more thoughtful and nuanced observation that might follow. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Bryan Singer movie—or a Woody Allen movie, or a Bernardo Bertolucci movie, or any movie produced by Harvey Weinstein—now has to append at least one asterisk, if not several, to any declaration of love or even just of simple enjoyment: “I loved [insert movie name here], but in no way do I condone the behavior of [insert filmmaker name here].” Instead of just processing what a film or a performance means, or how it does or doesn’t work, we now have to be judge and jury at every moment. If we don’t, we risk the kind of social-media blast that 15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher (the star of Eighth Grade, who’d been nominated for an award herself) got on Twitter last night after she expressed her happiness—in a rush of caps-lock joy—that both Malek and Bohemian Rhapsody had won awards. A number of Twitter uses lashed out at her, in some cases cruelly, for what they saw as her failure to address the problems surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody—not just the accusations faced by Singer, but also the fact that many of the film’s critics believe it whitewashes Mercury’s sexuality (even though in his lifetime, Mercury never identified openly as straight, bisexual or gay).
My thoughts on this- please educate me in the future if I do something problematic. I want to better myself and grow! I was also vaguely aware the director of said film was bad but had no other information as to why he was considered such or what he had done. I know now. https://t.co/kMGFl2xvpj
— Elsie Fisher (@ElsieKFisher) January 7, 2019
Moments later, Fisher responded with a crestfallen Tweet: “Why is everyone being so mean about this? I’m genuinely sorry if I did something wrong :(” She learned the hard way that you can’t just love a film, or a performance, without hearing from someone all the reasons your love is wrong. Our declarations of love, or even just admiration, have become more like legal briefs, multi-page documents with clauses and riders attached, and there’s always someone there, with a persnickety red pen, ready to call out a badly chosen phrase or perceived sin of omission.
No one wants to be seen as granting approval to either known or accused abusers, rapists or pedophiles. And it’s normal to feel some aggravation when we see these people—even if their alleged crimes are as yet unproven—continuing to get work. (Singer is reportedly in talks to direct the Conan the Barbarian spinoff Red Sonja.) We’re hard-wired, maybe, to want our artists to be deserving of our respect, and of the moviegoing dollars we may end up funneling to them. And if we’re human—as is, most likely, anyone likely to be reading this—it’s impossible to completely divorce our feelings about a performer or filmmaker from things we know, or have heard, that he’s done.
On the same day Ellen DeGeneres made her plea that Kevin Hart should be allowed to host the Oscars, his previously revealed homophobic Tweets notwithstanding, I saw Hart’s latest film, The Upside. It’s neither great nor terrible, and I’ve occasionally enjoyed Hart’s work in the past. But in one scene his character, in the context of changing a catheter, expresses disgust at having to touch another man’s penis. He gets over it, which, I guess, is some small triumph for the character. Still, what Hart thinks about homosexuality affects my view of his performance. It’s information I can’t un-know. No matter how I feel about asterisks, my own personal brief on Kevin Hart has to contain this one.
But I’d stop well short of saying that Hart should never work again, in any capacity. And as for what happened last night with Bohemian Rhapsody, I wonder what would have happened if anyone had dared to mention Singer’s name. Would it have been made things better or worse to just throw it out there? And what if Singer never does make another film again? Would it then be OK to acknowledge some enjoyment of Bohemian Rhapsody, with the knowledge that its director had been suitably punished?
I don’t feel comfortable with the rumors I’ve heard about Singer. But when I look at Bohemian Rhapsody, I don’t see some pure auteurist vision. I see a creation that works because a bunch of musicians and choreographers, of lighting technicians and camerapeople, of people working above and below the line—including, of course, actors—knew what they were doing and believed in it. You don’t have to like the picture to accept that, like all big-budget movies, it bears the fingerprints of many hands, including that of its director. Film is alchemy. There’s so much that can go wrong, and also a million and one nearly imperceptible elements that have to somehow go right.
These days I don’t feel comfortable with anything, frankly, except the word uncomfortable. But the wrestling comes with the territory; stasis is death. As consumers we, like those who make the things we consume, are host to any number of contradictions and flaws. Even deeply imperfect artists are capable of delighting us, or of making us see darkness in ourselves. It’s hard work to be a moral custodian every moment, but it’s even harder to acknowledge darkness and light at once, in or surrounding the same film—or painting or book or piece of music. We were designed to be able to reckon with contradictions. No one ever said it would be easy, but it’s what makes us most alive—if only because it demands more energy than simply registering our disapproval.