Bohemian Rhapsody was recently nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, and while many have queried that on grounds of merit, a more urgent worry is the presence of director Bryan Singer.
He was the original director of the film (and retains his credit), but was replaced by Dexter Fletcher three weeks from the end of the shoot after unexplained absences and erratic behaviour.
Many suspect that was related to the allegations levelled at Singer at the time, including claims of rape and sex with underage boys. Last week The Atlantic published a long article detailing Singer’s alleged misconduct over the last 20 years in an attempt to give a voice to his accusers.
In the wake of this news, the One Room with a View team started talking about how we should respond to Hollywood figures accused of such behaviour and whether we should separate the art from the artist.
Tom: Let’s begin at the start of Bohemian Rhapsody’s story. Singer was of course kicked off the film with three weeks of filming left, around the same time as reports came out first accusing him of sexual abuse (including rape, and sex with underage boys). Can anyone remember their first reaction to that news?
Phil: It sort of came in drips for me (as I suspect it did for a lot of people). At first there were just some vague comments about his behaviour on set – it was only afterwards that I heard stories about his alleged misconduct.
Naomi: I was shocked/disappointed by the news (if not too surprised) – but it didn’t dampen my overall excitement about the film in general.
Carmen: I was hoping his departure would be a final blow to his career and that Dexter Fletcher would get the credit instead.
Calum: Why was he hired in the first place?
Tom: I don’t know; I thought he was a perfectly fine choice as director. His position as one of the most well-known gay directors in the industry probably made sense for a Freddie Mercury biopic. And the first I had heard of his past misconduct was when he was kicked off the film.
Calum: Ah, that’s interesting. I thought it had its biggest public moment yet in mid-2014, when a number of cases arose – which seemed big film news for a few weeks before they were quietly quashed.
Tom: Interesting, I must have missed that. Which I think is a huge part of the issue – Hollywood is very good at burying these stories when it has a film to promoteWhat I find interesting is how the studio handled the situation fairly ethically at first, by kicking him off the film (though they cited his absences and behaviour rather than the accusations). How does everyone think they managed it?
Carmen: Poorly, considering they were promoting him for awards season! And he still has sole directing credit on the film, so he’s still seeing profits from its massive box office return.[Editor’s note: Bryan Singer did not ultimately receive a nomination for Best Director, but the studio, 20th Century Fox, were actively campaigning for him in that category.]
Phil: It’s a difficult one – kicking him off the production was absolutely the right call, and it’s inevitable that the studio would continue to push for Oscars, but he really should have had his name taken out of the credits.
Naomi: I think the studio have handled it as best they could have done at the end of the day; they’ve already plugged a lot of money and time into the project. To have it tarnished after years of work is a shame whichever way you look at it. Equally, there are other people involved in the project that they owe it to to promote the film as best they can – Rami Malek, for one.
Calum: I don’t think that lying about it is great, but you have to admit: they’re in the business, and their business in this case is promoting the film. Hence throwing Singer under the bus, and not in the most honest way possible.
Carmen: But that move is something that can enable further abusers in Hollywood and exacerbates current issues. Honesty would admittedly have been nastier, but in the wake of #metoo this feels like two steps back.
Calum: So the question loops back to: why Singer in the first place? The producers should have heard everything about Singer stretching back years – particularly the 2014 allegations. If you’re in the industry and hearing things like this, it’s a bit… was Bryan Singer absolutely, 100% your guy for your movie? You know?
Phil: You raise an interesting point Calum. You’d think studios would be hell-bent on protecting themselves from any bad publicity… I mean look at how Marvel reacted to a few dodgy tweets from James Gunn…
Tom: I think it’s worth reiterating at this point – legally these are just accusations. But equally, the number of separate accusations and the corroboration of multiple witnesses in the Atlantic article make a strong case for their validity.
Naomi: But why is this relevant to Bohemian Rhapsody, I guess is my question?
Calum: Well, it’s directed by Bryan Singer, basically. A subsequent point arises: if it’s a story about a gay icon, if you’re hiring a director known for possibly, probably, constantly preying on younger men – is that a link you want to draw given it’s a damning stereotype stretching back longer than Singer’s been alive?
Naomi: I actually thought they handled Mercury’s homosexuality very respectfully, considering he was a very private person.
Carmen: I completely disagree on the sexuality being respectful. To me, it very much felt like the AIDS diagnosis was written in as a punishment for Freddie’s partying-hard lifestyle, which left a bit of a bad taste. Though I guess that’s down to the writer more than Singer.
Naomi: I think people have been talking a lot about “erasure of queerness” – but actually, you couldn’t miss the fact that he was gay. For me, that wasn’t the point of the film – it was about him, his talent, his determination and ultimately his journey with Queen, rather than getting into the depths of his personal life.
At this point Phil had to leave the debate due to an unspecified plumbing emergency. We haven’t heard from him since.
Carmen: That’s fair – I personally disliked the way in which his sexuality was almost a punishment, but that might be a personal opinion separate from Singer’s crimes. Also I can’t judge anyone for supporting films they love. After all why else do we go to the cinema?!
Tom: We’re circling around one of the key difficulties whenever this topic comes up. It’s always easier to denounce the filmmaker in a situation like this, when they or their films are something you don’t care for too much. And I think I’m right in saying that Naomi enjoyed this film more than the rest of you? (I am yet to see it).
Naomi: I saw it four times at the cinema…
Carmen: Yeah, I was not a fan. But I do like the X-Men films and Valkyrie, so Singer is still present in my most-watched films…
Naomi: Don’t get me wrong here – I’m gutted that the film has been tarnished by this. However, I think it’s a question of whether you separate a man from his art. I think in this day and age you have to. Otherwise we’ll have lost films by Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey – and even Morgan Freeman.
Calum: I think the key reason here why I totally disagree about “losing films” is that Singer is still actively working. What Woody Allen has been accused of happened after his pre-eminent (or most influential) films, for instance, even if he’s still worked up until recently. So that’s a productive critical contrast with Singer, Spacey, Louis C.K., et al. – these men have been making their best or most prominent work at exactly the same time as being propped up in an industry that has not prevented them from predatory behaviour.
Naomi: I think until Singer is proven guilty, you can’t stop him from working – presumption of innocence is a basic human right, after all. I wouldn’t personally hire him – just to be clear! But I also think that trial by media is a very dangerous thing.
Carmen: That’s true, but the legal system consistently lets down victims of sexual and domestic abuse – so many of these people are going to walk free regardless, which is so disheartening.
Also, look at what happened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford after she accused Brett Kavanaugh of assault. She has literally been driven out of her house. Those who accuse have so much more to lose than their powerful abusers.
Naomi: But does that mean we boycott all work by them? Which is essentially what we would be doing by refusing BR a Best Picture Oscar because the director turned out to be less than savoury.
Carmen: Since there is such a toxic environment today where only a small percentage of sexual assailants see any consequences, I think that making noise about these issues is the only way we’re going to effect change. It’s a shame though that the onus of this responsibility rests with audience members rather than producers and studios.
Naomi: On a wide scale, yes, I totally agree – if you can stop these people from working in the industry then that’s all for the good. However, in the case of BR it would be retrospectively punishing everyone that worked on the film.
Carmen: I mean, they already got a massive box office return – hard to retroactively punish there!
Naomi: And the reason it’s had such a high box office return is because it’s a very enjoyable film for a lot of people – so why shouldn’t it receive a Best Film Oscar if it is deemed to be the best film?
It’s not just box office returns you have to consider – it’s reputational.
Calum: I think you answered your own question there.
Carmen: To me, giving it the Oscar after these allegations is a massive kick in the teeth to all those who came forward to talk about the abuse they’ve suffered in Hollywood – especially the year after Weinstein opened the floodgates.
Naomi: I don’t see it as a kick in the teeth – after all, Bryan Singer wasn’t nominated for Best Director. It was only nominated for Best Film – which, in my opinion, it was. And now instead of celebrating his own Oscar nom, Rami Malek is having to defend the film against these allegations in interviews.
Tom: So let’s sidestep slightly here. How do we think the Academy should have treated BR? Again remembering that the Academy is really a collection of individual filmmakers making their own decisions about films’ merits. Is BR‘s Oscar nom really endorsing Singer, or as only one of the nominations really covers his contribution (Best Picture), should it not be a significant factor?
Carmen: I think the thing is that the Oscars are a badge of honour, and giving a badge of honour to a producer who hired an alleged paedophile feels in extremely poor taste, especially with all the bad press Hollywood has been getting for enabling abusers.
Naomi: They are – which is why I think the film deserves that badge of honour. Bohemian Rhapsody is more than just Bryan Singer.
Carmen: It is more than just Bryan Singer, but unfortunately he has more clout than many of the talented artists who worked on it. At the end of the day, this nod feels incredibly frustrating – after one whole year of believing Hollywood would be a different, better, and safer place, we’re back to square fucking one.
Naomi: I doubt most people in the world will have ever heard of Bryan Singer, in fairness – most people know the actors, not the directors or producers.
Carmen: But that’s the problem Naomi! If people don’t know, they can’t make informed decisions about how to spend their money at the cinema.
Calum: Exactly. It’s a part of our increasingly “ethical” marketplace. We don’t buy battery farmed eggs; we don’t give money to rapists.
Tom: OK, so let’s pivot to solutions. If we claim it’s unfair to write off the rest of the team’s work due to the misconduct of one person, how should we respond to a film like BR? What can we do to ensure Bryan Singer sees a fair trial for these accusations and not continue to make a living in Hollywood?
Carmen: It’s got to come down to a lack of profit – like Woody Allen’s film getting canned. Producers are going to keep hiring Singer while they see him as profitable (unless he’s literally being prosecuted for something, which I damn well hope happens).
Calum: It’s simple if you’re a producer in the hiring business; you think “maybe not a great idea for me just in case”, and you put off hiring someone with those kind of allegations, and you hire someone else. Hopefully sooner or later there is a legal process. Then if accused person is genuinely innocent, cool! More work from them.
Which cycles once again back to ‘Why Bryan Singer?’ – he’s hardly the biggest named artist out there. You can table hiring Bryan Singer. Perhaps there’s an argument for if you’ve got, say, Christopher Nolan on your list – you hear something about Christopher Nolan, but you still want to make money, you might have a conundrum (if, of course, you’re inclined to not listen to perfectly credible allegations). If you’ve got Bryan Singer… how many fucking audience members care whether you’ve got Bryan Singer? Just hire someone else.
Naomi: Sadly, and as cynical as it sounds, I don’t think we can do anything – at the end of the day, we’re not a lynch mob and we don’t work at the studios. So people can publicise the crimes of Bryan Singer as much as they want but ultimately until he’s actually charged or arrested for something, there’s that ol’ presumption of innocence and he will continue to work. It’s up to the production companies to close him out of Hollywood – I just don’t think that the Oscars are the platform to condemn people for their crimes.
Calum: But if, as you’ve said, it is the platform by which to reward a film like BR in the Best Picture category, why would it not be the platform to reflect this other major component of modern film culture?
Carmen: I think the Oscars are absolutely the right platform. It’s the most public platform the film industry has to make statements about what abuse is tolerated in its system.
Naomi: But we wouldn’t be condemning Bryan Singer here – as I’ve said, we’re tarnishing everyone that worked on that project with the same brush. Why does nominating it for Best Picture equate to tolerating sexual misconduct? To me, they’re separate things.
Tom: It’s not quite equating it, but it leaves a really bad taste in the mouth. And I think it’s the kind of awkward decision Hollywood has to make if it wants to clean itself up.
Carmen: I think recognising BR‘s costume design etc. is fine, but giving it the highest honour in the US film industry feels jarring.
Tom: The problem is the other creatives on BR haven’t distanced themselves from Singer. If they had said “his behaviour is appalling, I believe these victims, Singer should face trial, and I’ll never work with him again,” then I would have no problem seeing BR nominated for Best Pic.
Naomi: I guess my problem is a fundamental issue with the #MeToo concept – it feels like a risky situation when people’s reputations are tarnished before the police have even investigated their crimes. It is the epitome of trial by media.
Carmen: I don’t think this is a trial by media at all. It’s a way to give a voice to victims who may not have felt confident going to the law – Singer threatened several of them. Also, false sexual assault accusations are statistically minimal – as mentioned previously, victims often have much more to lose coming forward than those they are accusing.
Tom: I think a lot of this boils down to the gap between idealism and pragmatism. By the letter of the law, Singer et al. are innocent until proven guilty, but in reality, that trial will rarely come because their power protects them from consequences. So trial by media – or a fairer way of putting it: rigorous investigative journalism including multiple corroborated sources – is the best defence when official channels are ineffective.
Naomi: OK – but there are also situations where trial by media is wildly inaccurate. For example, Cliff Richard, who ultimately sued the police and the BBC for his mistreatment.
Calum: That was a failure of the reportage itself though. [Editor’s note: the BBC chose to broadcast live a police raid on the home of singer Sir Cliff Richard. The raid was part of an investigation into historic child sex allegations, but Richard was never arrested or charged]
Naomi: But how do we know that all of this isn’t a failure of reportage?
Tom: Yes, it does happen occasionally, but as Carmen mentioned above, it’s statistically minimal.
Carmen: The Atlantic piece is incredibly well documented and extensively researched. It’s a story that’s been in progress for years.
Tom: I agree that in an ideal world these details would be hashed out by lawyers in court, but due to Singer’s powerful position that’s unlikely. Look how long it’s taking to get Weinstein to court despite the flood of allegations. Or the difficulties there were in sending Cosby to jail despite over 60 allegations.
Naomi: I’m not saying that the stories aren’t true; I’m just saying that you can’t attack someone’s reputation because the press told you to.
Tom: OK, but in the real world: what’s your solution? If Singer is so powerful people are afraid to press charges as they have been up to and including today? How does he face justice?
Naomi: I think that going forward studios should refuse to hire him – that’s what would happen in an ideal world. I just don’t think you can punish BR retrospectively.
Tom: OK, but what about the personal consequences for Singer? Like… we wouldn’t even properly know about these crimes he’s been accused of if it weren’t for the reporting on it. What’s your alternative to that?
Naomi: I’m not saying don’t report on it, by any means – but there’s always the question of whether they’re actually guilty of the crime until it’s been proven. This is very problematic when it comes to sexual assault – but if there’s as much evidence as the Atlantic article suggests, then he should see his day in court.
Carmen: Yeah, he settled out of court with at least one minor. [Editor’s Note: this is the case outlined first in the below note. Singer also offered to settle with one of his accusers, but the offer was rejected.[Editor’s Note: There have been several lawsuits against Singer over the years. In 1997 he was accused of filming underage boys naked for a shower scene in Apt Pupil without permission. The case was dismissed for insufficient evidence. In 2014 he was accused twice of rape of underage boys, charges which were voluntarily dropped. In 2017, he was again accused of the rape of an underage boy, a case which is still ongoing.]
Tom: But he’s also left a trail of accusations in his wake which have been dropped on many occasions. Some might see that as evidence the claims are unreliable, but to me it just shows how hard it is to hold power to account in the legal system.
Calum: This is it; if we accept the onus is on the industry to do something, then a few thousand people deciding not to put Bohemian Rhapsody on their five-film preferential ballot is a pretty good start, gesture-wise.
Carmen’s right; audiences have a sliver of power granted their wallets too, and as long as we’re hearing about these things we can easily and healthily make the choice to not continue funding work that benefits terrible people.