Bohemian Rhapsody + Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Bohemian Rhapsody is now the highest-grossing U.S. movie with a gay protagonist. Of course, if Finn and Poe decide to get serious in Star Wars IX, I’ll have to redo my math–but in the meantime, Freddie Mercury leads the pack. (And no, Deadpool does not count, nor at this point does Dumbledore.)

What did I think of Bohemian Rhapsody? Well, it’s exactly what I expected from a band-produced biopic of Freddie Mercury rated PG-13. The movie is fan service, a harmless and inessential way to honor the legacy of a vocalist who’s secured his place in the rock pantheon. I love Queen, but haven’t read much about them, and this movie offers very little information I didn’t already know. There was a darker vision of Freddie’s life in development hell for years (at one point led by Sacha Baron Cohen), but dark and gritty doesn’t sell greatest hits albums. 

I will be honest: the movie kept me entertained. Half because the reenacted live performances are so uncanny (especially Rami Malek’s sleek, self-assured embodiment of Freddie), half because it’s ridiculous. You can tell that Brian May and Roger Taylor were heavily involved; any time there’s the whiff of band conflict, it’s resolved in 30 seconds–at least until the largely fabricated section where Freddie breaks free and goes solo. The movie makes the bold choice of underscoring scenes with Queen’s own songs, even when there’s no direct correlation. The tackiest music choice: After Freddie learns he’s HIV+, the next scene finds him staring soulfully into a mirror, underscored with “Who Wants to Live Forever?” Or (mild spoiler) there’s a must-see-to-believe music cue when Freddie dumps his manager/part-time lover in the pouring rain, and suddenly–I kid you not–the thumping bass of “Under Pressure” starts playing.

On the flip side, I was all-in on a montage that intercuts the band writing “Another One Bites the Dust” with Freddie cruising his way through a gay leather club. That scene, silly as it is, wouldn’t have existed in a mainstream box-office hit ten years ago. This movie is aimed solidly at our parents’ generation, but they’ve always known (and accepted, as far as commerce goes) that Freddie Mercury was queer, even if they didn’t have the word for it. Like many of his glam rock contemporaries, he made flamboyance popular and commercially viable. It was safer to embrace his sexuality through the distance of performance, when it came across the footlights, or nicely packaged in LP format. Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t that concerned with the real man, either; it’s a way to keep our nostaglic, idealized remembrance of him alive.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lots of gay leading characters at the movies these past two months: Mercury, the lead teen in Boy Erased, Mahershala Ali’s character in Green Book (more suggested than explicit, I’ve heard). Then there’s Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, an unrepentant, unsympathetic writer who, down on her luck, begins crafting and selling forged letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. She strikes up a friendship with Jack Hock, her devilish grifter and confidant in crime (a wonderful Richard E. Grant). Together, they make a business of forging literary curiosities and selling them to collectors with deep pockets.

Lee won, of course. Even after the FBI caught up with her travails, she turned her brief window of criminality into a memoir: proof that crime does pay. It’s also Lee’s confirmation that she has a voice worth hearing, despite her questionable means of getting it out there. Melissa McCarthy, who’s been drowning in the types of comedies Adam Sandler stopped making, makes her mark in her first major dramatic part. Lee allows McCarthy to lean into the sadder and lonelier underbelly of her regular salty screen persona. Lee doesn’t want anyone’s pity, though Marielle Heller’s movie earns her plenty of sympathy. It’s a gas to watch McCarthy and Grant charm their way into the hearts and cash registers of bookstore owners across New York City. They’re a formidable duet: Grant lithe and slippery, McCarthy charming and vulnerable beneath her crusty exterior. 

Lee and Jack spend many of their scheming hours at Julius’, a gay bar and a Village institution, isolated from the bar’s other customers and the social scene buzzing around them. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script is a jazzy romp through an old-fashioned New York that no longer exists: Manhattan in the 1990s, removed from our sitcom memories of it, where a gay man and woman strike up an unusual kinship while the rest of the world passes them by. Heller makes sure we feel the bittersweet triumph of Lee’s success as a forger, her pride in keeping these outdated literary marvels alive and witty as ever. And so her movie does, too: an ode to a nearly-forgotten woman who lived life by her own rules.

It’s one of my favorites so far this year.

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