Freddie Mercury and the Erasure of Queerness in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

When the first trailer dropped for Bohemian Rhapsody, there was much ado about its supposed “straight-washing” of Freddie Mercury, the late, legendary queer lead singer of Queen. The marketing team followed up rather quickly with a trailer that showed some glances and arm grazing between Freddie Mercury and other men. It’s the kind of passable moment that straight audiences wouldn’t take offense at and gay viewers could feel like they had some semblance of representation.

Queen has always been readily accepted by straight audiences, and Mercury is a byproduct of that acceptance. The band’s music is great, often mimicked and performed at karaoke bars all around the world, and their lead singer was an unstoppable charismatic force. Mercury took camp culture and costumes put them on stage for millions to see and revel in, that ornate persona becoming a recognizable part of him and his artistry.

“Queen made music that appealed to everyone, no matter who you were,” star Rami Malek said before the screening. But does a film like Bohemian Rhapsody, which claims to iconize the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, help or hurt the way audiences view Mercury? And is the goal of a queer icon to make art that anyone can identify with, or should we expect our icons to openly embrace the lives they led?

However much people like to lump an individual’s private life and their public persona together, to break down Freddie Mercury, we have to explore them as separate, just as he would have preferred. “I change when I walk out on stage. I totally transform into this ‘ultimate showman,’” he is quoted saying in Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury. “I say that because that’s what I must be. I can’t be second best, I would rather give up. I know I have to strut. I know I have to hold the mic stand a certain way. And I love it.”

Writer Lesley-Ann Jones captures a very intimate moment in her opening of Mercury, one in which he explains the monster he’s created and the struggle of this dual persona: “Of course it’s a drug, a stimulant. But it gets tough when people spot me in the street, and want him up there. The big Freddie. I’m not him, I’m quieter than that. You try to separate your private life from the public performer, because it’s a schizophrenic existence. I guess that’s the price I pay.”

Freddie Mercury would never come out officially in his life, but he certainly lived his life as though openly queer; his friends all knew about his sexuality, there are more than enough pictures of him with men and women, and there’s even speculation as to how he slipped it into Queen’s music. Tim Rice, co-creator of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, as well as a collaborator of Mercury’s, once said, “It’s fairly obvious to me that [‘Bohemian Rhapsody’] was Freddie’s coming-out song.”

This sentiment has prompted many to wonder whether or not an “official” coming out on Freddie Mercury’s part would have changed his relationship with his audiences. As Jones believed, “Freddie was resisting the inevitable: having to end his relationship with Mary [Austin, his partner for many years] to start a new life as a homosexual. But the thought of doing so terrified him, so he kept putting it off – not least because he dreaded the effect it would have on his parents.”

She went on to speculate that “coming out could have made his life so much easier in the long run, as it had for Kenny Everett [a close friend of Freddie’s and the DJ who first played ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’], who alienated neither his fans nor his wife with his honesty.”

English record producer and manager Simon Napier-Bell deduced that Mercury coming out would have been groundbreaking. “It wouldn’t have been like George Michael, who only came out when he was forced to,” he explains. “Had Freddie come out, he would have rubbed homophobe noses in their own hypocrisy, and it would have been a smaller step than he thought — because to all his friends he was already out, and outrageous.”

“When he said he was different in his private life from the performer he was on stage, what he really meant was that he was forced to retire into his shell because of the fear his Parsee family would have had of him coming out,” Napier-Bell continued. “Had he come out from the beginning, his long, slow death would have been something that the gay community could have thanked him for. They would have used it to their advantage, turned it into something wonderfully, tragically show business, and made him the new Judy Garland. He might even have found himself enjoying it!”

All that said, it’s hard to deny that Freddie Mercury was a queer icon. His flamboyant stage persona, his leather aesthetic, his “gay clone” look (which consisted of “closely-cropped hair, bristly moustache, a muscular upper body, and tight denim jeans”), the open secret of his bisexuality (regardless of remaining officially closeted), and a mountain of songs — from “Somebody to Love” to “Under Pressure” — solidify that.

The problem, then, lies in the way history has chosen to remember him, simply as a flaming frontman or as a gay man, bisexuality erased and deeper looks into his life left in the shadows. Bohemian Rhapsody shamefully reinforces these things in its revisionism, a problem that stems from both its PG-13 rating and the fact that the surviving straight members of Queen had too much of a hand in telling a dead queer man’s tale.

Anthony McCarten, writer of Bohemian Rhapsody and other Oscar-bait biopics like The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, positions Mercury’s queerness and indulgences as something inherently negative. The only route to happiness is heteronormativity, or something akin to it. While it is true that Mercury only had two steady partners that he cared deeply about — Mary Austin and Jim Hutton — the implication that the nightlife was what ruined him is misguided at best, homophobic at worst.

The romance between Freddie Mercury and Mary Austin is at the core of Bohemian, something that both Rami Malek (Mercury) and Lucy Boynton (Austin) convey beautifully. They offer two shining performances in a film full of shallow characterization, even for the other members of the band (mostly reduced to comic relief with the occasional dramatic flair).

McCarten, in partnership with director Bryan Singer (and uncredited director Dexter Fletcher, who took over after months of shooting and Singer’s firing), presents their relationship as the apex of Mercury’s happiness. Every queer person introduced prior to our meeting of Jim Hutton serves as a distraction, a fling, or an outright villain; always proving more important than his straight compatriots and leading him into drug use.

On screen, a recording of the song “Another One Bites the Dust” is accompanied with deep red lighting and the most tame imagery of a leather bar ever caught on film. It is meant to be a sign of the sinful, and deadly, depths Mercury was crawling into to get off; a very uncomfortable visual wink and nod that equates the song to AIDS.

Mercury acknowledges he is bisexual to Mary Austin and is promptly corrected: “Freddie, you’re gay.” This marks a moment in the film where a rift builds between Mercury and Austin that is only fixed years later, a stark contrast to the close friendship they maintained over the years. Not only was she involved with taking care of Freddie late in life, but she toured with Queen after their break-up as secretary to the band’s publishing business, and he even left Mary the better part of his wealth.

Worse than a simple misrepresentation of their relationship, it is an outright denial of who Mercury was. The film addressing bi erasure with a scene like the one described could have been a powerful statement. Instead, it confirms this dismissal of his sexuality by never allowing Mercury to date or sleep with another woman, even though it is well-documented that he had.

Take, for instance, actress Barbara Valentin, who worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder for much of his career and took Freddie Mercury on as a lover for quite some time. She would become “Freddie’s live-in lover and almost constant companion — bizarrely sharing him with both Winnie Kirchberger and Jim Hutton, who were also his lovers,” Jones explains. Polyamory and bisexuality? A PG-13 movie could never. Even after she realized Mercury was HIV+, she continued dating him. And after a rough break-up, a friendship blossomed between the two later in life.

In the film, Jim Hutton is reduced to a sexless being, initially rejecting Mercury, chastising him for being sexual, and offering friendship above all else. He tosses in a “Call me when you find yourself” before walking out. His only other presence in the film is as accompaniment to Live Aid, staring in wonder at the singer performing, before the credits note that he was with Mercury until his death. He lacks any personality in his minor screen time, a stark contrast to the deep characterization that Mary Austin got. This simplification of their romance couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mercury first hit on Hutton in 1985, while dating both Valentin and Kirchberger, at the Copacabana with his usual pick-up line: “How big’s your dick?” They spent the night together. Hutton didn’t hear from Mercury for months (due to his tax exile in Munich), and then got a call out of the blue inviting him to a dinner party. The start of their relationship was long-distance: Freddie flying to London one week, Jim flying to Munich the next. When his exile in Munich had come to an end, it was Jim — not Barbara — that Freddie chose as his live-in partner. Jim, who discovered he was HIV+ himself, did not leave Freddie’s side until his death (though the two lived with numerous others, some former lovers, in their home together).

In Bohemian Rhapsody, DJ Kenny Everett is reduced to being a gay friend that Mary suspects Freddie is cheating on her with, instead of a man that maintained a lengthy friendship with the lead singer and helped his career by debuting and playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” 14 times over one weekend. Their friendship was actually only fractured by the expose that one of Mercury’s supposed close friends gave the world. That man was Paul Prenter.

On screen, Mercury’s personal manager and friend Paul Prenter spends the entirety of his time with Freddie leading him down the wrong roads, making bad decisions, and encouraging his drug use and sexual proclivities, only to sell him out after their split. The film posits that by bringing him all the sex, drugs, and alcohol that Mercury wanted, he was corrupting the man until he was cut off. The truth is that this is what Mercury wanted, until he didn’t, and he wasn’t manipulated into this. Often times, Paul and Barbara even competed for his attention by seeing who could provide the grander spectacle.

Prenter’s genuine villainy lies in how he sold out Mercury, revealing every little detail he could about the man to the News of the World for £32,000. Bohemian Rhapsody frames this betrayal as being prompted by the way Prenter was cut off by Mercury when he decided to clean up before Live Aid. The truth is that it happened later down the road, and many have speculated it was actually prompted by Prenter’s resentment of Mercury and Hutton’s relationship.

There is no denying this was a man who took advantage of Mercury, but the way the film places him as a force of pure evil — cutting him off from his bandmates, encouraging hedonism, and pushing him toward isolation — is bullshit and an easy way to imply that queerness was Mercury’s downfall.

To think about how much is missing from Bohemian Rhapsody hurts, not simply because it doesn’t paint a full picture of the man we know as Freddie Mercury, but because it paints something that doesn’t feel honest. It feels like a film made by the remaining members of Queen, for an audience that isn’t actually queer; a film made for some, not all. Freddie can be treated as someone who needs forgiveness, as someone less than good, because he left the band for a short time, because he was too busy being seduced by a queer lifestyle of sex, drugs, and alcohol, because he wasn’t like the rest of them.

But not being like the rest of them is exactly why Freddie Mercury was so iconic. Freddie Mercury was as messy as he was amazing. He made music that made him feel good and made the audience feel good. He lived his life rather shamelessly, for better or worse, and there’s something beautiful and queer about the way he existed. He was a “fuck you” to what the lead of a band was supposed to look like, was supposed to act like. He was, in every way, queer. And he is, undoubtedly, an icon who deserves to be remembered as he was.

Illustration by Bronwyn Lundberg

Lady Gaga’s Oscar Chances Explained

With her starring role in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga has given the world so much already. The trailer — and the entire film — has been memed to death and the film’s characters, beats, and quirks have become a part of queer lexicon. (And, also, it’s already the subject of some pretty intense backlash, but more on that later.)

Gaga has been so generous with her adoring public this year that many people want to know: will she be getting anything in return, especially — oh, I don’t know — a hulking piece of gold hardware known as the Academy Award for Best Actress? Currently, Gaga shows up in 23 of the 24 Best Actress finalist lineups by Oscar experts on GoldDerby. Hell, she tops nine of the lists.

So, let’s assess the chances that we’ll be able to say “Academy Award Winner Lady Gaga” come February 24.

PROS:

The film: A few detractors aside, A Star Is Born has garnered some pretty hefty critical acclaim. Critical acclaim will no doubt lead to critics’ awards, but on a basic level, it’s clear people love the film and want to reward it. The bigger question is: does that mean rewarding Gaga?

Box office:  OK, it’s important to understand that no awards show, and no award given out by an awards body, can be separated from the show’s politics and public persona. As evidenced by the Oscars’ ill-fated “Best Popular Film” category, the Oscars want to be Sally Field. They want you to like them, to really like them. Well, there’s no better way for the Oscars to show that they’re hip and young — hello, fellow kids! — than to heap awards on A Star Is Born, which earned $43 million in its first weekend alone, more than many Best Picture nominees will earn throughout their entire run.  

The performance: OK, all this other shit aside, let’s just call it what it is — Gaga is great as Ally. Though a lot of people are less forgiving to the film’s Jackson-heavy second half, Gaga wins every viewer’s heart in the first half. The camera loves her and she loves it. She completely delivers on creating a character that is completely different from her own public persona, and more than being a good actress, she’s also a completely watchable one that grabs your eye no matter the scene. There are plenty of actresses — Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon, for instance — who won not only for solid performances but for starring in a vehicle that used their star power to maximum effect.

The narrative: Often, just as important as the performance itself is the narrative that the win fulfills. Bullock was the “prom queen,” Julianne Moore was “overdue,” Jennifer Lawrence was the brand new Hollywood royalty. To paraphrase and mangle Ratatouille, Gaga’s performance dazzles because it’s not only a reminder that anyone can be a great actress, but that a great performance can come from anywhere. Even though she’s won a Golden Globe for American Horror Story: Hotel, A Star Is Born is Gaga’s first major foray into film acting (she had a small role in Machete Kills). Gaga definitely has the “She can act!?” narrative going for her.

The meta-performance: Gaga has been doing a sort of meta-performance of an actress during the festival circuit. She’s been playing the part of starlet very well and she’s become someone who voters want to root for. By playing the part of the star, she also makes voters feel like they’re giving the award to someone who respects Hollywood the institution (as opposed to last year’s winner, Frances McDormand, who eschews the whole kit-and-caboodle.)

The soundtrack: A Star Is Born is a musical and people love the soundtrack, which reached #1 on the Billboard 200, while “Shallow” has so far peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Gaga does the best vocal singing and the best lyrical interpretation in the film. People will want to reward her.

CONS:

The character: As much as Gaga gives a great performance, her performance does the job of having to elevate what is, in the end, a poorly-drawn character. There’s definitely a precedent for terrible female characters netting their actresses trophies, but some people may be hesitant to award Gaga for a character that doesn’t have a last name until she gets married.

Her early frontrunner status: The Oscar season is a marathon, not a sprint. And A Star Is Born has the dubious honor of being the first big Oscar film to debut in theaters. It got a lot of acclaim pretty quickly before people grew too cynical, and it avoided the December glut when people can hardly get around to seeing every award-worthy film. But, having to keep up the frontrunner status for a full four months is hard to pull off, especially when other performances will feel more fresh in voters’ minds.

Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott: The Best Actress race is already sorely overcrowded, with Olivia Colman, Glenn Close, Melissa McCarthy, Viola Davis, Yalitza Aparicio and more trying to get their hands on some Oscar gold. That stands in stark opposition to the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories, which look mighty paltry in comparison. The Academy will want to reward Cooper, who has been nominated three times before in the category, and who delivered big time as the writer, director, and star of Born. And Sam Elliott already is dominating conversations about the sleepy Supporting Actor category. Only two films in history have won three acting awards: A Streetcar Named Desire and Network. Of those two, only Network won two statues in lead categories, meaning A Star Is Born would have to pull off something done only once before in Academy history. 

The soundtrack: Hey, the soundtrack was a strength — what gives? Well, the Academy may look to spread the love around and give Gaga a Best Song Oscar and give the award to another actress.

The backlash: It’d be easy to say a backlash for A Star Is Born is inevitable, but it’s not … it’s already here. The film and Gaga’s performance have already garnered a bit of criticism from the film community and who knows if the film’s mighty wall will be able to withstand four months of criticism. However, one PRO from that: there’s always backlash to the backlash, and the film has some pretty fierce defenders.

Image via Getty

Oct. 16, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect that Network also won three acting Academy Awards. 

I Would Watch ‘First Man’ Star Claire Foy Castigate Men Forever

When I first binged the first two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown, at both my friends’ and my mom’s behest, I quickly realized why my loved ones were so obsessed. What looked like a stodgy period drama was, in fact, actually about Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II verbally ruining every man in her government who failed her.

So, basically, it’s the perfect TV show.

Scenes in which Foy’s Elizabeth tears into her prime ministers Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, and Harold Macmillan are the stuff of legend. One particular season two episode, “Vergangenheit,” sees Elizabeth positively destroy her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, for his Nazi sympathies. These scenes thrill because they’re such a subversion of what we know of the monarchy: the Queen is a figurehead, and the rest of the government works in spite of her. The Crown posits that, in fact, Elizabeth is the one thing standing in the way of these idiotic men destroying the United Kingdom. Only she has the sober vision to see the full picture, and only she has the position to light into her governors without penalty.

Foy is ideal for this characterization of Elizabeth thanks to her mixture of softness in expression and toughness in temperament. She looks so gentle, with the wide blue eyes of a doe, that men in her employ underestimate her. When she grabs them by the proverbial balls and ruins them with a few words, she teaches them to never underestimate her again. Moreover, she verbally lacerates them not out of petty beef, but because they are incompetent. Queen Elizabeth II is a manager, and her staff is bad at their jobs. And they dare to condescend to her while being fuckups! “Cathartic” doesn’t begin to cover how good Elizabeth’s speeches are.

To my delight, Foy does much the same as Janet Shearon-Armstrong in First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic in theaters now. Playing Neil’s first wife, Foy takes a fairly typical wife role and fucking runs with it. In her hands, Janet is not merely a concerned spouse, or even just an angry one. She’s a ball of complexity, one who stands in sharp contrast to her much simpler, and much more reserved, husband.

Screenwriter Josh Singer baked in two killer scenes for Janet: a confrontation scene at NASA, and a scene where she has to get her husband’s head on straight. The latter is a bit of a spoiler — as much of a spoiler as one can have in a biopic, that is — but it’s the former I’d rather focus on anyway.

During a particularly difficult mission, NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) cuts off Janet’s access to Neil’s audio feed. Furious, she storms down to NASA, demanding they turn the feed back on. Citing security protocol, Deke refuses, saying they have things under control. It’s his worst possible move.

“No, you don’t,” Janet says. “All these protocols and procedures to make it seem like you have it under control. But you’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!”

Okay so first off, Foy plays this scene like she’s a drunk Katharine Hepburn, and it’s incredible. Second, the way she hits the B in “balsa” is like it’s the final B she’ll ever speak, and she truly makes the most of her last one. Third, that final “under control” captures exactly what makes Foy’s Elizabeth speeches so thrilling: She makes perfectly clear that she doesn’t trust these dumb men with anything, that they’re plainly incompetent, and she’d rather march into the control room and do the damn thing herself. Because she could do a hell of a better job than these idiots could.

Claire Foy has become our finest destroyer of men. She will almost certainly earn an Oscar nomination for First Man (as she won the Emmy for The Crown), and it’s nigh-impossible to deny she deserves it. I would watch her rip into incompetent guys in anything. Long live the Queen.

‘Why Did You Do That?’ Is Neither Bad Nor Intended to Be Bad

Spoiler alert: everything about A Star Is Born is discussed at length here!

Of the many questions and conversations that A Star Is Born has engendered online, only one concerns the butt-centric bop, “Why Did You Do That?” The first time we hear the Diane Warren-penned song, Lady Gaga’s character Ally performs it on an Alec Baldwin-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live.

The song prompts much of the action of the film’s second half: Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine goes back to the beer bottle while she’s singing, both confused and put off by her newfound success. And her subsequent Grammy nominations lead the two to have a gin-soaked argument.

But the song’s most important role is the one it’s taken on in our internet discourse. Defenses and discussions of the song have shown up in Vulture and other sites, while a few critics have used the song to argue that A Star Is Born hates pop music. I’m here to add to that discourse: the song is good and A Star Is Born does not hate pop music!

Most of the arguments against “Why Did You Do That?” hinge upon the fact that either the song is bad or that it’s good but was intended to be bad.

The first indication that the song was not intended to be bad came when the song’s writer, Diane Freaking Warren, tweeted out that the song was not intended to be bad in response to a Gaga Daily tweet about bopping to the song shamefully.

“That was not the intention actually!!” Warren tweeted with conviction.

Here’s the deal. “Why Did You Do That?” is not bad, it’s actually a bop and not one I’d only listen to ironically. It’s deceptively simple and it mentions “ass” in the first two lines, which is enough to toss it in the wastebin for people who claim to be music aficionados. I don’t think it was intended to be bad — as Warren tweeted — but I do think it was intended to feel simple and therefore assume a “guilty pleasure” status. There’s a distinct bias against things that are deceptively simple, like episodes of Friends or “Call Me Maybe.” But, as they used to say in J School, easy reading is damn hard writing. And easy consuming is damn hard crafting.

A lot rides on “Why Did You Do That?” It has to work both as a plausible radio hit and as something mainstream and simple enough to piss off Jackson Maine. And it does both pretty seamlessly. The song’s minimal beat sounds at home alongside things like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” or “Let Me Love You” or even Dua Lipa, while also sounding like a thing too easily discarded by any cowboy-hat wearing, guitar-strumming somebody.

The second reason that people suspect A Star Is Born hates pop has less to do with the song and more to do with the film’s repeated attempts to lionize Jackson and everything he does. But, as I previously wrote, though Jackson is the film’s emotional center, he nevertheless DOES die like the relic he is by the time the film’s runtime is over. So, while it is concerned with what Jackson has to say about Ally’s career, it also shows him returning to dust. And the idea that pop music can’t be complex, meaningful or layered should go with him.

Now, shed your guilt and go spin “Why Did You Do That?” once more, sans guilt.

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But How Gay is ‘Beautiful Boy’?

In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters now — including, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.

What is Beautiful Boy? In 2008, writer David Sheff wrote a memoir titled Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction. If you guessed that Beautiful Boy is an adaptation of that memoir, one that deals with a father’s journey through his son’s addiction: congratulations! Full marks for you.

David’s son is Nic, a sensitive boy who falls victim to addiction. His primary vice is crystal meth — at least, the scariest one to David — and rehab doesn’t help him. Real life is a bit of a spoiler, as Nic is alive and writing (the movie is also adapted from his memoir Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), but Beautiful Boy gets deep on how touch-and-go Nic’s life was for years.

Who’s in it? Steve Carell plays David, mostly a whirlwind of bluster and concern over his son. Timothée Chalamet plays Nic, while Maura Tierney gets some of the best, most subtle material as Nic’s stepmom Karen. Oscar nominee Amy Ryan plays David’s ex-wife and Nic’s mother, Vicki. That said, this is basically a two-man show between Carell and Chalamet.

Why should I see it? Well, uh, if you’re interested in the story, I’d say it’s worth checking out. Maybe? Hoo boy, this one didn’t work for me. I hesitate to be too critical of a real life story, especially one this painful, but director Felix Van Groeningen and Luke Davies’ script has no discernible arc. Things happen in the order that they happened … except when the movie suddenly decides to flashback or flash-forward for no discernible reason.

Watching Beautiful Boy is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle using pieces from three different puzzles. You’re never going to get a satisfying solution.

But how gay is it? Other than the presence of Call Me By Your Name star Chalamet, it isn’t. If you’re thinking it is, you’re probably thinking of similarly named film Boy Erased, out later this year.

How does Chalamet’s performance compare to his work in Call Me By Your Name? I hate to say this, because I do think Chalamet is massively talented, but his performance suffers from vague direction here. He has good moments and scenes, but there’s not enough of a well-written character patching them together. Beautiful Boy filters so much of its idea of Nic through David’s eyes that the character gets lost. That Chalamet’s performance is effective at all is entirely a credit to him.

Does he stand a chance at the Oscars? Potentially! He’s got heat after Call Me By Your Name, and is competing in the supporting actor category. I’d guess he’s the film’s sole nomination if he gets in.

How does this movie’s treatment of addiction compare to that in A Star Is Born? Oh, it’s not even comparable. A Star Is Born uses addiction to inform and underline another story; in Beautiful Boy, addiction is the story. That’s it. We learn again and again how destructive addiction is, and we believe it! But there has to be something else after that. A Star Is Born gets that. Beautiful Boy is stuck running in circles.

Beautiful Boy is in theaters now.

Willam Isn’t Getting Enough Credit for ‘A Star Is Born’

Willam

Who you love most in A Star is Born is a true litmus test. For example: I love Gail, which means I’m a gay man who stans supportive women. For many others, their favorite is Drag Bar Emcee, aka Shangela. And Shangela knows that she’s a fan favorite, too.

In a truly awe-inspiring display of hustle, Shangela has made the A Star Is Born moment her own, running with the narrative that Lady Gaga picked her personally to audition for the movie. Shangela, who I love to death and deserves a big win after losing RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 in rather unfair fashion, is emerging as the unsung star of the movie, who gives (at least the first half) a queer edge. “Shangela Is the Real Winner of A Star Is Born,” no less than Oprah’s O Magazine declared.

But if Shangela is the winner, what does that make Willam, the other Drag Race alum to appear in  A Star Is Born? Because from where we’re sitting, Willam steals every one of the drag bar scenes, knocking every punchline out of the park. Her Emerald is a wonder, and the Season 4 queen is deserving of just as much praise. It’s a shame she’s not getting it.

As Vulture reported in their deep dive on the drag bar scenes — one of the only news pieces to focus as much on Willam as it does Shangela — Emerald is a Dolly Parton impersonator. Willam certainly gets the look right, using clothes she owns herself. She also apparently improvised a lot of her own dialogue, according to the latest episode of her and Alaska’s Drag Race recap podcast, Race Chaser.

Emerald is incredibly flirty with Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, insisting that he perform a song for her after their drag bar closes down for the night. (She doesn’t care which song, just that he sings while looking into her eyes.) Willam and Cooper have incredible chemistry; you can see why Cooper said Willam is “gold” at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

The line I personally loved most was a tossed-off shot at Shangela’s Emcee’s “bus driver wig,” which got absolute cackles out of the crowd when I saw the film. It’s a pretty savvy line, the kind of joke that straight audiences will love but gay audiences will find particular pleasure in. If that was one of Willam’s bits of improv — which, considering her sense of humor and similar jokes on Race Chaser, I’d guess it is — it was a brilliant bit.

Shangela deserves all the praise and shine in the world. I adore her, and it’s thrilling to watch her become a star in her own right on the mainstream national stage. But I’d love to see Willam elevated, too. Her performance is far too good to ignore.

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But How Gay is ‘A Star Is Born’?

In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters now — including, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.

What is A Star Is Born? The third remake of William Wellman’s 1937 classic of the same name, A Star Is Born Version 4.0 is perhaps best known as The Lady Gaga Movie. She plays Ally, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter discovered in a Palm Springs drag bar by drunk-and-delirious rock star Jackson Maine. The film charts her rise, his fall, and their love; it’s truly a tale as old as time. Or, at least, as old as 1937.

Who’s in it? Gaga, of course, plus the film’s director/writer, Bradley Cooper, as Jackson. RuPaul’s Drag Race favorites Shangela and Willam appear as friends of Ally’s at the drag bar, while original Hamilton star Anthony Ramos rounds out that crew as friend Ramon. As the movie moves into Jackson’s world, Sam Elliott stands out as his brother and manager, Bobby, while Rafi Gavron pops up as Ally’s new pop music manager, Rez. Dave Chappelle, Halsey, and Alec Baldwin all show up in cameos as well.

Why should I see it? It’s the musical movie event of the year! It’s Gaga! It’s going to be nominated for a raft of Oscars! You’ll be left behind if you don’t see it.

But how gay is it? Well, we need to reframe this question a little bit. Because the answer is different depending on which half of the movie you’re talking about.

Okay, so how gay is the first half? Exceedingly so. The drag bar scene is excellent, so perfectly queer and fun. I wanted to stay in the bar forever. Willam gets some of the biggest laugh lines of the movie, while Shangela perfectly nails her drag mom character. It’s also a delight to see Jackson so interested in learning about their art, their makeup, and more.

It’s also when the movie is the most interested in Ally. Gaga shines when the camera is on her in the first half. She’s positively electric, acting through song in a way we too rarely see in musical films. It’s a performance fully deserving of praise.

But how gay is the second half? It’s not. At all. It’s remarkably focused on Jackson, to the film’s detriment and to Gaga’s extreme detriment. Ally becomes a hybrid saint-cipher, losing her fire and flavor. You can see her acting on the edges, but Cooper’s film no longer cares about the star once she’s been born. It becomes about him exclusively. The drag bar is a distant memory.

Moreover, the movie is exceedingly anti-pop, in a pretty distressing way! Which feels anti-gay, to me. Maybe that’s extreme, but it’s a bummer to watch the movie lean so hard against music that so many gay people find to be a clarion call.

Is the movie anti-pop, or is the character of Jackson anti-pop? Others will argue the latter, but I think it’s the former. We’re clearly supposed to laugh at Ally’s song “Why Did You Do That?,” but here’s the thing: “Why Did You Do That?” is a fucking bop. The song slaps! I’m not rooting against this Diane Warren-penned jam!

Additionally, the movie ends with Ally stripped down, hair color changed again, singing a ‘90s-esque adult contemporary ballad. It’s a sign that she’s returning to who she truly is. Which is a bummer! Plenty of great pop music is authentic and genuine. Signaling pop as the distancing force between Jackson and Ally in all this feels like a case of misplaced blame.

So this is Joanne, the movie? Kind of! It feels like Gaga is firmly rejecting pop by doing so many projects that frame pop as inauthentic and false. Considering I personally feel Gaga was never better than when she was doing pure pop, I can’t get on her level.

Do you recommend seeing the movie overall? For its killer first half, amazing songs (love “Shallow”), and a trio of terrific performances, yes. But maybe lower your expectations a bit.

A Star Is Born is in theaters now.

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Straight White Man, Interrupted: ‘A Star Is Born’ and the Politics of a Best Picture Winner

Many spoilers ahead for A Star Is Born.

Lady Gaga is given no shortage of signature numbers to sing during A Star Is Born’s runtime. Her voice emphasizes the story’s beats and segments the narrative as its periods, colons and semicolons. Conversely, Bradley Cooper sings the same few notes to support the same ten syllables over and over: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”

And, boy, are they old ways, and boy do they die! As I wrote in my earlier review, while Gaga plays Ally, the titular star, the film focuses its lens on Cooper’s Jackson Maine. If Ally is the star, Jackson is the midwife who bears her. And the film decides in its second half that it is more interested in Jackson’s midwifery than in Ally’s first days as a newborn.  

While Jackson is the film’s emotional center, he’s also, let’s face it, a fucking relic. Those old ways that have to die? Yeah, he’s them. He’s a cowboy from Arizona (Ally calls him “cowboy” several times) who grew up on a pecan farm. His farm, found in the land of “papers please” anti-immigration bills, is eventually turned into a new-fangled wind farm. Thanks, Obama! I mean, just to underscore how old Jackson is, they have him play second banana in a Roy Orbison tribute at a Grammys event. When he tries to steal too much screen time with an out-of-place guitar riff, the whole room gives him a side eye.

A Star Is Born takes great pains to make sure we understand the complex psychology of an aging white man struggling with alcohol addiction who doesn’t understand why his talented wife has chosen a fast-paced pop music career. He also doesn’t understand that pop music can relay deep emotions. He basically yells at Ally to turn her racket down and get off his lawn. So while he’s the most complex character, he’s also the one who dies, the old way that has to go.

In that sense, A Star Is Born hits a lot of eerily similar notes to 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. In Birdman, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) spends most of the film walking around in a stupor as characters remind him just how much the world around him has changed and how outdated his whole mode of thinking is. Riggan Thomson, meet Jackson Maine, who shares your stupor.

When a film wins Best Picture, it wins the accolade not only on its merits, but for what it symbolizes about the national culture at the time of its win. When The Shape of Water won, the Academy anointed a love story that centered the disabled and the marginalized, even if that was symbolized through a fishman. Moonlight argued for the dignity of black queer people only months after the 2016 election. Spotlight anticipated the furious attacks on the media from the right by centering the importance of the fourth estate and rigorous journalism.

A Star Is Born may signify a return to Birdman’s triumphant themes if it makes its way into the Best Picture race and wins itself the top prize. The notion is not that far off: fifteen of the top twenty critics on Gold Derby have the film listed in their top 3 prospects for Best Picture nominees. After a solid opening at the box office, Forbes declared it the “film to beat” at the Oscars, which makes sense: after years of flagging ratings, the film is sure to inject the ceremony with an enthusiastic viewership.

But A Star Is Born may ignite fervor in the Academy for more reasons than just its straight white maleness. It invites more people to the party than Birdman did, even if just through cursory nods. A Star Is Born has Gaga’s Ally, who is struggling with her newfound fame. And while Ally is the great woman standing behind the film’s great man, a bar of drag queens are the great queer people supporting the great woman. A Star Is Born does not treat queer people with the same delicacy and complexity of Moonlight or even The Shape of Water, but it does show a tale as old as time: queer people supporting and trumpeting a white woman who eventually leaves us in the dust for a problematic, abusive white man.

This nod to diversity will be enough for many to push it to the front of the line. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which stars Mexican actors and is helmed by a Mexican director, will court the anti-Trump vote. Green Book, which won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, could get the liberal feel-good vote for its exploration of segregation-era racism. First Man is very much the “America is great!” vote. And then there’s A Star Is Born, which may end up being the compromise pic(k) for best picture, appealing to all quadrants of voters, even if it’s not at the top of everyone’s list.

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The Real Star of ‘A Star Is Born’ is Gail

We are of somewhat divided opinion on A Star Is Born here at INTO. I personally thought the movie’s first half was incredible, while the second half fell apart. My colleague and The Kiki co-host Mathew Rodriguez was more positive on the film as a whole. But the one thing we can all agree on is that the true star of A Star Is Born is not Lady Gaga. It’s not Bradley Cooper. It’s not Shangela nor Willam. It’s not even Halsey, who shows up to present Best New Artist at the Grammys and isn’t even named on-screen. (Poor Halsey.)

No, the true star of Cooper’s directorial debut is Gail, as played by Rebecca Field.

Don’t remember Gail? It’s understandable; her role in the film is small. But Gail makes an impression. She’s the aide who appears at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles when Ally (Gaga) and her friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos) first arrive. The sequence is rather fast-paced, as Ally and Ramon were just flown out via private jet to meet Jackson Maine (Cooper) at his concert in LA. Ally is overwhelmed, as are we. But then there’s Gail.

“Hi Ally, I’m Gail,” she says. Instantly, we are put at ease. Gail knows what’s happening. Gail will get us through this. We can count on Gail. She proves herself a stable guide when Ally starts to go the wrong way, and she gently-but-firmly course-corrects her. Gail is the reason that Ally is able to get to the stage to perform “Shallow,” thus making Ally a viral star, setting her on the course for pop superstardom.

Gail is an ally to Ally, and to us. Gail is a guardian angel. A Star Is Born would not be the same without Gail.

Upon first seeing Gail in the movie, I instantly said, “LOVE Gail.” It was a purely emotional response. I adored her from the word go. After seeing the film with a group of five friends, I was heartened that they all had the same reaction to Gail. She was “comforting,” one of them said. They also knew we could count on Gail.

I put my feelings about Gail out there on Twitter, only to be thrilled by the number of people who similarly adored Gail. Her fans are legion! 

We need a full spinoff film about Gail (called Gail Force, as critic Guy Lodge suggested). We need a Star Is Born extended cinematic universe for characters like Gail. Because in watching the film — in watching Gail — I knew that her star was being born, too.

Image via Getty

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‘A Star Is Born’ Is a Stellar, and Masc4Masc, Retelling

The following review contains spoilers for A Star Is Born.

There’s a moment only about five minutes into A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s monumental directorial debut, that summarizes the film’s ethos. Clad in fake painted-on eyebrows and an LBD-cum-nightie, Ally (Lady Gaga) belts out an astounding rendition of “La Vie en Rose” to drag bar full of adoring gay fans. While singing, Ally lays down on the bar and sings directly to Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), an aging country music star who’s wandered into the closest watering hole to slake his thirst for alcohol. For the first of many full-frame shots of Ally’s face, we see her through Jackson’s eyes — we, like him, are bewildered, entranced and already in love.

The scene works as a meet-cute in the context of the film, while also having several meta levels attached to it. Gaga, as Ally, performs to a room of gays until she wanders over to Jackson, who has a different dream for her. The scene wholly about seeing her through Jackson’s eyes, which is an unfortunate reality for most of the film: Cooper’s Jackson is fully drawn and he is the film’s emotional and gravitational center. Though Gaga is spectacular as Ally, she’s rarely able to live and breathe as her own fully-fledged character — we often see her through Jackson’s perspective.

That’s why, as gay as the film might be — it stars Lady Gaga and has scenes in gay bars, featuring Drag Race alum Shangela and Willam — it’s also a Masc4Masc one. Cooper wrote, directed and starred in A Star Is Born, and while Gaga gives the film its sense of wonderment, the story is ultimately concerned with Jackson.

That’s not the worst thing. As Lady Gaga pointed out to press at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film urges people to care about the gentleness of the human spirit and, seen through that lens, the film is mostly successful. However, it arrives at that success off the back of some really multifaceted male characters and unfinished female ones.

Cooper completely transforms himself to play Jackson, and he goes full method gruff to breathe life into him. Though Jackson loves Ally, much of the film’s emotional weight is in the relationship between Jackson and his older brother, Bobby Maine, played to perfection by Sam Elliott. (Seriously, most awards conversation is around Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but look for Elliott to take a sleepy Best Supporting Actor category by storm.) Like many films about straight men, Star is obsessed with the relationship between brothers — Bobby raised Jackson due to their father’s alcoholism — and fathers. The two talk about their own relationship and the relationship they each have to their father ad nauseam. Punches are thrown.

While Ally isn’t the best-drawn female character on screen, Gaga fills in a lot of the character’s blanks with a pared-down, gritty naturalism that complements Cooper’s heartland drag. Gone are the wigs, the platinum blonde and, for the most part, the fashions. As Jessica Simpson once sang, Gaga shines with nothing but a T-shirt on. Gaga knows how to imbue a persona with complex psychology and push past stereotype — she’s been doing it through her music for years. She brings that same level of musical acumen to Ally.

Nowhere is Gaga’s talent more on display than in the film’s musical numbers, some of the best ever captured on screen. Cooper already revealed that, in order to maintain the film’s sense of naturalism, the sets were filmed onstage at music festivals and cut into the time of other acts, including Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. That some of the film’s most emotional moments were caught in one four-minute take makes them even more astounding.

Gaga, like some of your favorite Broadway and film legends, works as an on-camera singer because she is able to work through the emotion of a song while also furthering the plot of the film. When she famously sings in the trailer, “I’m off the deep end/watch as I dive in,” we see Ally full of fear and adrenaline, diving into a new world of artistic creativity, international fame and engrossing love. Ally feels underdrawn because she’s often made to react to outside impulses: being asked to sing live, the pressures of fame and a cringe-inducing onstage Grammys moment. As my high school drama director used to say from the front row of the theater, “Acting is reacting.” And in that sense, Gaga is acting rings around everyone else.

There’s so much more to laud about the film. Though it is Cooper’s directorial debut, he doesn’t come off as an amateur. The film establishes a visual language that makes the viewer feel a part of its world right away. Some of the film’s earliest visual schemes — dark-lit bars, full face shots of Ally and Jackson falling in love — draw us into the film in the same way Ally pulls Jackson into her orbit. Watching the film, I often couldn’t help but feel like I was watching Lady Gaga for the first time, discovering new aspects of who she was — but maybe that’s just a part of Gaga’s predisposition toward metamorphosis and (takes sip of “reductive” tea) — reinvention.

All that said: go see A Star Is Born, an electric, magnetic and enchanting film that draws you in like all great cinema. That the film centers Cooper is not so much a criticism of the film’s quality as it is a knock at its scope. On some level, a remake of A Star Is Born that shoves its titular starlet to the side can feel off-putting. But the filmmaking behind it is so damn good, you might find yourself along for the ride — even if it is in a rusted pickup truck.

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