Keep Sex, AIDS, and the Closet in Freddie Mercury’s Biopic
The Freddie Mercury biopic is go. But with Queen executive-producing the project, how honestly will it examine Mercury’s complex private life and desire for privacy?
One night in March 1985, Queen’s Freddie Mercury sidled up to Jim Hutton at a bar in London’s Heaven nightclub and asked him what he would like to drink.
“We were both wearing a tight white vest, ice-blue jeans,” Hutton told me when I interviewed him for the London Times in 2006, on the occasion of what would have been Mercury’s 60th birthday.
“I said, ‘No, what are you having to drink?’ And he said, ‘Large vodka.’ Then he said, ‘How big is your cock?’”
Over six years later, Hutton was beside his partner as Mercury died of AIDS at home early in the morning on November 24, 1991.
Hutton realized Mercury had died while he was changing Mercury’s boxer shorts after the pop star, dosed up on morphine, had wet himself, “and I knew that if he woke up and saw that there’d be blue murder.” Hutton remembered the time on the clock in the room as being twelve minutes to 7.
Hutton, who himself died in 2010, told me that day in candid and moving detail about Mercury the gay man, the partner, and their life together. It would be somewhat baffling if the director Bryan Singer, “quite bisexual” as he described himself to Out magazine, chose to somehow de-gay Mercury and also minimize, underplay, or even eradicate from an upcoming movie Mercury’s death from AIDS.
But such have been some of the concerns expressed after a message appeared on Queen’s website announcing the movie, Bohemian Rhapsody: The Film. The message mentioned that charismatic and handsome Mr. Robot star Rami Malek would be playing Mercury, and that Singer would be recreating “the fabulous Queen years which brought us such unforgettable moments as Live Aid, which we can reveal will be faithfully recreated for a key sequence the film.”
The band’s Brian May and Roger Taylor are executive producers of the project, with pre-production already underway in the U.K., and shooting scheduled to begin in mid-September.
There was no mention in the post of the trajectory and harder truths of Mercury’s life: that of being a closeted pop star at a time of huge homophobia, who died of AIDS shrouded in self-chosen secrecy and seclusion. The nature of his illness, although the subject of much media speculation, was only confirmed the day before he died in a public statement.
It may not seem so long ago, but in terms of attitudes and prejudice it was a markedly different era, with severe stigma around both being an out celebrity (and the impact that could have on a career) and being HIV-positive. Mercury never fully came out whatever one deduced from his strutting, camp stage persona. Published last year, Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne’s book Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury grapples with Mercury’s sexuality, the prejudices of the time that helped keep him in the closet, and the history and impact of HIV and AIDS itself.
What May and Taylor, who are executive-producing the film, will focus on, and in what depth, remains to be seen. They were, and are, part of Queen, and have the power to edit and shape the movie at their will. Mercury when he was alive was fanatical about his privacy; a biography or biopic necessarily, at least to some degree, invades privacy, and so a true estimation and portrayal of Mercury’s life may well not be found in Bohemian Rhapsody: The Film. (Terrible, clunky title, by the way.)
The project has been beset by troubles. Attached to the project for six years, Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out of playing Mercury in 2013, claiming May was “an amazing musician, but not an amazing movie producer.”
In an interview with Howard Stern in March 2016, Cohen confirmed that while he had wanted a Mercury that portrayed the “nitty gritty” of Mercury’s life and character—his sexuality included—Queen did not want that.
Cohen wanted the movie to feature scenes the oft-told tale of parties with little people holding plates of cocaine above their heads. “The guy was wild,” he told Stern. “He was living an extreme lifestyle.”
That is part of Mercury’s story for sure, and the other is his life with Hutton. A closeted gay pop star can contain multitudes: the wild man who loved wild parties, and the wild man who liked to come home and massage Hutton’s feet and ask him about his day at work (at the Savoy Hotel where he was a barber).
Cohen understood that Queen had a different vision, that they want to protect their legacy. He told Stern he should have withdrawn from the project upon learning that Mercury would die midway through it, with the rest of the film devoted to Queen’s endurance as a band following his death.
Cohen also noted the editorial problem at the heart of the project: The movie was hagiography, he noted. With Queen producing the story of the band, “why wouldn’t you depict yourself as great as possible?”
Cohen got the brilliant, award-winning screenwriter Peter Morgan in to write the script; the band didn’t like it. He approached David Fincher and Tom Hooper to direct, he said; No shakes there either.
May lashed back at Cohen in the Mail on Sunday: “Sacha became an arse. We had some nice times with Sacha kicking around ideas, but he went off and told untruths about what happened.”
May insisted the film would not sugar-coat anything: “Why would he go away and say that we didn’t want to make a gritty film? Are we the kind of people who have ever ducked from the truth? I don’t think so.”
Ben Whishaw was next on May’s wishlist to play Mercury, but he too turned the role down.
‘We Both Thought Our Relationship, and Being Gay, Was Our Business’
The story of a closeted pop star, and his off-stage private life and loves, is potentially fascinating, if told with honesty and nuance.
The first night they met, Hutton didn’t know who Mercury was. He learned the truth from Joe Fanelli, Mercury’s cook, after he went to make a cup of coffee. He and Mercury had just finished having sex at Mercury’s Kensington flat. Mercury also had an eight-bedroom Georgian house, Garden Lodge, nearby, which Hutton eventually moved into, becoming part of the “family” there, which also included Peter Freestone, Mercury’s assistant.
Hutton recalled the party for Mercury’s 40th birthday, held at a club in Munich, with Hutton dressed up in a multicolored sequined jacket and the whole doolally affair, drag queens and all, captured for the video of Living on My Own.
Hutton watched backstage when Mercury electrified Live Aid in July 1985. “I was gobsmacked. You could feel the effect his stage presence had on the crowd. Afterwards Elton [John] came and said, ‘Bastard, you’ve stolen it.’”
Singer’s film should also include the time Mercury smuggled a disguised Diana, Princess of Wales, into the Royal Vauxhall Tavern LGBT club in South London.
Early in their relationship, a friend of Mercury’s told Hutton he had a boyfriend in Munich. Hutton saw Mercury leave the Kensington apartment with another guy, and at Heaven nightclub, too. Hutton told Mercury he had to make his mind up about what he wanted.
“And he said, ‘OK,’” Hutton told me. “He wanted to be with me. Deep down I think that he wanted to be secure with someone who was down to earth and not impressed by who he was.”
Mercury did cocaine but not that much, Hutton said. Hutton eventually gave up his Savoy job and worked at Garden Lodge. “One day I was clearing out the pond, I was in waders, and he said he wanted a hug, and so we hugged, me dripping muck all over the carpet.”
As for Mercury being in the closet, Hutton said, “He might have worried about how coming out would have affected him professionally but he didn’t say that. We both thought our relationship, and being gay, was our business.”
Mercury constantly wanted to know that Hutton loved him, Hutton told me. “And of course I did, deeply, and told him. When he was diagnosed he said to me, ‘I would understand if you wanted to pack your bags and leave.’ I told him, ‘Don’t be stupid. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here for the long haul.’”
‘I Never Realized You Were As Strong As You Are’
Hutton said Mercury took the early AIDS drug AZT—this being long before the days of combination therapies—and had private medical treatment at home. Hutton said he was diagnosed HIV positive in 1990. He didn’t tell Mercury until he tested positive again a year later. “All Freddie said was ‘Bastards.’”
The doctors thought Mercury shouldn’t do the Barcelona video, Hutton told me. “But his attitude was ‘I’m not going to let this thing beat me.’ I noticed how skeletal he’d become only on the morning of his last birthday. Maybe I was in denial. But I think Freddie knew when it was the time to let go. He decided to come off his AIDS medication three weeks before he died.”
The last proper conversation the men had took place a few days before he died. It was 6 a.m. Mercury wanted to look at his paintings.
“How am I going to get downstairs?” Mercury asked Hutton. “I’ll carry you,” Hutton said. “But he made his own way, holding on to the banister. I kept in front to make sure he didn’t fall. I brought a chair to the door, sat him in it, and flicked on the spotlights, which lit each picture. He said, ‘Oh they’re wonderful’. I carried him upstairs to bed. He said, ‘I never realized you were as strong as you are.’”
The night before Mercury died of bronchial pneumonia, a statement was released in Mercury’s name revealing that he had AIDS:
“Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease. My privacy has always been very special to me and I am famous for my lack of interviews. Please understand this policy will continue.”
Hutton told me that Mercury didn’t compose this statement himself. “He couldn’t have done. He wasn’t capable. His manager, Jim Beach, released it. I don’t think he would have wanted it. He wanted his private life kept private.”
As for the criticism that he should have been honest about being gay and having AIDS, Hutton says that Mercury’s reaction would have been ‘F**k them, it’s my business.’”
Hutton told me that Mercury had verbally stated that he should stay at Garden Lodge after his death but nothing was signed.
Mercury left the Lodge and most of his estate to his ex-girlfriend-turned-close friend Mary Austin, who he called his common-law wife—another relationship that is fascinating and would be fascinating to explore in Singer’s movie.
When Mercury reportedly told Austin he was bisexual, she said, “No Freddie, you’re gay.” Mercury was devoted to her, even charging Austin with disposing of his ashes as privately as possible: True to that, she has never revealed where she scattered them.
Hutton was given three months to leave Garden Lodge, he told me. This “devastated” him and he went “absolutely crazy,” eventually using part of the £500,000 that Mercury had left him to build a home in Ireland, where he lived until his death in 2010.
‘He Was So Ill And Still He Was Being So Caring’
I also interviewed Jer Bulsara, Mercury’s mother, for the London Times in 2006, at her home on the outskirts of Nottingham, England. (It was called Fredmira, combining the names of Freddie, her son, and Kashmira, her daughter, whose husband Roger Cooke accompanied Jer for the interview.)
Jer, who died aged 94 in 2016, recalled Freddie being born and first raised in Zanzibar (as Farrokh Bulsara), then the family’s move to the U.K., and her son always wanting to be a showman. He went to art school. “I said, ‘What are you going to do, son?’ and he said he didn’t know,” Jer told me. “I remember him filling out application forms for jobs and saying, ‘I hope I don’t get it.’” Watching Elvis Presley on TV, he vowed: “I’m going to be like him one day.” He changed his surname to Mercury after his ruling astrological planet.
I asked Jer if she knew Freddie was gay; had he come out to her?
“No,” she said gripping a tissue, and welled up with tears.
“That area’s too sensitive,” Cooke told me, and added that Mercury never came out to his family.
Later, Jer said her son wouldn’t have minded people finding out that he was gay, that he didn’t care what people thought of him.
“Society was different then,” Jer said of him not coming out. “Nowadays it’s all so open, isn’t it?”
Cooke thought that Mercury may have worried that coming out would affect record sales, though he was naturally private. “His attitude was ‘My life is my business.’ The distinction was that he was private, not shy.”
Mercury also didn’t tell his family he had AIDS.
“We gradually became aware he had an illness but we had no idea what it was or how serious it was,” Cooke told me. “Then in August 1990, [Kashmira] and I saw a mark on his foot. It was Kaposi’s sarcoma.
“Kash asked what it was, whether it was getting better. Freddie said: ‘You have to understand that what I have is terminal. I’m going to die.’ That was it. He didn’t say it was AIDS.”
Jer told me that the last time she saw her son was “very emotional, very hard. He asked, ‘Are you all right? Did any of the media worry you?’ We said: ‘Don’t worry about us, dear.’ He was so ill and still he was being so caring.”
One thing that kept her going, Jer told me, were the letters she got from people (addressed to “Freddie Mercury’s mother, Nottingham”) saying what his songs have meant to them. Had he been alive now, he would have composed rock operas, she thought.
Jer laughed as she thought about how Mercury would have celebrated his 60th birthday (probably debauchedly). Talking to Jer that day was jolting because she knew now how much her son had kept from her. He had kept family and partner and friends strictly compartmentalized. It wasn’t just that the public who didn’t know Freddie Mercury was gay and had AIDS; neither did his family.
This was Mercury’s choice, and part of the film might examine his motivation for doing so, and how and why he maintained such strict boundaries between public and private, and even around and between the people closest to him.
The truth of someone, anyone, is complex, and never more so than with Freddie Mercury: a showman who blisteringly commanded massive concert stages, and a man who away from the stage rigorously maintained a very private private life. The challenge facing Singer and Malek is to capture somebody who was both so in our faces and determinedly elusive.
Hutton told me that he once dreamt that he and Mercury had bought a cottage together; another time, in a semi-sleep, he felt he and Mercury were lying suspended in a tunnel of feathers. That would make quite the final image for the movie—if, that is, Singer and Queen do Freddie Mercury justice and tell the full, complex truth of his life.