Thursday 23 May 2019

Why did Freddie Mercury, possibly the most theatrical stage performer of them all, never act?

The theatrical Queen frontman Freddie Mercury - the subject of a new biopic - never acted in a movie, a path the likes of Madonna, Elvis and Jagger should have followed

Madonna and Warren Beatty in Dick Treacy
Madonna and Warren Beatty in Dick Treacy
Madonna and Warren Beatty in Dick Treacy
Elvis Presley and actress Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas
Not wanting it all: Mercury restricted his theatrical leanings to pop videos and gigs
Mick Jagger as Ned Kelly
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Since his death in 1991, Freddie Mercury's reputation as one of the truly great live rock performers has only grown, and is likely to be enhanced by a new biopic. Released this week and starring Rami Malek as the great showman, Bohemian Rhapsody covers the build-up to the Live Aid concert, Freddie's solo career and his Aids diagnosis.

It's pretty good, for the most part, but watching it, I was troubled by a nagging question: why did Freddie, possibly the most theatrical stage performer of them all, never act? He did in videos of course, dressing up like Bet Lynch from Coronation Street to hoover provocatively in the promo for 'I Want to Break Free', but he never went near a film role, despite numerous offers.

Perhaps it's because he was a contradiction in terms of being a consummate performer for whom no crowd was too vast, but a shy and rather reserved man away from the spotlight, especially with those he didn't know.

Or maybe he just had more sense. Sensing perhaps his limitations, Freddie Mercury never sullied his rock god reputation with a dodgy movie, and looking at the Thespian efforts of his fellow pop stars, he might have been on to something. Because with few exceptions, pop stars have tended to be terrible actors.

Elvis Presley and actress Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas
Elvis Presley and actress Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas

If we accept that Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (both of whom could act after a fashion) were not pop stars, and that Elvis was the first real one, we're in trouble from the start. Presley, mainly at the behest of his rapacious manager Colonel Tom Parker, made over 30 movies, and while the early ones were ropey, the likes of Jailhouse Rock and King Creole were arthouse masterpieces next to the dross Elvis turned up in the late 1960s.

Stiff as a board, and with a limited Rolodex of expressions, Presley also tended to mumble indecipherably. Which is probably just as well, because the scripts of Elvis movies were usually unspeakable. The King was not a good actor, and he set an unhappy precedent.

Though The Beatles appeared in several films together, they always had the good sense to play either themselves, or versions of themselves. If only the same could be said of Mick Jagger, whose titanic ego led him towards the bright lights of movie-making in the late 1960s.

In Tony Richardson's 1970 film Ned Kelly, the scrawny frontman was ludicrously miscast as the legendary Irish-Australian outlaw, who derailed trains and battled squadrons of police in 1870s Victoria. Jagger looked like he was finding it hard to stand upright in Kelly's famous tin body armour, never mind take on the cops. He was, in fairness, a bit better in Performance (1970), Nicolas Roeg's sprawling thriller starring James Fox as an East End gangster who takes refuge in the home of a reclusive rock star (Jagger). The Rolling Stone seemed more at ease in this role, which allowed him to break into song, but where Elvis had too few expressions, Mick had too many, and never seemed likely to trouble the scorers at the Academy.

A stiff dose of Werner Herzog more or less cured him of the acting bug. In the early 1980s he was cast as the assistant of Fitzcarraldo, a half-mad 19th century Irish-Peruvian who decides to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon. Herzog, of course, tried to do it for real, dragging a partly disassembled steamship through the jungles from one river to another. A number of indigenous people working on the film lost their lives.

This was no place for a pampered pop star, and when the production got bogged down, Jagger departed, never to return. He has confined himself mainly to cameos and small parts since.

Not wanting it all: Mercury restricted his theatrical leanings to pop videos and gigs
Not wanting it all: Mercury restricted his theatrical leanings to pop videos and gigs

The late David Bowie is often cited as a popster who could act, but in truth his film career is patchy. In 1976, he starred in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth as a soft-spoken alien who arrives on our world with an ambitious plan to ship water back to his home planet.

Speaking stiffly and looking dead-eyed, Dave did seem oddly extraterrestrial, but this may have had something to do with the, by his own account, 10 grams of coke he was ingesting each day. "I was actually feeling as alienated as that character was," he said later, adding that: "I'm so pleased I made that, but I really didn't know what was being made at all."

Bowie was present and correct, mentally speaking, for Just a Gigolo, a 1978 film in which he played a Weimar-era demobbed soldier who turns tricks to make a living. It was very bad, and Dave, always refreshingly honest, described it as "my 32 Elvis films rolled into one".

He was better in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), as a charismatic British PoW who bravely stands up to a bullying and sadistic Japanese camp commander. And Bowie was Marlon Brando compared to Madonna.

The Michigan-born popstress's first big role was in the 1985 hit romcom Desperately Seeking Susan, in which she played a hedonistic New Yorker who inspires a lonely New Jersey housewife (Rosanna Arquette) to change her life. Madonna was actually not bad in this supporting role, but unspeakable performances would follow once she marched to centre stage.

About Shanghai Surprise, the 1986 'comedy' co-starring her then-beau Sean Penn, the less said the better, and things got even worse in Who's the Girl (1987), a sickly sweet screwball caper. Comedy, it seemed, was not in Madge's repertoire: try telling her that.

Bloodhounds of Broadway, Dick Tracy, Body of Evidence - the stinkers came thick and fast, and things came to a head in Swept Away (2002), an arty vanity project directed by her then-husband Guy Ritchie in which she played a rich bitch who gets stranded on a desert island with a hunky underling. "Further proof," said one critic, "that Madonna can't act."

But occasionally, pop stars can. Cher, during the period when her face was still mobile, made an impressively smooth transition from pop to Hollywood. She was excellent in films like Mask, Suspect and Witches of Eastwick, and won the Best Actress Oscar in 1988 for her fine work in the irresistible romcom Moonstruck.

And what of Justin Timberlake, he of the hipster shuffle and Jackson-esque vocal stylings? I suppose it might help that he's an alumnus of the Mickey Mouse Club, but he's been surprisingly competent in his cinematic outings, from his sinister turn as tech guru Sean Parker in The Social Network to comic roles in the likes of Friends with Benefits and more serious work like the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis.

He's a decent actor, but the sky would appear to be the limit for Lady Gaga after her breathtaking and surely Oscar-winning performance in A Star is Born. So there are pop stars who can act, but they tend to be the exception that proves the rule, and overall you'd have to say old Freddie knew what he was at.

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