On Wednesday morning, the Atlantic published the article that had been whispered about for months: a year-in-the-making exposé of director Bryan Singer, in which multiple men accused the filmmaker of sexual assault and statutory rape. There’s much to discuss about the story — the allegations themselves (Singer has issued a categorical denial); why the article wasn’t published in Esquire as originally planned; why the long history of similar rumors that swirled around the director did not seem to harm his career. But the timing is also noteworthy, coming a day after Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody pulled in five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. With the season entering “phase two” this week, suddenly the 2019 Oscars have their own #MeToo moment.
As I wrote last week, Singer has been the invisible man of Rhapsody’s Oscar campaign. He was fired from the movie in late 2017, while the first wave of #MeToo stories was breaking, and his name frequently made its way onto lists of powerful men who’d been dismissed for sexual misconduct. (Singer has been the subject of multiple lawsuits related to the sexual abuse of teenage boys; the suits have all been dropped, settled, or are still pending.) But the official story is that his firing had nothing to do with that: Fox has always maintained that Singer was let go from the film after frequently missing work, and clashing with star Rami Malek. His name was toxic enough that many involved in the movie tried hard to distance themselves from him, but there was enough uncertainty around the situation that those who wished to could claim plausible deniability. In September, Singer found a comeback vehicle, the comic-book adaptation Red Sonja. An insider at Millennium Films, the company behind Sonja, told THR at the time that they weren’t worried about the rumors, as “none of the allegations seem to have merit.”
Thanks to DGA rules, Singer remains the credited director of Bohemian Rhapsody. As the movie broke box-office records and racked up trophies, its team decided that the best way to keep the music going was to give the impression that Bohemian Rhapsody had been directed by no one, avoiding all mention of him in their acceptance speeches and dodging questions at press availabilities. At the same time, sources inside the production leaked stories about Singer’s bad on-set behavior to the trades, and were careful to paint the cast and crew as victims of his mistreatment. It was a successful PR strategy. If you didn’t know Bohemian Rhapsody was directed by a man accused of sexual assault, great. If you did, well, aren’t you glad they fired the creep?
In the wake of the Atlantic story, that seems likely to change: Everyone involved needs to figure out an answer to the question of how much they knew about Singer’s history, and quick. Even before the news broke, Malek had been flustered by the L.A. Times, claiming he wasn’t aware of the allegations before Singer’s firing, and adding that the dismissal was “something that [fans] can look at from a perspective of understanding why they can appreciate the film.” Whether you find his denials credible or not — and it seems that many don’t — Malek’s Best Actor hopes may hinge on his ability to find a more convincing way to address the Singer issue. With the Oscars a month away, he’ll get many chances. So, too, will the remaining members of Queen, who reportedly pushed hard for Singer to be hired in the first place.
Meanwhile, Singer has been playing his own game. Likely sensing that his career hangs in the balance, he’s refused to go away quietly, taking every opportunity to remind people that he, Bryan Singer, was the man who directed that massive hit that awards voters love. His Instagram account remains a Bohemian Rhapsody scrapbook, where he celebrates the movie’s wins and often posts videos of his fun memories from the set. He maintains his innocence, saying the lawsuits against him were “filed by a disreputable cast of individuals willing to lie for money and attention,” and dubbing the Atlantic story a “homophobic smear piece … conveniently timed to take advantage of [the movie’s] success.”
At the moment, how much the Singer news will affect Bohemian Rhapsody’s chances is still unclear. Fans largely shrugged at negative stories about the writer and director of Green Book that emerged during nomination voting, writing them off as more ugly Oscar-season skullduggery. But the Atlantic article has a different tenor — in its scope and depth, it’s much more akin to the first Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. stories. Outside of a few voices, though, the wave of Hollywood players denouncing Singer has yet to emerge. The industry has spent decades not looking too hard into the rumors surrounding the filmmaker, and it may take some time for them to get into the habit.