Friday, January 15, 2016

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA 2013

A movie comfortable in its own skin, about two men who weren’t.

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight (no pun intended): during its most repressed and puritanical years, Middle America, under the guise of “showman”, took to its heart a fey and outlandishly flamboyant, closeted gay man and kept him a star for over 50 years. Twenty-six years after his death, in the presumably more enlightened era of the 21st century, a motion picture about the personal life of said showman is unable to find an American distributor because the subject matter is deemed “Too gay.” This from an industry that would greenlight Heaven’s Gate II if it contained ten seconds of girl-on-girl action.

What to take away from all this: 1. America prefers its gay men closeted, cartoonish, or nonthreateningly “other.” Preferably all three. 2. Unless viewed through the prism of the heteronormative gaze (where the prerequisites are shame, self-pity, and a tacit plea for acceptance) America is uncomfortable with anything remotely approaching an authentic depiction of gay life. 3. Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge lesbians, only hot women having sex with each other (explaining, perhaps, why the phrase "too lesbian" has never been coined about a film).
But that’s not the whole story.

Steven Soderbergh’s gleefully impudent Liberace film, Behind the Candelabra, eventually found a home on cable television, cable and the Internet being the only frontiers of risk left in today’s landscape of cinematic follow-the-leader. As an HBO TV-movie Behind the Candelabra emerged a critical and ratings blockbuster, and a multi-award winner. A result confirming perhaps that the term “Too gay” is merely a signifier of a studio head being “Too ignorant.”
Michael Douglas as Liberace
Matt Damon as Scott Thorson
Debbie Reynolds as Frances Liberace
Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz

With their built-in melodrama, potential for embarrassing celebrity impersonations, and cheesy reenactments of real-life events, celebrity bio films can be a lot of fun. They can also be fascinatingly revelatory mirrors of fame culture, revealing the disconnect between a star's public image and their private reality. But more often than not they’re formulaic dramatized chronologies of career milestones, akin to AV study aids for a class called Celebrity History 101.

Celebrity biopics have been around so long they’ve ceased being a classification and become their own genre. But since true-to-life events don’t automatically translate to dramatically compelling stories (or even stories that make sense or have a point), the fashioning of a workable narrative out of the often haphazard and random events of a public figure’s life has proved a hurdle not easily surmounted in the biopic game. Hence, writers tend to fall back on the reliable but grossly overused rags-to-riches trope: struggle, success, disenchantment, downward spiral, ultimate redemption. A format as fixed and set in concrete as the footprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Cheyenne Jackson as Liberace protege Billy Leatherwood
I’m not crazy about movie bios hellbent on mythologizing their subjects by skirting unpleasant truths, and hatchet jobs come across as dishonest as hagiographies. I suppose one doesn't, or shouldn't, look to biographical films for encyclopedic accuracy - they're dramatizations after all, and on that score, documentaries do nicely; but what I get excited about is when a filmmaker, in chronicling the life of a public figure, is able to seize upon a unique perspective which casts the work and life of the individual in broader context. To comment upon the difference between art and artifice, or perhaps hold up a mirror in which we as a culture can see something of ourselves reflected in why we have made this person notable in the first place. 
The late Ken Russell, whose rhapsodically operatic films about the lives of classical composers gloriously transcended the usual “and then they wrote….” clichés, was a master of this. One can only imagine what a field day he would have had with Liberace’s excessive, troubled, and sequined-encrusted life.
Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich), wisely choosing to ignore the directive of Liberace’s “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” paraphrase of Mae West’s famous line, avoids the potential for baroque overkill in favor of looking at Liberace’s life through the downsized prism of domestic drama. Behind the Candelabra, a serio-comic take on the last ten years in the life of the legendarily overdressed entertainer (adapted from the ghostwritten memoirs of former lover and current hot mess, Scott Thorson), is devoted to good-naturedly reducing Liberace’s grandiose public persona down to as close to human scale as the showman's outsized lifestyle and personality would allow.

In the process, both Liberace and Thorson are granted a depth of humanity which the more sordid details of their tabloid-ready association gave little hint of their being well-suited. And in the bargain, Liberace's larger-than-life persona and Thorson's all-too-common circumstances are handled with the kind of empathetic delicacy authors like Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor reserved for their Southern Gothic galleries of grotesques.
That may sound like faint praise, but one need only look at what happened with Mommie Dearest to appreciate what a considerable achievement it is for a film to render human, in however small a capacity, a public figure so tirelessly devoted and committed to turning themselves into a living caricature.
The Emmy Award-winning recreations of Liberace's beyond outrageous stage wardrobe are the work of
Ellen Mirojnick and Robert Q. Mathews
One of entertainment history’s great head-shakers is the fact that anyone with a functioning brain ever thought for a nanosecond that mononymous pianist/entertainer Liberace was straight. More fascinating still, if his fanbase was comprised exclusively of, as one critic put it “Teenage girls afraid of sex and middle-aged women no longer interested in it,” what does that say about the breadth and scope of his appeal?

At the start of Behind the Candelabra Liberace is 57-years-old, firmly ensconced in the Vegas glitz period of his career, and the successful plaintiff of several homosexuality libel suits. As the darling of the blue-haired set and with a stage show gayer than a Judy Garland convention, Liberace’s public disavowal of his true sexuality at this point was largely moot; just another ritualistically maintained aspect of his manufactured public image, no more authentic than the hair on his head or the diamonds in his lapels.

Blatantly “out” in his cloistered private life, Liberace, already on the ebb side of a relationship with prissy protégé Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), feels an instant attraction when introduced to 17-year-old veterinary trainee Scott Thorson (42-year-old Matt Damon) by mutual friend, Bob Black (Scott Bakula).
The Seduction
Watching Liberace perform at the Las Vegas Hilton, Scott Thorson is already hooked.
Scott Bakula, mustachioed and  bescarfed, is one of Scott's pre-Liberace lovers
In the tradition of countless May/December romances the world over, one individual’s great wealth proves as equal and potent an aphrodisiac as the other individual’s great beauty, and ZIP!...bye, bye all obstacles otherwise posed by a 40-year age gap. Liberace and Scott Thorson embark upon a relationship that lasts six years. An affectionate and (by this film’s account, anyway) mutually loving cohabitation wherein the isolated entertainer and the teen with the history of being shuttled between foster homes, formed a marriage and became a family.
But Liberace and Scott Thorson were no Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and their brief time together proved to be as toxic as it was intoxicating.

Given the circumstances, it’s not exactly surprising that the riches Liberace lavished upon his young paramour came with possessive strings. Nor was Liberace’s plan to adopt Thorson as far-fetched as it sounds; being rooted both in pragmatism (heterosexist laws still make this an option considered by many long-term gay couples seeking legal protection in cases of death and illness); and image control; Liberace could then pawn Thorson off as his biological son. (Sydney Guilaroff, the closeted gay hairdresser to the stars, did indeed adopt the adult male lover he’d publicly passed off as a grandson.)
No, where things take a turn for the bizarre is when Liberace has Thorson undergo extensive plastic surgery to resemble the pianist in his younger days. A peculiar request serving the dual purpose of feeding Liberace’s narcissism while further supporting the heterosexuality-reaffirming biological son gambit.
"I want you to make Scott look like this."
Liberace, whose private life and obsessions make him come across like the gay Hugh Hefner,
enlists a plastic surgeon to perform this oddball variant on the
rich-old-man-buys-bimbo-girlfriend-a-boob-job tradition
As drug use and petty jealousies escalated, and mutual sexual attraction waned, Thorson, at the ripe old age of 23, found himself the himbo soon to be put out to pasture to make way for the next “Blonde Adonis” on Liberace’s list. The latter part of Behind the Candelabra veers to the dark side as it recounts the painful circumstances precipitating the pair’s rancorous parting, and Liberace having greatest fears being realized when Thorson files a very public palimony suit against him to the tune of $113 million. The lengthy court battle lasted nearly as long as the relationship itself, ultimately being settled out of court for $75,000).
Liberace succumbed to AIDS in 1987, keeping that closet door shut (at least in his mind) to the last. Behind the Candelabra affords the estranged couple a deathbed reconciliation and Liberace a glittering, heaven-bound sendoff more fitting than the modest burial he was given in real life.
Paul Resier as Scott Thorson's attorney for the palimony suit he filed
after being evicted from Liberace's home. The ugly battle stretched out for four years

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’ve never been a fan of Liberace nor much understood his appeal (although if you haven't already seen it, I recommend you run, don't walk, to get your hands on the hooty 1955 film Sincerely Yours). But he’s one of those old-fashioned show-biz “personalities” who has their act so down pat, they’re rather difficult to actually dislike. Check out any of his TV appearances on YouTube and you’ll see a man who has mastered the art of amiable subterfuge. Repeating the same self-deprecating jokes and anecdotes for what must be decades, Liberace skillfully hides behind witty patter and good-natured evasion. Like a politician, he’s able to speak sincerely and at great length without ever once approaching the truth or revealing anything about himself he hasn’t already calculated he wants you to know. All the while coming across as genuine, friendly, and accessible. It would be terrifying if it weren’t so entertaining. (Dolly Parton is the only star I know today to possess a similar quality.)
With nothing to go on in the way of recorded images of the showman just being himself, I'm impressed by how screenwriter Richard LaGravenese was able to forge so richly a dimensional representation of Liberace. One gets the impression of a gravely lonely man of not overwhelming depth-of-character who is simultaneously believable (and quite frightening) as both powerful and selfishly controlling.
Behind the Candelabra paints a portrait of a gay man who has learned (all too well) the lessons for survival taught to him by society (homosexuality was illegal much of Liberace's adult life) and the Church (he was devout Catholic). The lesson: you must learn to exist as two people – one for your private life, one for public consumption. And of course, Liberace’s extreme, schizophrenically dual existence is but a gold-plated, gilt-edged amplification of the day-to-day reality for millions of gay men living in a society which encourages masks and role-playing for those outside of the heteronormative standard.

By exploring the Liberace/Thorson relationship beyond the extremes of lifestyle and eccentricities of character, Behind the Candelabra draws provocative and amusing parallels between the roles the couple adopted in public (Liberace is a heterosexual, Thorson his chauffeur) and the roles they assumed in private (ironically, a realm where Liberace proved more comfortable in his sexuality than the prudish Thorson, who clung unconvincingly to his "bisexual" life preserver).

If Behind the Candelabra is to be believed, it must be said that for all his public artifice, Liberace was nothing if not his fully out and authentic self in his private life. And while I’ve never found anything admirable in his distancing himself from anything remotely connected to the gay community in his lifetime, it’s difficult not to acknowledge how the outrageousness of his stage persona couldn't help but expand the boundaries of what was acceptable for a male performer to be (and look like) onstage. And getting the Bible-belters to swallow it, yet! Liberace was definitely a product of his time, but as closeted as he was, it's somewhat miraculous that he never resorted to going through a sham heterosexual marriage like his heir-apparent in sequined crass, Elton John.
Lee & Scott, Fat and Happy
Behind the Candelabra has several remarkable scenes of banal domesticity in which
the Liberace and Thorson relationship is shown to have been a marriage in every sense of the word
 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Whether true to the real-life circumstances or not, Behind the Candelabra is a love story...a marriage, in fact. And what I so admire about the film is that it tells this same-sexy love story in a language no different from what you’d see in any other film about dysfunctional romance (Closer, Blue Valentine). Unconcerned with the comfort levels of the audience or whether or not it will “play in Peoria,” Behind the Candelabra depicts two people in an intimate relationship as it should be: kissing, caressing, bickering, fucking, and going about their lives in the manner of countless couples the world over. It's a credit to the filmmakers that the extreme trappings of wealth what characterized Liberace's life never overwhelm the human element.
It’s wonderful to see a major motion picture about gay characters that is so unconcerned with mollifying the heterosexual gaze.

PERFORMANCES
I’ve seen Michael Douglas in a great many films since his debut in Hail, Hero! in 1969, but I honestly think his Liberace is the best work he’s ever done. He’s remarkable. Referencing Mommie Dearest yet again, Douglas was given a public figure every bit as over the top as Crawford (more, actually) and somehow found a way to access the human behind the image. And what range! He nails Liberace's vulnerable and gentle nature in the courtship scenes as adeptly as he lands the more hard-edged person we see toward the end.
Garrett M. Brown and Jane Morris are standouts as Scott's foster parents
Without looking exactly like him, Douglas captures the essence of the Liberace we know, embellishing this mini-impersonation of the stage personality with a well-conceived characterization of a Liberace away from the public glare. In an astoundingly vanity-free performance, Douglas achieves the impossible: he turns Liberace into a authentic human being. Michael Douglas surprised the hell out of me with this film and he deserved every one of the many awards his performance garnered.
In addition to the terrific character turns by Debbie Reynolds and Rob Lowe,
Dan Aykroyd lends solid support as Liberace's fix-it-all manager Seymour Heller
For all the issues I have with Matt Damon the man (occasionally he just needs to shut the fuck up) I like him a great deal as an actor. Playing a perhaps less guileful version of Scott Thorson than the real deal, Damon’s reactive performance is easier to overlook. But like a painter working with a blank canvas (and if you’ve ever seen one of the real-life Thorson's numerous television appearances, you'll know they don't come much blanker) Damon imbues the character with a survivor's willingness to please that becomes quite poignant in the latter third of the film when the relationship starts to sour (as good as they are in the film’s earlier scenes, both actors really shine in plumbing the darker sides of their characters).

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
With its gold-cast cinematography, impeccable eye for period detail in costuming and wigs, and painstaking recreation of Liberace's world of "palatial kitsch"; Behind the Candelabra is, as might be expected for a film about the life of one of show business's showiest showmen, a real visual treat. I loved the film's sharp and funny script and its stellar,top-drawer performances from everyone in the cast. As movie bios go, Behind the Candelabra doesn't rewrite the book, but for the depth and honesty of its depiction of a gay relationship, it gets a full four stars from me. Which, as we know, would be far too little glitz for Liberace, but will have to do in this instance.



BONUS MATERIAL
Seeing is believing: Liberace and Scott Thorson, Las Vegas 1981

Liberace's oddness is used to excellent effect in Tony Richardson's brilliant satire of California and the funeral business, The Loved One (1965). Cast as "Casket Specialist" Mr. Starker, Liberace pretty much only has to play himself, but he's hilarious and looks infinitely more at ease hawking coffins than he did in his love scenes with Dorothy Malone in Sincerely Yours


Opened by Liberace himself in 1979, The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas was several buildings housing a collection of Liberace's performance costumes, automobiles, and pianos (not to mention the biggest rhinestone in the world) in a surprisingly unassuming mall which also contained one of his restaurants. My partner and I visited it back in 2005, and it was a blast. I've never seen so many mirrors, rhinestones and candelabras in all my life. You seriously could go glitter-blind in this place. The sheet music adorning the side of the building (below) is one of his performance staples, "The Beer Barrel Polka." The museum ultimately closed in 2013.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

21 comments:

  1. I watched this last year on DVD and really enjoyed it -- acting kudos all around. My only criticism is that Debbie Reynolds -- in what is likely to be one of her last film performances -- was obscured by so many layers of latex that her essential "Debbi-ness" is entirely hidden. That could be anyone playing Liberace's mother under those prostheses! Excellent review as always, Ken!

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    1. Hi Peter...and thanks!
      This film was such a pleasant surprise for me. Given the absurdity of the man himself, I thought at best I'd be watching a campy impersonation (like those two Liberace TV movies from the 80s) but such a remarkable job was done by all.
      I can certainly see what you mean about Debbie Reynolds' thorough transformation - since I didn't know it was her until the slot machine scene - but it seemed a wise move with so familiar a personage as Reynolds. Especially since the film somehow got me to let go of the mental images I carried with me of what the real Michael Douglas and Liberace look like. I hadn't seen Dan Aykroyd in so long, I didn't even recognize him at first. Thanks for commenting, Peter!

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  2. Ken! I love your essays so much, and I honestly feel that this is one of your very best. And what great material to work from! Everything you mentioned is spot on - I especially appreciated the Ken Russell reference! The film is fantastic and makes me glad Mr. Soderbergh did not retire from directing as he once claimed he had. Aside from the terrific performances from the leads, I hasten to add that Debbie Reynolds (who actually knew Liberace and, even better, his mother!)and especially Rob Lowe took the whole enterprise to another level, brief though their scenes may have been. I've watched this twice already, and actually look forward to another viewing, which says a lot about both the movie and your review!

    (Oddly enough, as I write this I am listening to David Bowie's "Fame", which seems strangely appropriate.)

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    1. Hey Thom
      Thank you for making my day with your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed this piece, for I enjoyed writing it. So much to say about such a terrific movie that could have gone sooo wrong in a million ways.
      Your bringing up the contributions of the supporting cast is apt, for they contribute just as much to the whole as the leads. All have a kind of funhouse mirror absurdity to them that fits the little bubble Liberace built around himself. I love that Soderbergh and his collaborators managed to convey the reality of the people involved and not turn them into freaks for us to gaze at.
      i keep referencing Tim burton's "Ed Wood" movie because that's such a great example of "getting" that eccentric people don't think of themselves as eccentric. "Behind the Candelabra" is so straightforward in its presentation, and the film is all the better for that.
      I've read of Reynolds knowing Liberace and his mom...looking at clips of her on YouTube, Reynolds really drew upon her gift of mimicry.
      And yes...Bowie's "Fame" IS strangely appropriate.
      Big thanks, Thom!

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  3. Hi Ken, this received its UK TV premiere over Christmas and I really enjoyed it, having missed it at the cinema (yes, it did find a distributor here) on its release. It's a real shame that it wasn't shown in cinemas in the US because if it had been then Michael Douglas would have been eligible for the Oscar he so clearly deserved for this brilliant performance. Damon too would surely have been given a nomination for Best Supporting.

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    1. Hi Mark
      Yes, I'd heard this film was released overseas, and even saw a French poster for it, but i was always curious to find out how it performed boxoffice-wise. Here in the US, it's a shame no studio took the chance, for sometimes audiences surprise the industry know-it-alls who are so sure they know hat will sell. All they really know is that have no clue what to do if a precedent hasn't already been set by some other film.
      But the film virtually swept the Emmy Awards(winning 11 of 15). Liberace was such a big star in the UK in his time, and what with Britain being the site of his first and biggest libel suit win...well, he would have been mortified to learn his secret was OUT and that the inferences of his slanderer were more than true.

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  4. Brilliant and insightful essay, Ken! I really hope you will consider putting together a collection of your "greatest hits" one of these fine days.

    In the late 1950s or early 1960s (sorry, memory is vague), there was a lawsuit involving a columnist (who went by the print name "Cassandra," the mythological character who can predict the future but is never believed) who had written a review Liberace's concert using phrases like "mincing" and "fruit-flavored." Obvious code words--and Liberace wasted no time filing a lawsuit for libel. On the stand, under oath, Liberace stated he was not homosexual and had never had sexual relations with another man. I can't help but feel sorry for Liberace, whose well-being and freedom demanded that he lie under oath. And, as you point out, he won the lawsuit and "Cassandra" had to issue an apology.

    Somewhat related, closeted writer Somerset Maugham tried to adopt his male lover (in part to prevent his ex-wife and their daughter from laying claim to a significant estate). I don't think he was successful, but either way he was ridiculed mercilessly in the press of the 1960s.

    Finally, everyone should watch SINCERELY YOURS at least once. There's so much (unintentional?) subtext in that movie, you won't know whether to be gobsmacked or gleefully delighted. Definitely a movie to watch with some like-minded friends and a bottle or two of wine!

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    1. Hi Deb
      I have to investigate why and how blogger sees some entries as spam and fails to post them. Thank you for your lovely comment, which I replied to below (on your second try...sorry about that!)

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  5. Hi Ken - how apropos that you've chosen this film as a counterpoint to last week's biopic (Mommie Dearest). And you've pinpointed all the reasons that Candelabra works, and Mommie doesn't, as a behind-the-scenes celebrity tell-all.

    I eagerly read Scott Thorson's book back in the late 1980s...undoubtedly Christina Crawford and BD Hyman had paved the way for this to be a bestseller...I was absolutely titillated that a young blond Adonis like Scott was gay...and a little horrified that he would do the deed with an old queen like Liberace.(Scott, however, seemed to be really in love with Michael Jackson; they were inseparable Vegas buddies throughout the book. Lovers too, maybe?)

    Kudos to Soderbergh and La Gravenese for injecting just the right elements of fantasy, camp and glitz into the proceedings without sacrificing story and character (where Mommie failed). (Matt Damon's generous nude and semi-nude scenes certainly didn't hurt, either!)

    But most of all, I am blown away by the performance of Michael Douglas, aided with a marvelous Matt Damon in support. (I actually never realized how much I have ALWAYS loved Douglas until this film. From Coma to Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure...I own ALL those movies...) Michael Douglas's Lee Liberace is a fully rounded, vulnerable, dimensional character. He bravely presents us with an effeminate, lisping, mincing queen - which Liberace was - but without making fun of him, without going over the top, humanizing a character that could have been at least as cartoonish as Dunaway's Joan Crawford. Dramatically, this is Michael Douglas's crowning achievement as an actor.

    And yet there is a lot of fun and magic as well. Rob Lowe is hilarious as the plastic-faced surgeon. Debbie Reynolds (I did NOT know it was her until my second viewing!) at the slot machine is priceless. The music, the costumes (including/especially Matt Damon's speedo thong)and production design are exactly as over the top as they need to be. It's a masterful balance.

    I really love this film, Ken, for all the reasons you mentioned. And thanks to you, this will be my next Blu-Ray purchase (I have watched it at least five times on HBO, now I need to own it!!)
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      This film film is really a marvel when compared to the missteps of "Mommie Dearest," which suffered at least in part from being so close to the actual sensationalized times (in the post-reality TV era and "Housewives of whatever" age, Soderberh was free to explore a less exploitative angle. Nobody watching a week of Maury Povich would likely find anything Liberace did remotely shocking).
      I remember reading that book in the 80s as well, and feeling that Thorson was a sociopath at worst or just a garden-variety opportunist. Funny thing is, I was studying dance at the time, and when a class was over and we'd all be out in the lobby waiting for friends or someone to pick us up to give us rides home, all the "blond Adonis" types had old queens waiting for them. the Thorson type never gravitates to other Thorson types (they're broke like him), at that age, a certain type has a pretty good idea of what side their bred is buttered on and it's usually over the age of 40.

      You bring up a very good point in point out how the film presents us with a character possessing all these characteristics that we have been condition to see as risible (effeminate, lisping, mincing), and yet the film does a marvelous job of presenting them as what they are - human characteristics - not "bad" or "funny." by the end of the film, those qualities are the least defined aspects of Liberace's personality. I find that nothing short of brilliant.

      Like you, I've liked a great many Michael Douglas performances over the years, but this really is my favorite. This film should really POP in Blu-ray!
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Chris. Always appreciated!

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  6. I saw it during its UK cinema release as well and thought: it would make a great double bill with Sid and Nancy!

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    1. Can't believe I've never seen "Sid & Nancy"...now you make me curious!

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  7. (Possible double post, as it appears Blogspot ate my comment--aaarrrgghhh! So I will attempt to recreate what was undoubtedly the greatest comment in the history of commenthood from memory. If my old one does show up, please just delete one of them.)

    First of all, another brilliant and insightful essay, Ken. I truly hope you are seriously considering publishing a "greatest hits" collection in book form one of these fine days.

    One of the lawsuits in which Liberace, as the plaintiff, successfully prevailed was against a British newspaper columnist who went by the name of "Cassandra" (after the mythological woman who had the ability to see the future but was never believed). Cassandra (a male writer, btw) reviewed a Liberace concert using obvious 1950s code words as "mincing" and "fruit flavored." On the stand, Liberace said he was not a homosexual and had never had relations with a man. You can't help but feel for a man who had to lie under oath to sustain his livelihood (and, incidentally, keep out of prison). Liberace won, Cassandra had to issue a retraction/apology.

    Tangentially related: in the early 1960s, closeted writer Somerset Maugham (OF HUMAN BONDAGE, THE RAZOR'S EDGE, etc.) tried to adopt his male lover, in part to prevent his ex-wife and daughter for claiming a significant part of his estate. I'm not sure if the adoption was successful (the relationship was very similar to Liberace & Thorson's), but Maugham was eviscerated in the press.

    Finally, everyone must try to see SINCERELY YOURS at least once. It has so much (unintentional?) subtext that you don't whether to be gobsmacked or gleeful. The perfect movie to enjoy with a group of like-minded friends especially with a bottle or two of wine!

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    1. Hi Deb
      I'm sorry about the trouble with posting. I've had other people either inadvertently double post, or they lose a comment altogether.
      I'm glad you posted all that info about the Liberace UK lawsuit. I really wanted to get into all that in my post (its so flabbergasting that he WON!!) but my stuff is long enough as it is. I'm sure readers will be inspired to Google more info from your summary.
      I hadn't heard of Somerset Maugham but I believe there are many Hollywood stories of wealthy gay people who looked to adoption to legally secure a future for their partners.
      In later years, African-American actor Raymond St. Jacques unofficially adopted his lover, dubbed him Sterling St. Jacques (Eyes of Laura Mars) and went around telling everyone he was his son.
      Between the Loretta Young stuff (adopting her own biological out of wedlock child) and the Joan Crawford stuff, what the hell was going on in Hollywood with its adoption agencies?

      Glad to hear you're a fan of Sincerely Yours too. I saw it for the first time last year and wondered where had it been all my life.
      Thanks a heap, Deb, for your informative input and for the very, very nice compliments. I am indeed working on a writing "project", so I appreciate the encouragement!

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  8. Argyle, here. Another great choice! I saw this maybe 2 years ago on DVD and had a similar very positive reaction. I don’t care for everything of his but I think Soderbergh’s rather dry approach to things was a real asset here. You may know he’s gotten some attention for his re-edited/re-imagined versions of several classic films including “Psycho” and “2001". Maybe he reads your blog and will decide to have his way with “Mommie Dearest”! Sure could use a re-cut. Also, your mention of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy reminded me of the excellent 2007 documentary “Chris & Don: A Love Story”. Charming, funny, sad, inspiring - hope you’ve seen it. Thank you, Ken!

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  9. Argyle, again. Guess it pays to check all your links first!! Just followed your link to "Chris & Don"s wikipedia page. Of course you've seen it! Made 1940's Santa Monica seem like the most romantic place on earth. And the little animations of their alter ego's are fantastic and sweet. You are on it!

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    1. Hi Argyle
      I had to Google the news you related about Soderbergh re-editing classics. Seems a sort of goofball, film school experiment thing for an accomplished filmmaker to do, but at least he seems to get that it's an academic time-passer (waster).
      I'm glad that you liked this film and that you are familiar with the documentary "Chris & Don" which in my mind a wonderful companion piece to this film in detailing another unlikely "love story" between men with a very broad age gap, but more in the way of maturity and a genuine ability to grasp and accept that all relationships require a lot of work.
      I really loved that documentary, and have fond memories of the animated sequences you mentioned. A very sweet and very moving film.
      I don't see many gay-themed films (intentionally gay themed, anyway) but the few I have seen are encouraging in presenting a realistic perspective of life and love that is unconnected with whether or not straight audiences understand or accept.
      When I was young I saw photos of Isherwood and Bachardy and always just thought that they looked creepy during their early years, when the father/son thing was almost absurdly obvious. But to learn of their later life together was indeed a lovely part of the documentary.
      Thanks for calling attention to that particular part of the post. Maybe you'll inspire a few folks to check the movie out.

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  10. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about this movie, having trudged through the earlier Andrew Robinson TV-movie back when it first aired (and being disappointed on SO many occasions when bio films are made about people I remembered from when they were alive), but I needn't have worried. This was excellent.

    I agree with your assessment of it. My only issue with Debbie Reynolds was that the role was so BRIEF! Lee's mother meant a lot to him and I wish somehow she could have been included just a bit more. Another miner carp was the last scene of Liberace in bed. Whatever was done (makeup? CGI?) he looked unnaturally off-color and shrunken (even for a sick and dying person) and it didn't seem real to me. However, I thought Douglas was SENSATIONAL in the part and deserved every accolade (and there were plenty.) I felt it was at or near his best ever work. I guess I have to admit, though, that I hadn't seen a film of his since Traffic in 2000. I also admired the comfort level Douglas achieved with the (in this case underrated) Damon, something he acknowledged time and again in acceptance speeches. Two more things: It still blows my mind that Liberace WON a suit in which he pled "not gay!" And I loved your comparison, very apt, with Dolly Parton. I love her to death, but it's so true.

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      When i first heard of a film made about the life of Liberace, my mind too went back to those inferior films from the 70s. I honestly had little hope for the film, but after I saw some of the trailers, I thought it looked like something pretty special.

      But even as I read what I just wrote I see how it's easy to give the wrong impression about "Behind the Candelabra" to those who haven't seen it. I don't think it's really a movie ABOUT Liberace as it is about Liberace at a particular time of his life, not exactly from the perspective of the unreliable narrator Scott Thorson, but certainly from the sphere of an outsider briefly introduced to Liberace's world.
      They never show us Liberace in any scene where either Scott isn't around, or where Scott's entrance doesn't soon become an intrusion (like when Liberace and his agent are speaking alone on the sofa on Oscar night and Scot enters to silence).
      So I was never bothered by the brief time afforded some of the peripheral characters because we only get introduced to them and respond to them almost from Scott's point of view rather than Liberace's.

      That's what I thought was so amazing about the screenplay - it gives us a Thorson-eye-view of Liberace that is actually more perceptive than either Liberace or Thorson could ever be. i still don't know how the screenwriter pulled that off.
      When I looked at the film again for this post, I think it was CGI which contributed to Douglas' look at the end of the film. And if I were a betting man, I'd swear that digital manipulation contributed to the the totally smooth facial planes of 42-year-old Matt Damon in the dewy eyed early days of the Liberace courtship (something easily done, I suppose, as they were able to so seamlessly digitally graft Michael Douglas' head onto the body of pianist Philip Fortenberry during some of the Vegas performing scenes). Fascinating stuff!

      By the way, glad someone else has noticed that about Dolly Parton's appearances. I love her to death, but the woman has turned the art of avoiding answering a direct question into an artform.

      And yes, I don't know libel and slander law, but how the HELL did Liberace win an "I'm not gay!" lawsuit?!?
      Thanks very much, Poseidon!

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  11. Hi Ken – I’m back again! Thank you for such a witty, insightful, engaging review (as always). I had to contribute as I have really fallen in love with this movie. I’m in the UK so I was very fortunate to see this film in a large movie theatre. Although made for the small screen of HBO, it is an incredibly cinematic work and it was thrilling to watch it on a large screen. The gliding camera work is truly beautiful throughout and the lighting and art design all conspire to create an almost gothic experience. The use of mirrors is fascinating and there are wonderful moments where entire scenes are then mirrored themselves later in the film, highlighting the duality not just of these characters, but the lives of many gay men in the world.
    I must start by confessing that the majority of my favourite films follow the Snow White/All About Eve narrative (Working Girl, Black Swan, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Showgirls, Mildred Pierce, Imitation of Life...to name A FEW!) BTC is an exemplary work using this narrative. What is extraordinary is the translation within a biopic focusing on gay men. It’s even more extraordinary that the main creative forces (Steven S, Michael D and Matt D) are all heterosexual men. Even when dealing with such larger than life characters and situations, the tone is never moralistic or condescending.
    The performances are uniformly splendid. I find the film shares a strong kinship with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in this respect. Michael Douglas is absolutely electrifying, clearly enjoying the chance to subvert all the trappings of his macho, erotic thriller-tinged star image. He reminds me a great deal of Bette Davis in WHTBJ, playing a darker character with absolute relish. Matt Damon is very good in the lead role, conveying a wholesome innocence that will soon be eroded. I wouldn’t be bitchy enough to make a connection between Damon and Crawford though!
    Douglas and Damon are a wonderful screen couple and their lack of vanity is simply jaw-dropping. I remember the amount of praise the boys in Brokeback Mountain received for their ‘bravery’. HA! That is nothing compared to the unbridled behaviour between Douglas and Damon in BTC. Cheyenne Jackson is a revelation in a tiny, yet incredibly important role. The early scene where he eats his dinner as Liberace is introduced to Scott in the dressing room is sublime. The shot focuses on Cheyenne as he eats, saying nothing (and yet saying everything) as he rolls his eyes and chows down. This is one of my favourite moments (mirrored at the end by Damon, smoking a cigarette furiously) along with Liberace asleep in bed at night...with his eyes wide open.
    As the film rolls on, it grows progressively darker and turns into more of a horror movie. This is where the hair and makeup team really start to shine. Matt Damon’s progression from wholesome hunk into plastic surgeon’s plaything is a thing of wonder to witness. The makeup is just incredible and Damon really allows the strangeness and sadness of his predicament to ooze from him. I think what the whole team (set design, costume, hair and makeup etc) have pulled off on a tv-movie budget is just breathtaking. The script is so tightly written and the direction is so assured. It could well have been the new Mommie Dearest, and yet due to the talent of all involved, transcends every trashy label you could throw at it. The trust that everyone must have had in Steven Soderberg makes my head spin. And as I watch my DVD copy now and then, it just seems to get better and has become something very special. Will we ever see mainstream, A-List actors creating such a ‘brave’ movie experience ever again? I’d like to think so, but if not, we can always escape...behind the candelabra!

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    1. Hi Daniel
      hat a marvelous perspective your having seen this film in a theater afforded you! That and your own perceptive observations. For one, I hadn't ever really considered the whole mirroring motif as applied to the narrative before, but it's brilliant and so true.
      Likewise, I really think you delineated quite a few elements that go toward explaining why and how "Behind the Candelabra" was able to transcend the usual pitfalls of biopics.
      Everything you make note of elaborates on the fact that even were one not to be familiar with Liberace and Thorson as real people, Soderbergh and Co. have laid aside just giving us documentary facts and concentrated on a narrative. And a very strong, definitive narrative at that.
      It's very keen the way you see the connection between the Liberace?Thorson saga and the "type" of film you gravitate to.
      I think all you detail goes a long way to explaining why the film is so satisfying dramatically, and why the film seems to have so little "fat" in the way of superfluous characters or "It really happened so I have to include it" narrative leaping about.
      As far as I'm concerned, you absolutely nailed why the film worked for me...its a solidly constructed narrative with a dissident point of view and thematic through-line.
      The technical and acting elements are certainly top-notch, but none of it would have worked had the screenplay not been as sharply defined in its purpose and presentation. Thanks, Michael for an exceptional summary of why the filmed worked for you, which goes goes a long way to explaining why the film works ...period! You've got a good narrative sense of cinema! Thanks for contributing so thoughtfully to all the great comments here!

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