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.
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.
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|
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|
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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|
|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
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.
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