I was never keen on Liberace (Lee to his friends) or Michael Douglas (Mike maybe?) The latter seemed to try too hard to play the tough guy image in a succession of so-so Hollywood thrillers, but to my mind was always less than convincing.
So, what a surprise to find him playing a real life character far beyond the normal Douglas comfort zone, in the form of a flamboyant gay musician who rose to fame and adulation at a time when being openly gay in Hollywood was probably the best way to kill your career stone dead – which is why so many Hollywood stars tried to act out the part of a family man for the media while leading a secret life on the side. It’s said in the movie that the audience has no idea he is gay, though looking at the show you wonder how they could ever see him any other way – such was the naivety of Americans in the 50s, 60s and even beyond.
That Liberace was gay and camp with it mattered not one jot to me then nor now, but the ego, excess and extravagance, the fancy white suits and mink coats for example, always repelled me. It’s a question of style and to me the vulgarity of his brand of kitsch “showmanship” added no value. But the razzmatazz sure won over audiences – and at least he could genuinely play, albeit many classics souped up for people to hum, supplemented by cheesy banter inbetween numbers. Lee – I’ll assume he’s my friend – says here, “I LOVE to give people a good time” – and he wasn’t just referring to the audience.
However Behind the Candelabra was made to demonstrate the dark side of Liberace’s moon, the vulnerability, the tenderness of his passion, his dependence on the love he would never declare in the public domain, the extravagance lavished upon pretty boys he would love and leave, the need for reassurance, the need for sex, everything. The is the story of the sordid reality behind the glitz and glamour, indeed behind the candelabra – and arguably of the price of fame. Some hetero men might feel uncomfortable at slightly graphic gay sex scenes, but essentially it is love that he sought to assuage his Catholic guilt, and love that is graphically portrayed.
As a project this sounds more like an exercise in preventing an ageing Douglas from being typecast, but to give him huge credit he not only delivers the look and feel of Liberace but also nuances of personality you don’t generally anticipate in a Douglas performance. In other words, when a director like Steven Soderbergh is on his case, Douglas will put out, take risks, show his credentials rather than engaging in acting-by-numbers. One of these risks appears to be playing boogie woogie piano, which may well be miming but it was very convincing miming.
Another is looking sad and pathetic – and I suspect that under normal circumstances there would normally be a contractual clause for any hiring Studio that Douglas must never under any circumstances look sad and pathetic. Perhaps losing the hair and faking cosmetic surgery was pushing boundaries, as were some of the more extreme costumes, but the death of AIDS was probably as far as Douglas has ever gone on screen.
That said, if you think Douglas had it bad, pity poor Matt Damon, here playing the love interest as Scott Thorson. Damon is manipulated on the operating table by a very dodgy surgeon to look like the young Lee, high cheek bones and all. Here is Damon taking diet pills and losing more weight than was good for him. This is Damon as a grotesque mannequin, dressed in tight chauffeur’s outfits and fur coats to please his man. Damon, coked up and vomiting, enraged as he is ditched and choked on the settlement – the film covers his unsuccessful quest for $100m palimony in a little detail, focusing primarily on the negotiations and the offer that drives Thorson round the bend. The money was one factor, but worse was the realisation that he meant so little to the man who had started out as his lover but was putatively his adopted father.
The reality of it all was a slightly strange but in some ways conventional love story. True, it took place in the context of more opulent kitsch than you can shake a stick at, the sort you can buy with more money than taste, bu it’s a story of a gay marriage long before legal gay marriages were ever deemed possible: a couple smooching tenderly then bickering by turns, but always their relationship overshadowed because Lee was the showman, the megastar, the millionaire and the ego that needed constant feeding. Outrageous? Lee tried to be, but in the end melancholy and pitiful was much closer to the mark.
But ultimately Thorson meets Lee at the latter’s deathbed for a fond reunion and for Lee to say he didn’t want to be remembered as just another old queen with AIDS. Whether that deathbed scene between Liberace and Thorson actually took place is not verified, though for Thorson, on whose memoir this movie has been based, it is the key valediction to their relationship. It is not the funeral that he remembers but a fantasy of Lee in all his finery flying through the air to his raised platform, playing and speaking, strangely, The Impossible Dream, while dancing girls and boys in white performed beneath, apparently influenced by a 56-night run at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City not long before the star died.
Rock Hudson and his death from AIDS is referenced earlier in this movie, the first major celeb to die from the dreadful illness and far from the last, but the fact that he was outed posthumously does not go unnoticed by Lee. But by the time he pegs out from an AIDS-related illness it’s all too late; the news could not be hidden and the death certificate drawn up by Liberace’s personal physician was overruled by the Coroner’s office and the truth revealed for all the world to hear. Not that it helped the Daily Mirror recover the libel damages paid for implying Liberace’s sexuality. British libel laws are draconian and do not attest to the truth, only to what can be proven. As Thorson points out in the movie, if they could have pictured Liberace with his dick out in gay clubs it would have been a different story. C’est la vie.
All this is not what you might expect from Soderbergh any more than Douglas or Damon, but it works best as the bittersweet love story perhaps more so than as a biopic. As a biopic it is moderately affectionate over its subject, but not excessively so, such that Lee’s flaws are airbrushed away or to become a hagiography, but it is of course selective in order to support its main thesis. But then, as Kenny Everett famously put it in his sketches, and as you can imagine Liberace saying too, it’s all done in the best POSSIBLE taste.