10 June 2013
London

Steven Soderbergh’s fantastic Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, provides a definitive glimpse of the aesthetics of life in the closet. And some really scary plastic surgery.

Behind the Candelabra, in addition to being a wonderful film about the secret gay life of entertainer Liberace, has a backstory that speaks to the enduring power of homophobia in contemporary America. The project, over a decade in the planning, was famously rejected by Hollywood’s major movie studios because, according to Soderbergh, it was considered “too gay” to appeal to general (ie., non-gay) audiences. It eventually found a home as a TV movie on HBO, the American cable network responsible for innovative, risk-taking shows like The Sopranos, Sex & the City, Six Feet Under and True Blood.

Soderbergh has spoken since about his pleasure at knowing Behind the Candelabra will probably attract a bigger audience on TV than it ever might have in cinemas. That may or may not be the truth, but it’s certainly a damn shame that Americans didn’t get a chance to see the film in cinemas. Here in Europe, Behind the Candelabra got a cinematic release after premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and it’s still playing two months later, convincingly discrediting the studio execs who told Soderbergh it wouldn’t fly. There’s a nice irony about a film about a closeted gay man that doesn’t get made because studio execs exhibited the same nervousness about homosexuality that probably contributed to Liberace’s closetedness. Though I don’t normally indulge in America-bashing, it is nice to be on the right side of the “I told you so” discussion on this one, and to be part of an audience groundswell that tells Hollywood we’re ready for more stories about gay life.

Having had the benefit of the cinematic Candelabra experience, I can also testify that this absolutely has to be seen on a really big cinema screen. To my mind, it’s the only way that the gorgeously over-the-top recreations of Liberace’s “palatial kitsch” aesthetic can function fully as integral parts of Soderbergh’s narrative.

For those poor unfortunates who, unlike me, weren’t raised on a diet of Liberace LPs or Sunday afternoon TV specials, Behind the Candelabra, or indeed the fact of Liberace’s life and career, may come as something of a shock. An entertainer of unashamedly baroque style, Liberace put the capital K into kitsch, and both the Es into Excess (and, if we’re playing alphabet soup, the C into Closet). Liberace’s shows and public persona were about guilt-free luxury, limitless extravagance, a winking, self-knowing sense of his own ridiculousness, and a huge sense of fun at being able to entertain – all qualities captured beautifully in Michael Douglas’ performance as Liberace, which walks a fine line between campy gay stereotype, lounge lizard and damaged child. Above all, Douglas captures the sheer fun of Liberace, as a person and as an entertainer, even if it does peel back a few dermal layers to reveal the lies and self-deception underneath that million dollar smile.

The screenplay is based on a memoir by Liberace’s ex-boyfriend Scott Thurson (played by a marvellous Matt Damon), who met Liberace as a teenager and had a five-year relationship with him, in which he played a complicated and often quesy combination of roles as lover, son, brother, chauffeur and enabler to the Great Man. The story is, unsurprisingly, pitched sympathetically towards Thurson’s viewpoint, though it doesn’t pull any punches portraying his descent into full-scale drug and alcohol addiction.

“Too much of a good thing is wonderful”, Liberace says at one point, and it’s a mantra that Soderbergh and his production team embrace whole-heartedly. There’s an almost overwhelming level of glittering surfaces, gleaming golds and general visual excess in this film, that’s not been seen since the good old bad old days of Dynasty. Soderbergh and his team recreate Las Vegas cabaret shows faithfully, and don’t shirk on a single opportunity to showcase the bling: the fur coats, the diamond-encrusted rings, the bejewelled pianos, Liberace’s campy commentary, and of course, the candelabra sitting in pride of place on the piano, his signature stage prop. Then there’s the insanely over-decorated mansions, stuffed with Greek statues, animal furs, antique rugs, Italian marble floors, a baby grand piano in every room, and wonderfully bad taste ceiling frescos and oil paintings of Liberace and his mother. “It’s palatial kitsch”, Liberace explains, as he ushers the starstruck Scott around one of his homes, before enticing him into a gold-plated jacuzzi with a winning smile and a huge bottle of champagne.

There’s a wry sense of humour to it all, that never sinks into cheap shots or open mockery – suggesting, I think, the seriousness with which Soderbergh views the bling as a critical part of his storytelling. A filmmaker normally known for a certain visual austerity in his direction and aesthetic, in this film he embraces Liberace’s “palatial kitsch” as the key to unravelling his protagonist’s complex psychology and the tragicomedy that was his life.

In Behind the Candelabra, there’s very little in the way of visual sub-text. Everything you need to see is on the glittering, diamante-crusted surface – which is to say, there’s little of substance really there at all. Through most of the film, Soderbergh creates a flat, two-dimensional frame, keeping everything in the foreground and using deep focus sparingly. This creates a sense of intense visual claustrophobia, echoing the lovers’ emotional co-dependency. Liberace’s wealth and more-is-more aesthetic becomes an anaethetising security blanket in which he can retreat from and fortify himself from the real world, just as it becomes a gilded cage for Thurson, who struggles and fails to maintain his grip on his own identity.

All those glittering surfaces also create an elaborate visual joke about life in the closet. Behind the Candelabra is, fundamentally, a film about a gay man pretending to be a straight man, performing a public persona that plays into every recognised stereotype of “gay” as a swishy, effeminate, extravagently cross-dressing circus freak. Liberace’s career appears to have been a lifelong game of Chicken with his audiences, to see just how much Gay he could get away with, under the sable-lined guise of his showbiz performances. His flamboyant form of camp pushes some interesting buttons, setting him apart as a fabulous exotic beast for the whom the normal codes of American masculinity don’t apply. The screaming over-the-topness of the set and costume design serves to underscore the idea of a life lived both in and out of the closet, and a sexuality both hidden and brazenly exhibited. We’re left to conclude for ourselves whether the joke was on Liberace’s cluelessly adoring audiences, or on Liberace himself, who became a prisoner of his own making.

As the film goes on, the sets and costumes seem to scream louder and louder at the characters – and the audience – to wake up and notice the big gay diamante-encrusted elephant in the room. The tragedy of Liberace’s life, at least as imagined by Soderbergh & Co, is that no one had the courage to confront what was hiding in plain sight in front of them. This becomes especially true of Thurson, who again and again acquiesces to Liberace’s demands, ignoring his own instincts and settling back to take his place among all the beautiful trinkets Liberace has collected around him. Male passivity isn’t shown that often in American films, and Damon does a remarkable job of portraying Thurson’s naivity, stupidity and unwillingness to be a protagonist in his own life, while still making him sympathetic. The only flaw in Damon’s performance is that he’s far too old to play Thurson, who was 17 when he met Liberace – though any actor willing to wear a Farrah Fawcett hairdo and be ass-groped by Michael Douglas in a pair of swimming trunks deserves a round of applause.

Behind the Candelabra has been critically praised as an honest depiction of a gay marriage, and has become a somewhat unlikely poster movie for the burgeoning gay marriage movement in the States. This works to a certain extent, and Soderbergh seems as comfortable showing the day-to-day banalities of Liberace’s and Thurson’s life as he is tracking the Gothic twists of their relationship. The marriage theme turns up again, this time more painfully, in the story’s final act: Thurson, now estranged from Liberace, begs his lawyer to negotiate him a bigger settlement payment on the grounds that the couple had shared a “marriage”. Sadly for Thurson, he receives no recognition from the State or from Liberace, who both refuse to acknowledge the relationship. I don’t think Soderbergh intended Candelabra to be a film about the legal injustice faced by same-sex relationships, but Thurson’s raw deal certainly gives audiences room for pause. Give or take a few grand pianos, a truckload of diet pills and some Tiffany lampshades, and it could be Kramer vs Kramer. Well, almost.

Personally I prefer to read Behind the Candelabra as a glorious freak show, featuring a fantastically fucked up co-dependent nightmare relationship in the tradition of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?The Skin I Live In and Love Is the Devil. Though the film seems in no doubt about the depth of Liberace’s love for Thurson, it’s a bond deeply entrenched in narcissism, domination, manipulation and a vampiric lusting after youth and beauty – or as a friend of mine says, the stuff of all good long-lasting gay relationships.

The most jaw-dropping scenes come from Liberace introducing Thurson to his plastic surgeon Dr Startz, wittily played by Rob Lowe in a funny, creepy, scene-stealing performance. Lowe’s face is a Permatanned Fu Manchu mask – the skin stretched so tightly that his eyes are slits and his mouth set in a permanent ghoulish grimace. Dr Startz gives Liberace a similarly radical facelift, leaving Liberace unable to close his eyes when he sleeps, and so becoming the star of an unexpected kind of horror film.

Even more alarmingly, Thurson undergoes surgery, at Liberace’s request, to look more like a younger version of Liberace, completing the cycle of narcissism and co-dependence that characterised their relationship. Soderbergh and his actors pull off the near-impossible feat of playing these scenes for laughs, and as a horror story, and somehow also as an expression of the lovers’ affection for each other. It’s this openness to multiple and contradictory emotional currents that makes Behind the Candelabra such a fine portrait of a marriage. That being said, Soderbergh doesn’t spare the gory details of the plastic surgery, including a bloodied shot of Dr Startz inserting a silicone pellet into Thurson’s chin, to give him the dimpled jawline he’s always wanted. It’s also made very clear that Thurson’s willingness to submit to the crazier of Liberace’s wishes is a symptom of his own wish to disappear or at least remake his true self – which as we see, doesn’t end well.

What’s most intriguing about Behind the Candelabra is that there’s very little evidence of the cruel homophobic world that drove Liberace and Thurson to act out such extreme behaviours in their search for validation. Everyone in Liberace’s inner circle, including his mother (played by an unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds, sporting a huge prosthetic nose) discreetly looks the other way and does his bidding. The sad truth of Liberace’s and Thurson’s lives was that although they were successful in creating a hermetically sealed universe in which they ceased to experience rejection, their demons were always inside them, and therefore inescapable. To that extent, it’s one of the truest portraits of gay self-loathing put on the screen.

To his credit, Soderbergh never judges his characters, and the finale, in which Thurson, attending Liberace’s funeral, has a fantasy of Liberace performing a celestial cabaret show, provides a startlingly upbeat ending, given the ugliness of much of what’s passed. Those Hollywood execs were indeed a pack of foolish closeted old queens for not giving Soderbergh the money to make Candelabra as a film. Thanks to his persistence and the support of HBO, it’s a twisted, thought-provoking love story that we can finally get to see, and one of the best films of the year.

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