Behind the Candelabra
starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Paul Reiser, Rob Lowe and Debbie Reynolds
screenplay by Richard LaGravenese
directed by Steven Soderbergh
Based on the book by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, Behind the Candelabra tells the story of Las Vegas showman Liberace’s relationship with Thorson in the final decade of his life, 1976-87. I remember Liberace, a flamboyantly gay showman, and I was worried when I rented this film because I didn’t want too much gay flamboyance, especially if it was badly acted by straight actors. Gay flamboyance is a ridiculous affectation and my concern was too much gay! That seems to have been Hollywood’s concern, too, reflected in the years it took Steven Soderbergh to organize the financing for this movie.
Too much of a good thing is wonderful.
- originally from Mae West
Interestingly, many of Liberace’s fans - many of them elderly women - remained ignorant of his sexuality even though it was blatantly obvious to the rest of the world. That speaks to the culture of Las Vegas entertainment and the people who patronized the casino nightclubs, dinner theaters, etc. It’s a statement about Liberace’s audience plus the contemporary culture’s disposition towards over-the-top entertainment glitter and homosexuality that his sexuality remained a question mark until after his death in 1986, confirmed by Nevada medical examiners as AIDS-related. Actor Rock Hudson’s death due to AIDS complications in 1985 was a watershed event in American gay history, AIDS awareness, and popular culture, and Liberace can fit into that context. The 1970s were a particularly decadent, overboard, outrageously unguarded decade whose excess might have contributed measurably to the explosion of AIDS on 1980s America.
But the film is not about AIDS or American homosexuality. It is a biopic of this one particular man, almost legendary in his own time, and those other things factor into it only in their proper place. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon both deliver fantastic performances with a difficult subject. I was concerned with the effect of hearing Michael Douglas affect Liberace’s effeminate voice.
Liberace was a fantastic queen. “Excess” is a good word to describe him. But he was also a clever businessman. He ran a business of piano recording, Las Vegas performances, concerts, movies and at one point even his own TV show, with supporting staff, agents, lawyers, family members and assorted hangers-on. Liberace was a brand. The famous candelabra sitting atop his piano was his symbol. So he might have been as queer as a $3 bill and he might have been mightily foolish. But he wasn’t a fool nor an idiot, either.
I was so surprised to see Debbie Reynolds appearing as Liberace’s mother, Francis. I had to re-wind and watch her again. I absolutely did not recognize her. Even now I don’t recognize her.
And finally, what the hell is it with bubble baths in the hot tub and champagne from tall flute glasses? Is there something about bubble baths and gay culture, or is that just Soderbergh’s vision?