Features Screen Published 27 June 2013

Behind The Candelabra

A group review of Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic.

Stewart Pringle

Stewart Pringle: It’s very National Enquirer, that title. Supermarket tabloid shlock. It’s the sort of thing they’d have been writing about Tulisa last week, if she had a candelabra. And for all of its style and all of its Michael Douglas I felt that kind of grimy, bitter, lowest common denominator bullshit was pretty much all you got with Steven Soderbergh’s film. Soderbergh’s a good film-maker; he’s clever and he’s talented and he makes what’s ultimately low-rent tittle tattle look pretty slick and important, but it’s tittle tattle all the same – empty of everything except some dessicated fodder for our desire to see the great and the good brought low.

Not that Liberace was great, as such, and he may not have been very good either, but waste time with the bitter Scott Thorson’s assessment of that? Thorson’s book has been a by-word for cash-grab kiss and tell for almost quarter of a century, and if there’s a film to be made about Liberace it’s not the source material I’d choose. Liberace wasn’t great, perhaps he could have been but he sold his talent out to be greatly admired and to be greatly wealthy. That’s a brilliant story. That’s a tragic story, and given that it plays out in rhinestone theatres and endless gilded dressing rooms, it’s one that speaks to a greater truth about the destructive power of fame and fortune, but it’s not here. Soderbergh has sold that out, too, for an almost geometrically predictable story of a wholesome country boy corrupted and discarded by the vampire-like Liberace.

You can amuse yourself for twenty minutes or so by pretending that this is actually a sequel to Tony Scott’s The Hunger, and Douglas is eventually going to stuff the stultifying Matt Damon in a coffin in the attic, but as the reels tumble on and Damon’s still alive and Soderbergh’s still furiously polishing Thorson’s turd, even this begins to pall.

Tracey Sinclair: I pretty much disagree with everything you’ve just said, much as I like how you’ve said it. That was the film I feared we’d get, but I don’t think it was the one we did. I didn’t feel it was a story of Liberace corrupting the innocent country boy – more a story of how fame and money itself corrupts everything, and is further twisted by the need to hide one of the key facts of your life, at a time when it was OK to be outrageously flamboyant but not actually gay. How fame and money and secrecy distort all relationships, from Liberace’s with his mother, with his sexuality, with his lovers, and also with his talent itself. We see how quickly it corrupts, how fast Scott fell into the habits of the rich and famous, treating people like things to be disposed of at his convenience, and I don’t think that reflects any better on him than it does on Liberace.

But beneath all of that I felt there was actually quite a sweet story that I found quite moving. In discussion with a gay friend of mine, she asked ‘is it a straight person’s gay movie?’ meaning, is it either neutered into a sex-free sexuality where everyone is very camp but no one ever even kisses, or alternatively portrayed as a lurid, debauched shagfest where we get to be outraged by the excesses of The Gays, and I thought it was neither: there was a sense of a genuine (albeit doomed and dysfunctional) relationship there, and I loved the small scenes of affection that allowed you to see the mundane side of it, the sitting on the sofa getting fat together that most actual relationships consist of. I thought both lead performances were deeply sympathetic, without forcing you to take sides.

I also felt that there was a deliberately crafted sense of Scott as an unreliable narrator, and that we were meant to see that: from the protesting too much about gay sex (no porn or penetration for him, thanks – why, he’s almost straight!) to the wishful thinking of an ending where they were the ones who made one another happiest despite how spectacularly their relationship had imploded. I didn’t believe you were ever meant to take sides, or be uncritical of the version presented from Scott’s perspective.

Also I can’t hate any film that has that performance from Rob Lowe in it. I just can’t.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind The Candelabra. Photo: HBO

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind The Candelabra. Photo: HBO

Richard Patterson:  I very much agree with Tracey and her assertion that the film represents excess breeding excess – and I think that Soderbergh’s expert portrayal of the cyclical nature of Liberace’s onstage/backstage love/sex objects gave the film part of its pulpy feel, and ultimately its ick factor. That seedy quality to the film comes from its being based on Thorson’s tell-all. As a depiction of what happened behind closed doors, from the perspective of someone who both loved and fell out with one of the most famous entertainers of his time, it’s impossible to trust the movie’s contents as truth. I think Tracey’s comments on Thorson’s being an unreliable narrator are spot on.

Viewing the film from a gay perspective, I think there’s also something really fascinating about the cultural “moment” when this film has been released, especially at this pivotal time in the development of gay rights (while we’ve been having this conversation, DOMA was struck down in the US, meaning same-sex couples married in states where gay marriage is legal can receive federal benefits, but this marriage-centric conversation has been especially ripe for several years now).

Gay proponents of gay marriage are often quick to equalize gays commitment-wise with Mr. and Mrs. Smith behind their white picket fence, but this film, to its credit, presents a more complicated view of relationships — where people can come together, can be monogamous, can then subsequently bend those rules together, can disappoint one another, can break up, and can still be the loves of one another’s lives (at least for the purposes of the film’s plot). For those within the gay community who fear that marriage equality might homogenize gay relationships, I think some of the thrills (whether perceived or actual) inherent in the drama of a relationship like Liberace’s and Thorson’s is part of the impetus behind that feeling — and I don’t think those complexities are likely to disappear; they just might perhaps be smoothed over somewhat. If we think about real life in terms of Aristotlean plot arcs, if we take away the obstacles, the overall trajectory of the journey takes a less dramatic course, as there’s less to push up against — but any group accustomed to marginal status finds its own ways to keep things interesting. Plus, straight culture, which dominates movies, music, and TV, hasn’t suffered from a lack of drama.

In assessing the film, Manohla Dargis in The New York Times comments that “this is finally a story about what was in, many respects, a marriage”. If I recall correctly, others involved with the film have made similar comments. I’m not sure these comments are to be taken seriously – if Liberace and Thorson’s relationship in the film is like a marriage, that’s one seriously fucked up marriage -but it does demonstrate our desire on a critical level to wrestle thematically with how the nature of gay relationships has evolved and is evolving over time. How would Liberace’s life have been different if he’d lived in a world where marriage equality was a reality? We’ll never know — perhaps he’d still have stayed in the closet to appease his adoring female fans. But taking a glance backward certainly sheds light on issues today -and I think that kind of historical contextualization is part of what makes great art and great films.

Portrait of a marriage. Photo: HBO

Portrait of a marriage. Photo: HBO

Alice Saville: I find Tracey and Richard’s perspective really interesting — especially considering things post DOMA. It never occurred to me to see the film as sensitive portrait of a marriage-type relationship. It felt clear from the start that Scott is one of many, arriving hot on the heels of a screaming row with the last court favourite, carefully mirrored by Scott’s own exit in favour of a bright young thing from the 1980s equivalent of Glee. There’s a constantly shifting, faintly poisonous power dynamic at work: Liberace has the mansion and the money, decides what Scott does and how he looks, but Scott has youth and sexual attractiveness on his side, his only bargaining chips to get what he wants from Liberace. The film revels in the creepiness of Scott’s plastic surgery, making him Dorian Gray to Liberace’s picture.

And while Liberace’s attempts to adopt Scott could be seen as a comment on marriage, I suppose, as a way to create a family tie. There’s something uncomfortable there too, though, in the way it draws attention to Scott as a 17 year old orphan, rather than an equal partner in the relationship.

I’m not a massive fan of the traditional biopic, cradle to grave, the precocious child succeeded by the glamorous, differently-featured adult by the painted-on wrinkly, croaking out last requests. This film did a good job of finding a neat, nicely paced little story, with a satisfying logic of its own. It definitely feels like Scott’s story though, not Liberace’s. There’s something dreamlike to it, as though its a crystallised prelude to an interesting, or at least happy life. There isn’t a cheery “Scott got into veterinary school and settled back home” coda to see the film out. A quick Wikipedia hunt suggests he never found much of a place for himself, in and out of trouble with the police for theft and drug use. The film seems to be settling a kind of tawdry finery on his story, giving him a kind of dignity that he lost by, as Stewart says, kissing and telling on such an infamous scale.

That said I thought the aesthetic was really nicely done, especially for an HBO film that didn’t get a proper cinematic release in the US -Soderburgh spoke out about Hollywood calling it “too gay” to fund, which is a bit of a reminder that the post Brokeback Mountain landscape still isn’t that hospitable to gay stories, even one which is, as Tracey says, oddly sexless. There clearly wasn’t the budget for bustling crowd scenes and broad sweeps up Vegas boulevards so the film flits back and forth from sparkling stage to Liberace’s mansion, the pair like bees gathering nectar to bring back to an already cloying hive.

Richard Patterson: That’s an excellent point that you bring up regarding Liberace’s promises to adopt Scott Thorson and Thorson’s subsequent palimony suit. These are the attempts, before DOMA even, of both parties, to circumvent the laws of the time both to join together under the law (even, somewhat creepily so, as legal guardian and adopted son) and to assert ownership in shared assets upon the dissolution of a union, legally recognized or not, in Thorson’s case. Essentially, what has progressed between these two men’s time and now has been based on the same legal quandaries, which men of lesser means (or with less nagging daddy issues) might not have seen fit to pursue previously.

I also agree with you that the movie skillfully selects the timeframe in Liberace’s life that it will cover and does so nicely, however, to counter the assertion that the movie was sexless, I found it fairly sexually frank. If I recall correctly, there was at least one gay sex scene, as well as some fairly frank sexual talk between Liberace and Thorson regarding their roles in bed.

Before we bring this to a close, I think it’s important to single out the film’s magnificently over-the-top production design – especially with regards to Liberace’s opulent abode, replete with statues and elaborately painted ceilings, which is very faithfully rendered (at least in comparison with this real-life video filmed within his mansion – well worth a look for its camp value – as is this interview between Oprah and Liberace, which is even better in its entirety and is especially amusing for the close-ups on the bemused, mostly older, presumably straight female audience members).

The film’s lighting design is similarly spot-on, most scenes bathed in a golden hue that conjures up the aesthetic of perpetually sunny, perpetually woozy 1970s California. And we can’t finish without mentioning Debbie Reynolds’s seamless disappearance into the role of Liberace’s mother Frances, whose performance culminates in a fabulous scene where she’s playing slots at a machine in her son’s own house. A brilliant scene in an interesting and clearly somewhat divisive film.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.



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