Friday, June 14, 2013

Flamboyant Disguise: Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra

Last Sunday night I saw Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in a position I never imagined I would see. They were in the throes of passion, with each other! These two action film heroes portrayed Liberace and his chauffeur lover Scott Thorson in Steven Soderbergh’s biopic Behind the Candelabra. Based on Thorson’s memoirs of the same name, this made for HBO film was a brilliant evocation of a more innocent era, when people just didn’t believe what was staring them in the face. In one of the first scenes, Matt Damon (as Thorson) attends a Liberace show in Vegas and comments to his date, “It’s all so gay!” and his friend says, “The ladies don’t think so.” As Thorson looks around, sure enough, it’s confirmed, the ladies are in love with this flamboyant piano player.

That’s how it was. I had the opportunity to meet Liberace one day in 1974 (three years before Soderbergh's film begins). He was in town for a concert at Hamilton Place, but he had just released his autobiography and the bookstore where I worked hosted a signing. I was present to provide crowd control. Together with a tough ex-cop from Atlanta, I herded the women past Liberace’s desk where he signed each book with a personal message and an extravagant signature. He was charming, and spoke intimately with each person. Well, it seemed intimate. They all loved him. The bodyguard showed me his can of mace and shared stories of how he had to use it when unruly crowds tried to touch the star, or rub his carefully coifed head. Liberace seemed smaller than he had on TV. His voice slightly whiny, his manner affected, his casual clothes only casual in the loosest sense, a velour suit with shiny trim. A vision, everything his fans could want.

Michael Douglas captures the essence of this peacock with a masterful performance, surely destined for an Emmy nomination. In fact, Damon could be in line for a nomination himself considering the courage both these studs showed in making the film. The sex scenes are subtle but you clearly know what’s going on. Soderbergh says of the actors, "Michael, he was just fearless. They both are. The movie just doesn't work if they don't both literally join hands and jump off the cliff. It's intimate stuff, even if it was a guy and a girl. But for a lot of people it'll be hard to see Jason Bourne on top of Gordon Gekko." Hard? Yes. Convincing? You bet.

"the essence of the peacock": Michael Douglas
So much of the film seems over the top, and yet there is no other way to tell this story. Liberace lived a life that was over the top. His costumes, his show, his personality were all over the top. Douglas and Soderbergh capture it all. The scenes of Liberace’s home, a ‘stately pleasure dome,’ are mind-blowing. It is described online as “a mixture of Chinese, George III, Louis XV, Baroque, Rococo, Regency, Napoleon III, Art Nouveau” and Soderbergh’s set designer put it all in there. The excess is extraordinary.

Did Douglas look like the pianist? Yes and no. He had the hair-do, which turned out to be a wig covering “Lee’s” bald pate. He had the voice. He is thinner, not that Liberace was heavy, but he looked softer somehow. I remember the owner of the bookstore wanting to present Liberace with a gift to commemorate his visit to The Steel City. She thought a decorated hardhat was just the ticket, so she commissioned a local artist to create one which arrived…covered in carefully painted snakes and sparkles. It was too much, even for Liberace. Quickly she took another hat, had it covered with purple velvet and presented it. The man was thrilled, but for the photographs held it well about his bouffant. Douglas captured that look.

Damon? He looked buff in his sequinned speedos and blonde hair. Thorson wanted someone to love him, Liberace wanted a son, a lover, a friend, a companion; it should have worked out, but the excess became too much. Drugs, jealousy, insecurity all banded together to destroy their perfect life. Thorson was evicted from the fast lane. Today he resides in a Washoe county jail charged with burglary and identity theft. (His identity was stolen years ago by a man who promised him the world.)  Damon is perfect as Thorson, the lost child looking for a home.

The interesting part of the film is how it deals with Liberace's ‘gayness’ and how his sexuality was hidden at the time. The morning after the premier I had coffee with a bunch of workmates who are all younger than me. None of them could believe that people in his day didn’t know that Liberace was gay. They only knew of him after he was dead. After the revelations about HIV/AIDS (Liberace died of AIDS related problems in 1987) and the blonde chauffeur whose pictures were in Rolling Stone magazine, it became an accepted fact. But before that, in the more naïve era of the '50s and '60s, the folks just believed what they were told. When the Daily Mail published an article in 1956 which described Liberace as "…the summit of sex—the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love," the pianist sued, testifying in court that he had never taken part in homosexual acts. He won the suit, and $22,000. He famously sent a telegram proclaiming, “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.” He fought another case against Confidential magazine in the USA and settled, but the women loved him and believed him. He loved his mother, and that was good enough for them. Oh, and he could sure play that piano.

Behind the Candelabra is a brave film, marked by solid performances all round, and a story that was waiting to be told. If it seems too glitzy maybe it’s because you just don’t remember Liberace at all.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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