Last weekend Michael Douglas took home an Emmy for his performance as Liberace in the HBO bio-pic Behind the Candelabra; this accolade might in turn ignite renewed interest in the film that was released in movie theatres in Europe early last summer, but was confined to cable in its native country. The refusal of major studios to back the project and grant it distribution in America—a rejection that came in spite of the prestige of its director and cast—has the effect of imparting a somewhat illicit, unwanted feel to the film, as if it were a gay son disowned by Hollywood.
Those of us who didn’t catch the movie on HBO and weren’t seduced into pirating it from the internet can at last see director Steven Soderbergh’s supposedly cinematic swansong courtesy of Netflix. Like Liberace’s own sexuality the film still lurks on the American periphery, sneaking from bedroom to living room, or flitting across the laptop or iPhone. I could well imagine that Soderbergh welcomes the thin sheen of outsider shame that lends his film a faint quality of provocation or even danger.
Perhaps these private venues, their curtains drawn and the kids put to bed, engender more of a frisson in the sex scenes between Liberace and his young lover, Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. The mall would be too scandalous a place to see, as Soderbergh himself put it, “Jason Bourne on top of Gordon Gekko.” In the age of gay marriage, one can pretend that this is virtual contraband only to be watched behind closed doors.
Screening Liberace’s rampant sexuality in front of the hearth returns the flamboyant piano man to his position in the center of the American home where he glittered for all those post-war decades, lighting up the record player and television set. Soderbergh’s movie self-consciously inverts the relationship between sex and music in the Liberace persona: during his reign it was the music that fascinated, even if its presentation was energized by a campy electricity that Americans enjoyed while refusing to connect that energy to the performer’s obvious sexual orientation. Now it is sexuality that is meant to entertain and even enlighten the viewer, while Liberace’s kooky pianism plays second fiddle.
Behind the Candelabra nonetheless gives us Liberace on stage before having him dive into the sack. We see one of his lavish shows through Thorson’s eyes just after he’s arrived in Las Vegas. Under the insatiable gaze of Soderbergh’s camera (as usual in his film projects, Soderbergh acted not just as director, but also as director of photography and editor) we move through the lounge as “Mr. Showmanship” does one of his well-known routines—a boogie-woogie number in which he talks to the audience while his left-hand rollicks away.
Soderbergh revels in the incongruity of a man with lots of fake hair wearing a frilly rhinestone suit with his fingers lugging heavy rings up and down the ivories playing “black” music. Liberace rendered the restive power of this style safe and enjoyable, even when the bass-line bursts into double-time gallop, the white audience eating up this utterly inauthentic fare.
After the number concludes with a burst of octaves and the trademark glissando, Liberace takes to the microphone and trots out a string harmless, queeny jokes. Ensconced in his booth with a martini in front of him, Thorson turns to his male companion, a man who has just transplanted him from his rural California life as a dog trainer and would-be veterinarian into the Vegas den of inequity, and remarks that it’s funny that the audience would like something “so gay.” The companion replies, “Oh, they have no idea that he’s gay.” This exchange elicits a furious glare from a blue-rinse lady nearby. This quick directorial touch suggests the Liberace’s audience did indeed know about his secret, but preferred to suppress the suspicion. Don’t ask, don’t tell was not invented by Bill Clinton.
With its the seventies décor, the amber glow of the lamps at the round booths, the silver-blue spotlight raining down on the gilded piano, and the dazzle of rhinestones reflecting off the black mirror that functions as the stage, this lounge tableau is the best scene in the movie. And it’s all much more elegant and compelling than it ever could have been in Liberace’s 1970s Vegas.
The whole extravagantly silly and enjoyable scene is ultimately made convincing through the magic of computer-generated imagery: Michael Douglas has Liberace’s piano playing hands. The cumbersome conventions of having to shoot a non-piano-playing actor only from the far side of the piano case so his hands won’t be seen has given way to the full package: Douglas as keyboard sensation with fingers flying across the ivories. Yet Douglas is masterful in the role not just because someone else’s hands have been digitally grafted onto his him. He captures not only Liberace’s fey delivery, but also the complexity of his tone, one marked both by a love of limelight and dampened by an after-ring of two-shows-a-day money-mill drudgery.
From here on out the film plods through the sumptuous scenery of Liberace’s life of illusion: the Las Vegas mansion with its crystal-filled and columned rooms; the hot tub beneath marble steps; driveway crowded with customized cars. Through the much younger lover’s eyes, we learn of Liberace’s desire to have children, his seemingly insatiable sexually appetite, his faked romance with ice-skater Sonja Henie, his paralyzing fear of getting old. Liberace infects Thorson with his own addiction to plastic surgery, trying to reshape his lover’s face in his own image as the biological son he never had, even while he promises to adopt him and make him his rightful heir. Rob Lowe plays the corrupt plastic surgeon with fathomless superficiality. That’s the problem: the surfaces shine in this film. It’s the substance beneath that lacks interest.
Also nominated for an Emmy, Damon is proud, vulnerable, and erratic as the kept younger man. But ultimately his character, and I suspect Thorson’s book on which the movie was based, lack any sustaining power. Unfulfilled and suffering from feelings of imprisonment in Liberace’s private palace and as the on-stage chauffeur for the entertainer’s theatrical entrances in white Rolls Royce, Thorson embarks on an express ride towards self-destruction. Cocaine and other medications stoke increasingly wild delusions. Wrecked by paranoia, Thorson is sent packing by Liberace’s lawyer, the always-excellent Dan Akroyd, who plays Liberace’s fixer with both remorselessness and a poignantly realistic understanding for the absurd necessity of hiding Liberace’s sexuality for fear that his adoring public would withhold its dollars should they find out.
Some years after Thorson’s expulsion from Liberace’s court there is a final rapprochement at the deathbed of the AIDS-afflicted pianist. With the candelabra extinguished at last, both men are seen to be caring, sensitive people who just want stability and love. Maybe the movie is a lesson in gay marriage after all, in spite of Soderbergh’s protestations to the contrary.
As the relationship between the men nears its nadir, Soderbergh’s returns us to Liberace’s on-stage music and the performer’s rendition of Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor.” Although a staple of Liberace’s repertoire, the choice is not a random one. The piece has canonic status in the annals of Hollywood macho-dom, for it is the very prelude that Jack Nicholson’s apostate pianist plays in Bob Rafaelson’s 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, where the character uses it to seduce his brother’s girlfriend at the family home on a remote Puget Sound island. The woman is moved by the emotion of the performance, but Nicholson’s hollow character tells her that he felt nothing. The real bleakness of Behind the Candelabra, a meandering film that picks lazily at a buffet of themes from plastic surgery to jealously to vanity without making a coherent plate, is its suggestion that, like Nicholson on his island, Liberace felt nothing at the keyboard. Even music, drained of all moral vitality by the machine of American showbiz culture biz, couldn’t offer Liberace solace in the prison of his own lies.