The new film from Steven Soderbergh is an interesting example of enjoying a film’s content versus its context. In and of itself, the film is a super-fun and glitzy spectacle looking into the fabulous life of Liberace. Off screen, the film is potentially a tragic symptom of a rigidly prejudiced and homophobic America seemingly out of odds with the rest of the world. Soderbergh claims that the film was ‘too gay’ for the big studios so instead released it directly to HBO to screen on television – others are resisting this accusation. Whether or not this is the case, it is clear that Hollywood is still miles behind the reality of American opinion with only Milk and Brokeback Mountain having has any real success as ‘gay movies’. Behind The Candelabra tells the real life story of Liberace, or Lee (Michael Douglas), and his tumultuous relationship to the younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
The actions of the Hollywood studio system (if true) are homophobic in the truest sense of the word: They were literally scared of the image of gay men. This film is an openly gay film from start to finish and doesn’t shy away from images and dialogue about gay sex. Regardless of what is to be made of Liberace’s more bizarre lifestyle choices, it is a refreshing message that two men can love each other as any other couple: complaining about each other snoring, lounge around watching TV together, engaging in pillow talk about the future… The representation of the more mundane parts of their relationship was what made them feel most realistic.
Saying that however, one of the requests that Lee asks Scott is that he should have plastic surgery in order to look more like him. And later on in the story, Lee offers to adopt Scott and give him a house so that he can live near him in Las Vegas. The film is based on the book written by the real Scott Thorson, which is interesting as even though the relationship doesn’t end well, the film is sympathetic to Lee and depicts his intentions as good (basically) even if they look bizarre from the outside.
Both Matt Damon and Michael Douglas give amazing performances. Damon steals the show in the scenes whilst freaking out on drugs, whilst Douglas gives a performance like no other I have ever seen of him. I found it almost impossible not to smile whenever he is onscreen. My favourite scene, which I have no reason to think isn't exactly what Liberace really believed, is a moment where Scott and Lee have just had sex and are 'pillow' talking about religion. Scott asks him how he can still be a devout Catholic and be actively gay and Lee tells him the story of how he became ill from playing to many shows around the time of the Nixon assassination. He was exhausted from playing too many shows and the material that his suits were made out of was reacting badly with his sweat so he collapsed and ended up in hospital. Here he had a vision of a nun that made him reaffirm his faith. This story is told with such tenderness and sincerity that I feel it explains a lot about American religiosity. (It seems crazy to me though...)
The costumes and locations in the film are so outrageous that they deserve acting credits in themselves. Lee describes his house early on as ‘palatial kitsch’ (which I love) and there are moments in the film where scenes begin focused on the clothes before revealing the action. The costumes are simply amazing.
This film should be a call to Hollywood that there is a market for films with gay relationships in, even if the audience lies in the more accepting and progressive European market…