I have to be honest with you: before watching Behind the Candelabra, I didn’t have any idea who Liberace was. Call me ignorant, call me not gay enough, or call me too young. Calling myself too young at the age of 30, on the other hand, is so gay that I will have to go with ignorant after all. Yesterday a film came out in Berlin that might feel inappropriate for this column and you might ask yourself why I want to talk about it. It got tons of good press already, it has Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in it, and it so glamorous that it stands out from the selection of small films that I usually discuss. But apart from being a glamorous, fabulous and insightful travel into the times of “Walter” Liberace, Behind the Candelabra is an astonishing testament of a film that was made for television and its queer discourse.
The independent film industry is in a deep crisis and when you hear that even Steven Spielberg himself had to fight to get his (admittedly very boring) Lincoln on the big screen, you have to be afraid about the future of independent film culture altogether – and we are only talking about the USA here. Spike Lee is raising money with Kickstarter for his new film project and indie-icon Jim Jarmusch had to shoot his last film mostly in Germany because he couldn’t get it financed abroad. Behind the Candelabra made it to the Cannes film festival shortly before its broadcast on HBO, a cable network you might know from such TV shows as Sex and the City and Girls. Getting a film into theatres costs a lot of money and even though in the age of digital projection the cost of film copies is not a huge factor, getting distribution is still the major problem for most unknown or “smaller” filmmakers. In this case, though, we are talking about Steven Soderbergh. Yes, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven Steven Soderbergh. Him.
Behind the Candelabra, as some critics suggested, might have simply been “too gay” for a cinematic release. Looking at films like Brokeback Mountain or Milk or strolling through the gay interest sections at your nearby video store might give you the false impression that everything is fine with being gay in Hollywood. This, however, is far from being so. Behind the Candelabra shows an almost random shot of a newspaper headline that says how screen legend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985. This little detail is a revealing clue to a history of sexual denial that still persists today. Like Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins and many others, Liberace died of AIDS, a fact which eventually revealed their well-kept secret sexuality.
Behind the Candelabra in that sense is not only a warm and respectful portrait of a famous showman, but also a brilliant account of how the entertainment industry has always shied away (and still does) from confronting sexualities that are not part of their norm.
The first thing Matt Damon’s character remarks when he first sees a Liberace show in Las Vegas is how something so gay can attract such a wide audience. In fact, Liberace – with his tanned skin, his over-the-top white fur coats, his facelifts, and his enormous jewellery, is such a gay cliché that you automatically assume a homophobe invented this person. Throughout his career, Liberace filed a number of lawsuits against people who claimed he was gay. Maybe the fact that he never came out but just let people believe he was a very flamboyant straight man (I mean, please…) was the very thing that made him so popular and beloved. Many Hollywood actors (and footballers, and politicians, and…) are still in the closet or living with fake wives and girlfriends because they know that coming out as gay or bi-sexual would dramatically lower their market value, ruin their reputation, or cost them their careers. Now, THAT’s the reality we are talking about.
Seen in that light, Behind the Candelabra is not only a gutsy and highly enjoyable period picture about what’s going on behind the straight curtains of a famous closeted showbiz queen, but it’s also a very political and important lesson about the powerful mechanisms of sexuality that govern people who stand in the limelight – or under a candelabra for that matter. Matt Damon plays Liberace’s new lover Scott wearing a 70s-blow dry hair-do and an angelic face that will soon be altered by a plastic surgeon. Michael Douglas plays Liberace as a powerful but sensitive man who can buy love and determine people’s fate. Both actors are simply mind-blowing. Their great performances aside, it is simply heart-warming (and hilarious!) to see the ease and fun with which Douglas embraces his role on and off the screen. When Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal made Brokeback Mountain, they gave an interview in which they said they couldn’t watch their sex scene on screen and felt uncomfortable. After the film came out, they would only be photographed with their female partners and gave the entire (pretty conservative) film a bitter aftertaste as far as homophobic discourse is concerned. Douglas, on the other hand, gay-danced into the studio of the Graham Norton Show after the film premiered in Cannes, had his picture taken with famous drag queen Gloria Viagra at the Berlin premiere, and accepted his Emmy for the part by saying that he should share the award with Matt Damon asking, “do you want the top or the bottom?” Douglas, who achieved fame by portraying the victimised straight man who suffered from determined, emancipated, and successful women in films like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, got a lot of shit from feminist scholars about the detrimental effect of his films on the women’s liberation movement. When we see him now – old, naked, and getting butt-fucked by a young stud in his villa – these images are not only fearless, but also pretty groundbreaking. I can’t remember ever having seen an A-List Hollywood star so fully and effortlessly dissolving into a gay character with such passion and such commitment. This time: no bitter aftertaste, but sheer pleasure on screen and beyond.
I watched Behind the Candelabra at an almost sold-out preview screening at the Kino International for its monthly gay Monday screenings called (no kidding) MonGay. As soon as the first credits rolled, a champagne bottle popped and the crowd became frantic. I don’t like the gay label too much, but when the gay experience meets the cinematic experience like it did here or at the Germany-wide Gay Film Nacht screenings, the idea of community and togetherness makes sense – at least for a night.
Behind the Candelabra (Liberace – Zuviel des Guten ist wundervoll), USA 2013, 118 min.
director: Steven Soderbergh, cinematography: Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews), actors: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, languages: English, distribution: DCM
Berlin screenings* (original with subtitles): Hackesche Höfe, International, Rollberg Kinos, Odeon; (without subtitles): CineStar Potsdamer Platz
*I saw the German trailer and I find the dubbing homophobic, so I only list the originals here