Sunday, August 24, 2014

Out of the closet and Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas is mincing across my TV screen in Behind the Candelabra, the HBO teleflick in which the Oscar winning star of Wall Street and husband of Catherine Zeta Jones plays Liberace, the pianist known to his intimates as Lee. To call Liberace a “pianist” is a bit of a stretch. He played piano, and I think those who are better capable of judging musicianship than I would say he played well, but his skill at tinkling the ivories was not what made him famous.

“Flamboyant” is the word usually tossed around when Liberace’s name comes up, but it doesn’t go far enough. It would be more accurate, if a little rude and certainly politically incorrect, to say he was a flaming fruit. Long before anyone talked about coming out of the closet, Liberace’s door was ajar if not wide open. He stepped out of his closet and brought his sequined wardrobe with him, but drew the line at admitting he was homosexual. He successfully won lawsuits against newspapers that dared to print the truth even though everybody – everybody except, perhaps, the more na├»ve middle-aged women who comprised his fan base – knew he was gay. Like “flamboyant,” “gay” doesn’t go far enough either. Liberace was the embodiment of the once popular homosexual stereotype: a lisping, mincing queen. He didn’t crossdress in the usual sense, but what kind of man wears floor-length fur coats, sparkling rings on every finger, or appears on stage wearing hot pants while twirling a baton?

Why would anyone want to make a movie about Liberace almost three decades after his death?

Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar winning director of Traffic, is the auteur who did the unfathomable and made a movie with HBO based on the trashy memoir of Liberace’s final lover, Scott Thorson. It was Thorson who kicked down the entertainer’s closet door in 1982 when filing the first same-sex palimony suit against the star who denied having anything but a professional relationship with Thorson. When Liberace was hospitalized in 1986, his illness was said to be due to his watermelon diet. Finally, when he died, the medical examiner refused to accept the death certificate, and demanded an autopsy. It was then that the world learned that Liberace died from complications related to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the scourge of homosexuals that had claimed beefy matinee idol Rock Hudson a year earlier.

But why a movie about a campy figure unknown to most of the modern audience”

It can only be to titillate an audience curious about that gay sex. There’s very little insight in Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay, no real explanation as to why the world’s most blatantly obvious homosexual would deny the truth about his sexual proclivities for so long. We see him courting Thorson who moves into Liberace’s gaudy mansion where the male servants treat him with scorn. There’s a scene in which the two engage in anal sex (though no anus or penis appears on screen), and one at a triple X bookstore where Liberace visits a gloryhole. It’s a very seedy contrast to the showman’s otherwise luxurious life.

You have to hand it to Michael Douglas for having the guts to play this bizarre figure. When his father, Kirk, played Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured Dutch painter who, by all accounts, was heterosexual, John Wayne allegedly asked him why he bothered to play such a “pantywaist.” Imagine how the Duke would have felt about Kirk’s son playing Liberace? Douglas is good and seems to be enjoying himself. So does Matt Damon as Thorson. It’s Rob Lowe, however, who seems to be having the best time as a grotesque doctor who prescribes drugs to help Thorson lose weight. Wearing a hideous wig and a too-tight shirt, Lowe always seems to be stifling a laugh.

That’s what the audience is likely to do, too, when watching Behind the Candelabra.

© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks