The Extraordinary Liberace Deserves Better Than Textbook Gay Biopic ‘Behind the Candelabra’


“Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” announces Michael Douglas as Liberace as the entertainer, recently deceased, is lifted from a Las Vegas stage, surrounded by feathers, rhinestones, and shimmering lights. It’d be a believable line if Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, which premieres on HBO this Sunday, were actually any good. Unfortunately, the director’s self-described final film is a standard run-of-the-mill TV biopic: schlocky, formulaic, and cheap. The tackiness could be seen as fitting for a film about Liberace, but the performer would much rather go for diamonds than plastic and glass.

It’s been heavily reported that Soderbergh intended, with the bankability of his A-list stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, to release the film theatrically. He found that most producers passed on the project, based on a memoir by Liberace’s companion Scott Thurson, because it was “too gay.” It’s a shame that Soderbergh had to move to cable TV; not even HBO’s prestige added much caliber to this production. Despite its two Oscar-winning leading actors, the rest of the cast is filled with C-list TV actors; one doesn’t immediately imagine Dan Aykroyd, Paul Reiser, or Scott Bakula in a serious film, and these three only add to the campy, cheap quality of the production. There’s Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother; unrecognizable under a prosthetic nose and a Polish accent, one imagines why anyone went to the trouble to stunt-cast her (obviously, the angle here is that, like Liberace, Reynolds was a Las Vegas mainstay) when she’d go unnoticed if her name weren’t listed in the credits. Rob Lowe is also along for the ride as Liberace’s plastic surgeon, officially adding “comic squinting” to his repertoire.

While Michael Douglas delivers a terrific Liberace impression, and there are a handful of surprisingly tender and believable moments between Douglas and Damon, it’s the latter who has less to offer in the film. There’s the immediate ridiculous notion that Damon, a 42-year-old actor, is playing a character that ages from 18 to 22 during the course of the film (perhaps if Soderbergh had gotten to make this movie ten years ago, the casting would be a bit more understandable). And it’s hard to take him too seriously while he’s under that laughable, stiff blond wig.

Overall, the couple is a comically stereotypical pair of gay men. There’s the very obvious pop-psychologizing of what brought them together: Scott Thorson is desperate for a parental figure, and Liberace needs a younger male companion to mold into his own image. When the former goes through a variety of plastic surgeries to transform himself into a carbon copy of the latter, the film doesn’t manage to fully encapsulate the destructive nature of the relationship. There’s too much sparkle distracting the viewer from Liberace’s faults (which, of course, is what Liberace did in real life). There’s never the notion that this is indicative of only Liberace’s lifestyle and not the lifestyle of gay men, as Liberace displays all of the worst qualities commonly associated with the gay male community: the obsession with image and youth, the extravagant spending, the promiscuity. That he dies of an AIDS-related illness seems less like biographical truth and more like the old-fashioned cinematic trope that the homosexual monster that preys on the naïve youth must be punished for his sins. To find anything indicative of the broader gay experience in Behind the Candelabra is to look at the Real Housewives franchise for an understanding of femininity.

The film makes the viewer love Liberace, however, up until the point where he ends his relationship with Thorson once he outgrows his boyish charm and is replaced with a younger model. It’s then that Thorson is the hero: he watches with shame and disgust as Liberace shares his love for older women in a sad, public expression of his heterosexuality. Liberace’s worst offense, if the tone of the film is to be believed, is that he refused to come out publicly about his five-year relationship with his lover.

The pervading homophobia at the time that kept performers from coming out is hardly addressed, and that the film features only one openly gay actor (Cheyenne Jackson, who doesn’t even get a line) says something about the current homophobia in the entertainment industry that keeps male actors from coming out. Some critics might consider the sex scenes between Douglas and Damon to be progressive, but the film as a whole is simply is Hollywood business as usual. The gays are campy and fun — that is until they die of AIDS — and the straight men that portray them on film are commended for their bravery. Meanwhile, the gays in Hollywood sit silently, watching as their stories are told for them.