I was dubious when I heard (for the first of many times) that Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra couldn’t find studio backing because the subject matter was “too gay.” Sure, there aren’t too many “gay” movies these days (and, if they do have gay characters, they’re typically played by straight actors), but with the critical success of films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, the idea that Behind the Candelabra was too explicit for movie theaters seemed more like Soderbergh calling out Hollywood homophobia for a movie that simply didn’t interest studio heads. It turns out Hollywood executives are also calling bullshit on Soderbergh’s claims.
When Mother Jones writer Asawin Suebsaeng quoted Soderbergh’s claims that the movie was “too gay” to get a theatrical release in his review of the HBO film, at least one Warner Bros. representative — Mark Fritz, a director of theatrical sales and distribution — responded on Twitter that the allegations were false.
Soderbergh, of course, gave more background to Mother Jones that seemingly downplays his original cries of homophobia:
In Soderbergh’s view, the reason you can’t see Behind the Candelabra in American theaters has as much to do with financially — though not politically — conservative executives as it does with the palate of the American movie-going public. “It’s all economics,” he says. “The point I was trying to make was not that anyone in Hollywood is anti-gay. It was that economic forces make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to think outside of the box…If audiences were going in great numbers to see stuff that was not down the middle, then everyone would be doing that…[Hollywood is] merely responding to what people are telling them they want to see!”
That is a completely different take than Soderbergh originally gave. In this most recent account to Mother Jones, it sounds like the film was simply passed around Hollywood and didn’t find a home. Back in January of this year, Soderbergh told The Wrap in a very clear message the reason why the film couldn’t find its $5 million funding: “They said it was too gay. Everybody. This was after Brokeback Mountain, by the way. Which is not as funny as this movie. I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us.”
That is, of course, part of the buzzy marketing campaign behind the movie’s premiere on HBO: here is a film that was considered too hot for theaters! And now it’s on a cable network! Can you believe it?
Well, can I? Not really. The movie, at the end of the day, wasn’t very gay. It featured two fairly tame sex scenes between its male leads (they were about as graphic as what we saw in Brokeback Mountain). Is it more likely that movie studios didn’t want to fund a movie about Liberace? Probably! There aren’t many desirable demographics, after all, familiar enough with Liberace, who at his most successful — over half a century ago — was still a schlocky entertainer who appealed to older women. Even the star power involved (both Damon and Douglas, as well as Soderbergh), it seems, wasn’t enough to fund the production, not because it was “too gay” but because Liberace isn’t exactly someone a lot of moviegoers are talking about these days. (William Friedkin, who directed two of the gayest films in the last 50 years, made a similar comment in my interview with him last week: “I imagine it was disappointing to Soderbergh to not have the film in theaters, but he said, and I quote, ‘No studio would release it because it’s too gay.’ I find that weird. I think that people are so past that now… I very much admire Soderbergh, but when you hear stuff like that, it discounts the quality of the piece itself, which may be a reason why distributors didn’t want to touch it — not because it’s too gay.”)
It’s speculative to say whether or not the film would have been as successful in theaters as it was on television — it was the most-watched HBO film ever, pulling in 2.1 million viewers. Is it unlikely that the film wouldn’t have made much money if it received a theatrical release? That’s speculative. But let’s compare it to the two most recent major gay-themed films: Brokeback Mountain earned $83 million in North American during its theatrical run, while Milk earned $1.4 million on its opening weekend in just 36 theaters. Both of those films had much higher budgets. Is it possible that, years later, executives really believe Behind the Candelabra’s gay subject matter too risky, or is it that Liberace was not seen as a big enough box-office draw? I’m guessing it’s more of the latter.
But what’s really more alarming is Soderbergh’s assertion that Hollywood is homophobic — that is, until after the film premiered on HBO. It’s only now that it’s being seen as a success that he’s changing his tune a bit. The major studios certainly aren’t in the business of making films for niche audiences just for the fun of it, and there are major problems with gay-themed films put out by major studios. But perhaps Soderbergh shouldn’t create a gay outrage over the fact that his “final” film didn’t get the studio reception he had hoped for. After all, his last two theatrical releases featured gay elements (the erotic thriller Side Effects, which featured a lesbian sex scene, is a more specific example; there’s also the gently homoerotic Magic Mike). More than anything, Soderbergh’s “too gay” comments seem like a case of a straight man co-opting the personal struggles of others as a marketing tactic.