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There's Some Wild Stuff Going On "Behind The Candelabra" Review

It might be difficult for anyone of a younger generation to see footage of Liberace and understand how someone, anyone, could possibly not know that this man was gay. So much of his persona was so rooted in excess and glamour (to say nothing of his alias as the Glitter Man) that it now seems a touchstone for homophobic demonization, if not for gay male identity. But yet, he wasn't: in an America where the mere hint of being gay was enough to usher personal ruin, he managed to be the highest-paid entertainer in the world, flaunting his identity while somehow making it palatable to the cultural center. This contradiction is the heart of Behind The Candelabra, and what gives it unique purpose in a media landscape increasingly open to LGBT material. While it is excellent as a period piece and as a showcase for performers Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, it is most valuable as a portrait of gay America as the wild west, where coming out of the closet could be fatal but staying in could be worse.

By the time Scott Thorson (Damon) met Liberace, he was already Liberace; the single-named (like Elvis or Madonna) force of nature whose concerts and memorabilia were a cottage industry unto themselves. Scott has ambitions of becoming a veterinarian, but little else, so when the two are introduced through a mutual friend (Scott Bakula), there isn’t much reason for him to resist all that Liberace is willing to offer him. Their romance is undeniably sweet (and opulent; a whole season of Behind The Music could be built around the furnishings in Liberace’s mansion), probably because the old man never pretends to be anything other than a sugar daddy, to the extent that he legally adopts Scott and has a plastic surgeon remold him in his own image.

The fault lines in their relationship are primarily due to the elder’s celebrity status (throughout, Liberace is possessed with the same volatile mixture of vainglorious hubris and emotional neediness that it’s so easy believe that all celebrities have), but Soderbergh is careful to underline that they are also generational. Gay men of Liberace’s generation rarely knew anything but invisibility, having no voice in popular culture to identify with and no political constituency to enforce his needs. Within that invisibility, however, he found great freedom. Of the two, he is far more comfortable with sexual openness once associated with gay America, and announcing his sexuality through dog-whistle to other gay men (even if it was inaudible to most of those buying his tickets). Scott, on the other hand, came of age in the years following Stonewall as part of a larger, more visible community. Though never comfortable with his sexuality in the same way (through most of their relationship, he refuses to bottom), his vision of what the two of them could be is far more traditional and closer to what one might imagine as a marriage.

Each, in their own way, inhabits a closet in which they hide from the world, from themselves, and, finally, from each other. Like any protective space, it keeps them safe from the scrutiny of the world, but it also warps them, skews their perceptions so that they unable to engage with any incoming signals, benevolent or otherwise. It’s probably too easy to say that they might have been able to work out had they been able to live more openly, but it’s not hard to believe that would have had an easier time of it had they people to rage at other than each other, or that when it did end, they would be as ruined as they were. Behind The Candelabra might give you as revealing a look at Liberace as you’d ever like to see, but its ultimate wisdom is that a prison is a prison, no matter how many grand pianos you scatter around it.

SPECIAL FEATURES

There's a "Making Of" featurette, in which principal talent reviews the legacy of Liberace.

"Behind The Candelabra" is on sale September 17, 2013 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Richard LaGravenese. Starring Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe.

Sep
17
2013
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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