Friday, Aug. 23, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

By David Luhrssen
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When the major studios refused to fund his Liberace picture, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh went instead to HBO. His production, Behind the Candelabra, drew a huge audience on cable earlier this summer. It will be out in September on Blu-ray.

Behind the Candelabra is exactly the sort of character driven, intelligent screenplay that once was Hollywood’s bread and butter—apart from bedroom scenes of Liberace and his paid companion Scott Thorson, taboo until recently. After a few moments, you forget that the man behind the piano is actually Michael Douglas in silver glitter and ruffled cuffs; the actor mastered Liberace’s voice and mannerisms, his unfading smile and glistening eyes. Matt Damon is perfectly cast a naïf in early scenes and disappears into the putty faced, drug-addled lackey (in a ridiculous Sgt. Pepper chauffer suit) Thorson became. The palatial kitsch of Liberace’s world is well constructed, as is young Thorson’s earth-toned, humdrum lower middle class life in the late ‘70s and the denim and disco gay bars where he explored his sexuality.

Liberace was the Queen of Queens and Douglas obviously relishes the sheer excess of it all. Memorably dramatized, the relationship between Liberace and Thorson veers from caring to coldness, emotionally supportive to ragingly jealous—a complex of addictions in a tacky if costly Sybaritic setting. The irony of Liberace’s life is touched on: he was the most flamboyantly gay performer of his era but his audience refused to believe it. “People only see what they want to see,” he says. Even as the AIDS epidemic advanced, Liberace clung to his claim of heterosexuality, explaining that he “just never found the right woman.”

Why wouldn’t a Hollywood studio touch this story? In 2013, the problem has less to do with homophobia than a fixation on gargantuan, CGI productions that ostensibly play well to millions of slack-jawed moviegoers in “developing markets,” where nuances of language and cultural specificity are trumped by spectacle and muscle-bound stories. Over the past 20 years cable channels have increasingly become a refuge for directors and screenwriters with something more to tell than another tired tale of superheroes saving the planet. Nowadays, we’d find Casablanca on Showtime and Some Like it Hot as an AMC series.

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