Who would have thought a movie about Liberace’s sex life would be boring? No, really; and please don’t pretend you have no interest in the subject. You might well have foregone the 242 pages of Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, the 1988 memoir by Scott Thorson, the pianist’s former lover, paid companion, onstage chauffeur, and eventual palimony plaintiff. But why wouldn’t you spend two hours with the HBO movie version, Behind the Candelabra, which stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, as Lee and Scott, and is directed by Steven Soderbergh? On paper, it promises to fulfill the famous Liberacean creed that “too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Moreover, 20 years ago this would have been a Fox movie-of-the-week starring Lee Majors and Ian Ziering, so you should not only be interested in the HBO film but grateful to it.
Soderbergh, of course, has considerable talents. Even his worst movies are swimming in great camerawork and editing. The first 40 minutes or so of the new one, which premieres this Sunday, May 26, provide that heightened, even giddy sense you get when a film is firing on all cylinders, when you realize the person steering actually knows what he or she is doing. Take an early scene in which Thorson is picked up in a bar by an older man, played by Scott Bakula, who will later introduce him to Liberace. The music, the clothes, the slightly dream-like cutting, Bakula’s porn-star mustache, the exchange of libidinous glances between the actors, their amusement at how easy both the attraction and the assignation are, were so evocative of a now distant era—the1970s—that I found myself smiling simply at the sheer rightness.
That pleasure only increased with the introduction of Liberace, first seen vamping onstage in Las Vegas for an audience of middle-aged squares. For a split second you might think Douglas is going for broad caricature—not unfairly; Liberace was himself a broad caricature in public—but behind not just the candelabra but the nasal, Paul Lynde drawl, Douglas’s Lee proves as vulnerable as he is vainglorious, as compassionate as he is monstrous, as conflicted as he is self-indulgent. In other words, he’s a recognizable human being, even if he’s dressed in sequined fur capes the size of mainsails, or, at home, in hideous embroidered caftans. His attraction to handsome, teenage Thorson is immediate; Thorson takes longer to warm up, but the film—with a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, Beloved)—depicts their sexual chemistry as real and their relationship as genuine, loving, and tender, not simply transactional, although it’s that too. Both actors do some of their best work ever here, and viewers hoping for an all-shrieking, all-shoe-hurling backstage campfest akin to Mommy Dearest or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (and I will admit I was one of those viewers) will be disappointed. But what you get in its place is so much better and richer, at least until it isn’t.
I would like to pause and pay tribute to Liberace, a ground-breaking figure in both show-business history and gay culture. He’s often dismissed as a mediocre pianist, wasting what talent he had on light classical pieces, polkas, and “Kitten on the Keys.” But give him credit for finding a way to be both out and closeted at the same time. He brought middle America one of its first tastes of camp, and his elaborate, gender-tweaking if not quite bending costumes are clear precursors to Elton John’s and David Bowie’s glam-era peacockery, and I’m pretty sure there’s a strand of Liberace’s DNA in Madonna and Lady Gaga as well.
And yet, while Liberace’s act reads as cartoonishly gay to contemporary audiences, he was a matinee idol for millions of straight women in the 1950s, when he had an afternoon TV show on ABC; there’s a wonderful clip in Behind the Candelabra of an actual 1950s song, “When Liberace Winks at Me,” sung from the point of view of a panting schoolgirl, with lyrics such as: “I start to shake./I start to shiver./Every fiber in being seems to quiver./It’s the feeling very close to ecstasy./That’s what happens when Liberace winks at me.” (A later verse has the singer feeling “like a royal queen,” so perhaps someone was in on the joke. See the original here.) Liberace never publicly acknowledged his sexuality, pretending to swoon over Sonja Henie for much of his life and successfully suing the Daily Mirror for slander, in 1956, after a columnist described him as a “quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” (Remember that phrase the next time someone insists that a nasty, celebrity-obsessed tabloid press is a new-ish malady.) Even after his death from AIDS in 1987, Liberace’s publicist denied that he’d had the disease—two years after Rock Hudson’s death had begun to shatter the taboo.
With so much going for it as history, as tragedy, as comedy, and considering the talent involved, why does Behind the Candelabra sag and grow dull? A few thoughts: Even viewers who don’t know the particulars of Lee and Scott’s breakup will sense where the film is heading. Lee, like most narcissists, is only interesting to a point and then becomes wearisome; Scott, alas, is never really that interesting—a nice guy, not smart, not dumb, who maybe wants to be a veterinarian or possibly a songwriter. The second half of the film devotes too much time to the couple’s squabbling, which is identical to the squabbling of couples in less rarified circumstances—about money, about work, about time commitments and jealousy, about the frequency and particulars of sex. One more thing: any film loses narrative tension when you find yourself vaguely rooting for one half of a couple to get out even as he’s slowly being dumped (Scott, if that’s not evident).