Behind the Candelabra – The Unbearable Queerness of Being

In a recent NPR interview with Terry Gross, director Steven Soderbergh, whose Liberace bio-pic, Behind the Candelabra, premiered on HBO on May 26th, discussed an abandoned project dedicated to the life and work of Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was the Nazi-era German filmmaker who made propaganda films for Hitler, was admired by Mussolini, and continues to be considered a genius and a visionary whose “aesthetics” are hailed by “many film histories … as outstanding.”[1]

Soderbergh’s version of Riefenstahl, he explained, was entirely without moral judgment or commentary; he took no position on Riefenstahl’s ability to “ exalt Nazi ideals with breathtaking skill” even while living and working “in a self-created vacuum.”[2]

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2004-0022,_Polen,_Truppenbesuch_von_Leni_Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl visiting Nazi troops in Poland.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0022 / Burmeister, Oswald / CC-BY-SA.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Soderbergh takes an identical approach to the life and death of Liberace and, in specific, to Liberace’s odd and troubled relationship with Scott Thorson.

Nowhere in Behind the Candelabra is there much in the way of commentary regarding gay life in the late 1970s and early 1980s, on an existence in which a regimen of Quaaludes and demerol was considered a “California diet,” or on the merry-go-round of pretty, pretty boys who slept with, lived with, and were then summarily abandoned by Liberace, the lone inhabitant of an almost literal island of Dr. Moreau (Liberace used plastic surgery rather than vivisection to create his beasts).

And no wonder Liberace was lonely there. He joined nearly unimaginable excess and wealth with the despotic, neurotic power to employ and deploy, consume and dismiss other human beings who, as Soderbergh has him quite rightly bewail in the film, “only want me for what they can get out of me.” How tragic the rich are.

liberace-thorsonIndeed, there is much to be gleaned from realizing that Thorson – who famously (and unsuccessfully) sued Liberace for palimony after their five-year relationship ended – considered himself Liberace’s “son and lover” while Liberace considered him an employee. When you’re paying everyone around you, how not to question whether they really love you for your own, dear self. And how not to hate them a little.

Virtually none of this is in Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, however, a tedious, sanitized, self-congratulatory propaganda piece for the proposition that queers are basically just so darn decent and, only slightly more subtly, that life would be so much fairer if same-sex couples could get married.

To start with, Matt Damon as Thorson is too old for his part by something on the order of three decades. Thorson was 16-1/2 years old[3] when Liberace (then 57) plucked him from his vagabond life and installed him as chauffeur, animal trainer, stage prop, phone-answerer, bodyguard, and concubine.

Damon, conversely, is 42. Perhaps thankfully, there is no attempt in the film to make him look like a 16-1/2-year-old (or a 22-year-old, Thorson’s age at the point Liberace has his thugs usher him out the door), but the choice of a much older actor for the part of Thorson was surely no accident. That’s the first thing Soderbergh’s film glosses over: the fact that Liberace liked faintly thuggish, “straight-acting,” boys in their late teens. He liked them a lot, and he liked a lot of them. Thorson was neither the first nor the last.[4]

Anyone who is disgusted by the idea that 16-1/2-year-old adolescents have sex with men who are 40 years their seniors is going to be disgusted anyway (and is doomed never to understand Hollywood), and the righteously indignant will argue in righteous indignation that Liberace “took advantage” of a poorly educated, somewhat simple-minded, star-struck adolescent.

But we ought to be able to withhold judgment on those issues at least long enough to say this: Thorson was 16-1/2 when he and Liberace met. That’s a fact. Soderbergh’s attempt to transform Damon-as-Thorson into a paunchy ex-boy who (generously speaking) appears to be on the down slope of 30 is the director’s first and most dishonest act of propaganda.

It’s one thing to tell a gay love story. It’s another to admit that your protagonist is an ephebophile.

But there are far more serious moral and ethical questions at play in Behind the Candelabra, and Soderbergh assiduously ignores them all. Presumably he did so because, like Riefenstahl, Liberace ignored them all.

We might begin with what is often called Liberace’s “double life.” Liberace wasn’t merely in the closet (like many celebrities of his day – and of ours). To the contrary, had it been possible to put a patent on closetedness, Liberace would have gone down in history as the Microsoft of the trademark. Over decades, he constructed a Great Wall of denial that went far beyond press-release disclaimers and (successful) libel lawsuits.

He diligently paired himself with one female Hollywood star after another, wrote chapters of pure fiction in his autobiographies (including stories of unrequited hetero loves and, famously, of his deflowering by an older woman in his own adolescence), and raved on about the “woman he pined for his entire life,” the Norwegian figure skater, Sonja Henie (who conveniently died in 1969).

But Soderbergh isn’t interested in the impact of the gay closet, nor in the more troubling impact of the AIDS closet. But for a coroner’s inquest, it turns out, the truth of Liberace’s death from AIDS in February 1987 might never have been known: Liberace’s PR machine, starting with the personal physician who falsified Liberace’s death certificate, deliberately attempted to hide the cause of his death.

Liberace died 16 months after the AIDS-related passing of another Über-closeted-but-everybody-knew Hollywood celebrity, Rock Hudson; in Hudson’s case, Hudson had at least had the guts to acknowledge his diagnosis shortly before his death, though he insisted on the fiction of a tainted blood transfusion. As a historical matter, his announcement did more than a little good for the world by casting a cleansing light on the callous “AIDS? What AIDS?” policies of the American government under then-President Reagan and, as the despicable phrase goes, “giving a human face” to the AIDS epidemic for the benefit of a public that was largely convinced it didn’t know any gay people.

But if Behind the Candelabra doesn’t talk about urban gay male life in the 1970s/1980s, if it doesn’t talk about closetedness or ask to what extent terms like homo/hetero/bisexuality hold any significance, if it doesn’t talk about the moral implications of lying about having AIDS at a moment Liberace-October-1981-1857450when transparency would have helped, if it doesn’t talk about boy-love, if it doesn’t explore what it means to compensate people (with homes, cars, drugs, and jewelry, if not actual cash) for being your partners and then to discard them when you’re bored, and if it doesn’t take on the one truly interesting question about Liberace – how did millions of people watch him camp, drop G-rated double-entendres, and flaunt a kind of rococo high-queen drag that probably doesn’t even have a name (though British journalist William Connor infamously described Liberace in 1956 as a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love”)[5] and yet manage to convince themselves he wasn’t gay …

… well, if Soderbergh doesn’t deal with any of those things, then what is the point of Behind the Candelabra? Taken solely as film, it is slow, aimless, emotionally catatonic, and painfully acted, so art doesn’t seem to be a motivation. (Rob Lowe, as the pill-pushing plastic surgeon, Jack Startz, a 1985 suicide, is the only actor in the film who understands he’s appearing in a farce.)

The point, quite obviously, is propaganda. Gay-normalization propaganda for the proposition that the Liberace/Thorson saga is actually not about sex, drugs, and power, but about nice, sweet, gay love. The kind that triumphs in the end, despite misunderstandings and adversity. Just like straight people have in Hollywood films. See? Nothing different here. Nothing queer.

Indeed, Behind the Candelabra has been studiously stripped of gayness, and that’s no mean feat under the circumstances. Liberace and Thorson incessantly trade bitchy barbs about sex, we see them making out and, later, we watch as Thorson joylessly screws Liberace in the ass in a scene that was nearly too macabre to watch. Damon and Douglas are uncomfortable, the characters are uncomfortable, and the only reason for the existence of those excruciating 20 seconds must be that Soderbergh suspected he’d be acclaimed for his “bravery” in depicting (sort of) buggery on television. With poppers.

As Samuel Johnson once said about a dancing dog, “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find that it is done at all.” You can almost hear Soderbergh high-fiving himself.

But perhaps what we’re supposed to see in Behind the Candelabra is a sort of homage: Soderbergh’s attempt to out-Liberace Liberace. After all, this is the director who wanted to make a film about Riefenstahl without addressing the morality of her support of Nazism (on the theory that she never addressed the morality of her support of Nazism, which, a thoughtful person might agree, is as much as to say that she did).

In a story about a man who did just about everything other than have the word “FAGGOT” implanted on his chest in rhinestones, and who still managed to convince people he wasn’t gay, Soderbergh gets two famous straight actors to fake unhappy sex right in front of you and still tries to convince you that Liberace was something other than a neurotic, avaricious, narcissistic sex addict and that Thorson was something other than a hustler (with a heart of gold?), drug addict, and petty criminal. (Thorson went on to be a witness in that indispensable 1980s D-list-celebrity venue, The Wonderland murder case, and spent a noteworthy portion of his post-Liberace life in and out of jail for things like drugs, robbery, and credit-card theft; as of this writing, he’s in again.)

For precisely those reasons, Behind the Candelabra is dishonest, revisionist, and voyeuristic. It’s frat boys kissing each other in an “I’m so straight I can make out with another guy” dare. It’s heteros in gayface. It’s the erasure of homosexuality beneath a wash of “universality.” It’s what happens when Hollywood gets into the assimilation business.

Soderbergh wants his television sleight-of-hand to be about love. Or humanity. Or civil rights. Or something. But it’s not. It’s just dogs, dancing.


[1] “Leni Riefenstahl.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 May 2013. Web.

[2] Maslin, Janet. “Just What Did Leni Riefenstahl’s Lens See?” Rev. of  The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni RiefenstahlNew York Times 13 Mar. 1994: n. pag.  Web.

[3] “Larry King Live: Interview With Scott Thorson,” aired August 12, 2002 – 21:00. CNN.com – Transcripts. N.p., 07 Feb. 2001. Web.

[4] Soderbergh also makes Thorson gayer than Thorson apparently considers himself to be. Although Damon’s character informs Liberace that he’s bisexual, the real-life Thorson told Larry King in 2002 that he was then, is now, and has always been heterosexual. Because no attraction to a woman is even hinted at in Behind the Candelabra, what Soderbergh gives us to support Thorson’s claim to bisexuality is his refusal to be fucked, an act he says he finds “repugnant.” Well, if you’ve never seen a straight boy try and fail to understand how (homo)sex works, now you have. More troubling than Soderbergh’s squeamish naiveté is his referencing of the damaging and archaic equation that being penetrated = femininity = greater homosexuality, while refusal to be penetrated = masculinity = greater heterosexual cachet. In any case, Soderbergh apparently felt that a nominally bisexual Thorson would be comprehensible and, at least in broad strokes, familiar to a very mainstream 21st-century audience, but that the concept of a man who had sex with another man for years while continuing to consider himself heterosexual was much too much like real life for television.

[5] The Connor article, as a result of which Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror for libel in 1959, is a gem: “[Liberace] is the summit of sex—Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She and It can ever want. I have spoken to sad but kindly men on this newspaper who have met every celebrity arriving from the United States for the past thirty years. They all say that this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love has had the biggest reception and impact on London since Charlie Chaplin arrived at the same station, Waterloo, on September 12, 1921. This appalling man—and I use the word appalling in no other than its true sense of terrifying—has hit this country in a way that is as violent as Churchill receiving the cheers on V-E Day. He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief, and the old heave-ho. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation. Nobody since Aimee Semple MacPherson has purveyed a bigger, richer and more varied slag-heap of lilac-covered hokum. Nobody anywhere ever made so much money out of high speed piano playing with the ghost of Chopin gibbering at every note. There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.”

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Posted on 28 May 2013, in Cinephilia...and Cinephobia, Queer ... Plus All Those Acronyms, Saying Class Out Loud, You Can Always Count on a Little Homophobia. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think a good part of Scott Thorson’s problems may lay in the strong possibility that he may have inherited his mother’s mental illness (bipolar disorder). For this reason, it’s really hard to tell whether anything Thorson says about, for example, his sexual orientation is the truth, an outright lie, or an untruth that Thorson really believes is true. Regarding his sexual orientation, I suspect Thorson is probably predominantly sexually attracted to men but feels genuine affection for certain women.

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