There is a pure, haunted Hollywood moment in HBO’s uberhyped “Behind the Candelabra.” Whether it’s “haunting” will be up to individual viewers. (I vote no.) But I couldn’t watch it without a sudden chilling sense of just how much Hollywood history went into this black comic tale of Liberace and his stormy relationship with his longtime live-in young lover, Scott Thorson.
The two lovers have had a fight. Thorson, played by Matt Damon, hastily calls Liberace an “old queen.” The camera comes on for a close-up of Michael Douglas as Liberace. His face is made of stone. His voice goes down an octave from “Lee’s” usual bright, chattering tones.
“Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?” Lee snarls at Scott. There is profound menace in it – the angry menace that comes from a major star speaking from on high in life’s cosmic scheme of things and aiming what he says at whatever presumptuous twerp happens to have ambled into his face.
In that vocal register and with that delivery, Douglas suddenly sounds in this movie exactly like his father Kirk at his most malicious. (And muscle-bound menace was one of Kirk’s cinematic specialties over a long career of playing not-very-nice guys. Kirk did hatred very well.)
So here we are watching director Steven Soderbergh’s “Sunset Boulevard” take on the one-time verboten subject of the romance of Liberace – “Mr. Showmanship” – and the young man who, at one point, actually seems flattered to be put in charge of Liberace’s wigs.
In the 21st century, with more and more states ratifying same-sex marriage, it no doubt seems insane that Liberace could once actually win a lawsuit in Great Britain against a paper saying he was gay. Such was the mammoth ignorance of homosexuality in Liberace’s heyday (fear and ignorance far outweighed hatred back then) that, at any given time, the king of kitsch piano players could count on a huge following of mature women who had no clue what his sexual orientation might be.
Liberace might wander into the stage in a white fox fur coat with a 17-foot train, (“too much of a good thing is wonderful” was his credo), but it was bad for business if his female fans could only identify with his much-mentioned mother.
But that’s how haunted by Hollywood this thing is. Debbie Reynolds (terrific – and almost unrecognizable) has a brief role as “Lee’s” mother and Dan Aykroyd has a somewhat bigger role as his agent, the man in charge of keeping the public’s heterosexual delusions alive.
Its delusional “Sunset Boulevard” overtones are deeply haunted for the simple reason that Billy Wilder’s Hollywood Gothic was, itself, haunted by great stars of the silent era – Eric Von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton.
It all crowds into that single line.
In the world that knows as much about homosexuality as we know now, it’s hilarious that the pop figure who now seems the schlock stalking horse for Elton John could possibly have gotten away with his pose – or even wanted to. But as much as we pride ourselves on sexual enlightenment in the 21st century, we’re far from it still.Which is why the stars of “Behind the Candelabra” had to have the impeccable straight credentials of Douglas and Damon. (Douglas is well-remembered for one stint in rehab that was, at the time, billed as a stint for “sex addiction.” It no doubt seemed no problem for a man who had already made “Basic Instinct” and “Fatal Attraction.”)
With all the kissing in huge hot tubs and night-time mountings in bed together (later Lee complains to Scott about never being allowed on top) of the principals, the tone of the movie would be entirely different if one or both of its stars – and authentic major stars they are – were openly gay.
So it’s still in the tradition of, say, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison in “Staircase” or Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain.”
As it is, Soderbergh and producer Jerry Weintraub couldn’t get a studio to agree to make it as an American theatrical film, star power or no star power. It is being released as a theatrical film in Europe after its recent Cannes Film Festival showing, but Americans are getting it first on HBO Sunday evening.
Now that Soderbergh has announced he is quitting the filmmaking business after a truly remarkable career since his first film “sex, lies and videotape,” one has to wonder if his and Weintraub’s inability to get this movie made as a theatrical film had anything to do with it. (My guess is that it indicated how very far indeed his interests had drifted away from those of the money-investing American film “business.”)
Soderbergh is predictably successful at the difficult balancing act of keeping the Gothic humor of the film going at the same time as our sympathy for these two men caught in utter absurdities of a time not at all long ago.
Casting Douglas as Liberace is, on the most basic level, a stunt a la Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Until, that is, we are fully cognizant how cruel the older star can be to his lover, as well as how vulnerable he is, at the end of his life dying of AIDS.
Liberace (real name Wladziu, or Walter) was a would-be virtuoso who played with ridiculously ring-covered fingers: three huge rings on one hand, two on another. He’d tell the world how much he loved his mother and skater Sonja Henie. And then he’d go backstage to his male lover of the moment.
One of whom was Thorson, who endured plastic surgery to make him look like a young Liberace and when he wasn’t functioning as an unhappy, drug-addled spouse, was apt to be put to use as a wig wrangler or chauffeur.
And all because Lee gave him matching rings and fox fur coats.
It’s impossible to watch the film and not marvel at how very good both of these major performances are here.
If it’s hard to watch it all without a tiny element of “so what?” creeping in to our sophisticated 21st century understandings of all this, it’s impossible to watch without an appreciation of how many echoing Hollywood overtones in every direction this movie has. In spite of everything, then, it’s a major piece of movie history.