Its strange that in the 70's the world seemed to suffer from a collective gaydar malfunction. The UK for instance had popular entertainers like Frankie Howerd, Larry Grayson and John Inman who were as camp as a row of frilly, pink tents yet they weren't seen as homosexual.
Society felt more comfortable placing them in the less threatening "eccentric" category to make them more digestible to unsophisticated mainstream audiences. The performers in question had no intention of upsetting the applecart of their sexuality as gay bashing was still an operational hazard.
In the early 80's the spectre of AIDS ravaged the gay community and the public were forced to face facts: homosexuals existed and the public needed to take their heads so out of the sand and deal with it. It's a pity it took a devastating disease to change public perception but sadly we didn't always live in such enlightened times.
Steven Soderburgh's Behind The Candelabra is the biopic of Liberace and deals indirectly with such weighty issues. The larger than life showman was a huge star for the best part of three decades yet kept his homosexuality secret, even going so far as suing and winning a case against the Daily Mirror for even implying he was gay.
The self proclaimed "One man Disneyland" was a flamboyant entertainer and pianist whose kitschy showmanship made Elton John look like Nick Drake. He stage shows were an overdose of furs, sequins and gold that reflected his love of excess in both his professional and personal life.
Soderburgh picks up his story in the 70's with Liberace (Michael Douglas) ensconced in Las Vegas and selling out shows to an exclusively female audience. Matt Thorson (Matt Damon) is a naive country boy from California (whose tell all book the film is adapted from) who, once introduced to Liberace, is quickly seduced by his champagne lifestyle and soon becomes his assistant and lover.
Life, for a while, is great. Their relationship allows them both to fill a void (Liberace, despite his wealth, is a lonely man and Thorson is missing a father figure) and the blur of Jacuzzis, champagne and sex glosses over the rest.
Thorson: How do stay so hard for so long? Liberace: I've had implants
However once the honeymoon period is over the egos, superficiality and jealousy poisons their relationship and results in dramatic consequences for them both. Liberace's penchant for younger boys doesn't help matters.
Liberace: I have an eye for new and refreshing talent. Thorson: You have an eye for new and refreshing dick.
You know you are in for an entertaining couple of hours when a movie's opening scene involves Quantum Leap's Scott Bakula, sporting a lustrous handlebar moustache, cruising for sex in a gay bar. The film is at times very funny and at other times cringe worthy and I don't just mean the sight of Matt Damon in a sequined thong. Non-gay viewers of a certain generation may struggle to sit through some of the more risqué scenes.
Having two straight actors playing two raging queens is something of a novelty but Douglas and Damon take all the nudity, mincing and snogging in their stride and do a wonderful job conveying the couple's multi-layered relationship with a refreshing humility of performance. Douglas has never been shy of sex scenes but Liberace is polar opposite from the alpha males he normally portrays.
There is top notch support in the shape of Dan Akroyd as ball-busting manager Seymour Heller who tries to keep a lid on Liberace volatile private life with mixed results. Rob Lowe delivers some well judged comic relief as celebrity plastic surgeon Dr Startz whose face has been pulled so tight by plastic surgery he looks Chinese. Liberace and Thorson have a lot of work done and Liberace has concerns:
Liberace: "Will I ever be able to close my eyes?" Dr Startz: "Not exactly. You'll always be able to see people's reactions when they see how wonderful you look."
Soderbergh is a director with many more hits than misses and lately he has become remarkably prolific, churning out five films in under two years including the excellent Magic Mike and Side Effects. His treatment reminds me a lot of Boogie Nights whose central character also rapidly descends from carefree 70's naviete into cocaine-fuelled 80's paranoia. They both depict the entertainment industry as minefield of back stabbers and burnouts although here the bitchiness is ramped up a notch.
I do feel Paul Thomas Anderson's film is more rounded and does a better job of conveying the highs and lows of life in the fast lane. The melodrama in Behind The Candelabra does tend to grate after a while (there is only so much squabbling about who gets which fur coat and who is shagging who I can tolerate). That said
Soderburgh goes to town on the make-up, effects and set design making Liberace's world of "palatial kitsch" a reality. The movie's tone is fair and even and Soderburgh goes out of his way not to exclusivley turn it into a chance to gawp and laugh at the dysfunction. Liberace may be a famous, talented millionaire but he has the same hang ups (if not the same penchant for chandeliers and jailbait) as the rest of us.
Liberace's epitaph that "Too much of a good thing is wonderful." sums up the film perfectly. In these austere times the movie, like the sentiment, is definitely a guilty pleasure.