If you watch Behind the Candelabra and find it hard to believe that during his lifetime no one seemed to cotton on to the fact that Liberace was gay, then you clearly didn’t live through the 70s. Behind the Candelabra harks back to that seemingly more innocent time and ends at the point in time when homosexuality was being catapulted into the public arena by the onslaught of AIDS. The film is essentially a love story between a very rich and successful older man and his much younger lover. The older man just happens to be one of the world’s most popular entertainers, Liberace. The twist is that the naïve, young thing is a young man not a girl at a time when being openly gay would have meant career suicide.
The acting is exquisite and finely detailed such as the moment when Liberace (Michael Douglas) meets his future lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and takes an immediate shine to him. Both actors are fearless in their portrayal of their characters – from Matt Damon unashamedly sporting a snazzy pair of rather brief swimming briefs to Michael Douglas, standing half naked in the bathroom, balding and sagging. Had the film had a theatrical release in the States there’s no doubt that both leads would have been in the running for an Oscar nomination as would surely have been Rob Lowe’s hysterical turn as the plastic surgeon to the stars, Dr Startz. His character’s immobile face is probably the best advert against having plastic surgery you could imagine. In fact just as the Hollywood movies of old, all the small character roles are inhibited beautifully by the actors playing them from Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s agent from hell, Seymour Heller, to an unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds as the doughty matriarch of the Liberace household. This portrayal of Liberace’s mother seemingly confirming the adage that behind every incredibly successful performer there’s a mother from hell they are trying desperately to run away from.
The film charts the disintegration of Liberace and Scott’s relationship from Scott’s initial seduction to Scott finally being turfed out of his home and their lawyers squabbling over a possible financial settlement, followed by their final tender good bye at Liberace’s deathbed. The film depicts relationships as a never ending cycle, deftly bookmarking the start and the death of the relationship as just one in a series of similar encounters. At the beginning of the film we see Scott’s predecessor, Billy Leatherwood, sitting disgruntled at the table while Liberace flirts with Scott only for Scott to be in the exact same position as Billy towards the end of the movie, likewise sitting disgruntled at the table while he looks on as Liberace flirts with Scott’s soon-to-be replacement.
The film also maps the changing nature that many a long-term relationship invariably goes through; the ups and downs of a sex life from having sex all the time to not having it at all; the security of a loving relationship as indicated by Scott piling on the pounds, eating rubbish, perched on the sofa watching TV whilst intertwined with Liberace. The death knell of the relationship is clearly sounded when Liberace dishes up some analytical hogwash (i.e. the rubbish we tell each other and ourselves when deep down we know a relationship is dying) to justify them seeing other people and then becoming furious when he suspects Scott of doing exactly that.
The film highlights the dichotomy that surrounds the rich and famous. On the one hand Liberace is lonely, on the other hand he is surrounded by adoring fans and numerous flunkeys, all jostling for their share of him and his money. As a result, he can never be sure if people actually like him rather than are simply after what they can get from him. Scott is only too aware that his place in Liberace’s household is tenuous with everyone else waiting in the wings (at one point literally) to elbow him out once Liberace decides to exchange him for a younger model. As the relationship deteriorates, Scott’s insecurities increase and finally his worst fears prove true. Returning from burying his foster mother, he is unceremoniously dumped by Liberace through the auspices of a mutual friend.
Ironically it is the same friend who had earlier pointed out to Scott that if he doesn’t give Liberace exactly what he wants, then Liberace might leave him for someone else. This encapsulates the inherent insecurity of someone in Scott’s position. He may – for a time – have youth on his side but he has neither the money nor the power. And in such an unequal relationship insecurities fester. In addition, it’s clear that despite all the financial trappings of being the boyfriend of an extremely rich and famous man, it’s not much of a life. The inherent frustrations of such a life begin to take its toll with Scott becoming gradually more and more addicted to prescription drugs. Scott had initially started taking the drugs to lose weight in order to undergo plastic surgery at Liberace’s behest. As with all aspects of his life, Liberace has specific ideas on how things should look including Scott’s face. Scott feels under pressure both to undergo the surgery as well as to keep in shape. This pressure no doubt exacerbated when you feel your youth and looks are your only bargaining chips in the relationship.
The irony is that in trying to become more physically like Liberace’s ideal, Scott gradually loses more and more of himself. In a way it could be seen as a metaphor for the way that people ultimately change in relationships – in Scott’s case quite literally. By the end of the relationship Scott doesn’t even have his own face anymore.
The film also posits the question as to how possible is it to have a healthy relationship when you have to be in constant denial about who you really are. Just like Rock Hudson before him, Liberace is forced to peddle out a stream of false stories about his sexuality to keep the public, the fans and media at bay. Even in death this process continues when a futile attempt is made to hide the real cause of Liberace’s death from AIDS. Under such circumstances it would seem that self-hate is inevitable. Scott seems to be in constant denial that he is gay despite the small technicality of being in a relationship with another man; and Liberace’s worst fear is for the public to know the truth about his sexuality.
The film is enjoyable and fun to watch with stand-out performances by all the cast. Nevertheless it also gives an acute insight into a time when being in the closet was a professional necessity as well as deftly depicting the repercussions of having to live such a lie. At one point in the film Liberace tells Scott that people see what they want to see. The film not only depicts how that was true when it came to making the sexuality of the rich and famous adhere to the sexual mores of the time; but also how we do the same in our own private lives, and the price we ultimately pay for deceiving others and ultimately ourselves.
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