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« Eight Hateful Links | Main | Menagerie '15: Best Animals in the Movies »
Wednesday
Dec232015

HBO’s LGBT History: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we dipped our toes into Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce only to find that it’s oddly divisive, as is its leading lady, Ms Kate Winslet. Who knew? This week we look at a high profile project that was intended for the silver screen but given the current film market found itself in the not too shabby quarters of HBO: the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, written by 2016 WGA Ian McClellan Hunter Award honoree Richard LaGravenese and directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Released in 2013, the project was perhaps the gayest project on HBO’s roster since Kushner’s Angels in America. Indeed, if you’ve been following us these past few weeks you’ll notice we’ve dealt with low-key flicks like Bernard and Doris and Cinema Verite. Documentaries it’s where it was until Soderbergh brought his glittering film to the Home Box Office. Upon its release (it premiered at Cannes), the film was showered with praise not only for Soderbergh’s visual flair but for its central performances, with Michael Douglas earning some of his best reviews in years. [More...]


We have discussed at length various projects amply labeled “LGBT” that, to one degree or another, grapple with the question of representation: “Who gets represented and by whom?” could very well be the guiding question of this project. More often than not, the “who” has been unmistakably easy to locate. For the most part, we’ve seen stories of gay white males, played by a roster of A-list talent: Harvey Fierstein, Ian McKellen, James Woods, Al Pacino, Ralph Fiennes. By the time Candelabra was released, the question of who was portraying these characters (straight actors, at least most of the time) was bubbling up—we all know how that ended up blowing up by the time Stonewall came out. The question, obviously still beholden to issues of bankability, marketability, and Hollywood clout, may be a moot point but it nevertheless colors our reception of this Liberace biopic which creatively has four straight men behind it.

You see this most clearly in the film’s depiction—though that’s a bit of a stretch—of gay sex. We know HBO has never shied away from steamy sex scenes (we listed our faves a few weeks back!) but you wouldn’t know it from Soderbergh’s film which is quite prudish even as it luxuriates in its own lurid material. Take the first time Scott (Damon) stays over at Liberace’s estate; the older performer is shrouded in shadows, a threatening figure that prompts Scott to disassociate once he’s being serviced in the morning.

Every other moment of sexual intimacy is equally doused in noir-like lighting. Even simple moments (at the pool, in a limo) where we’re meant to buy the electric sexual chemistry between the two leads, this is all but absent. Douglas and Damon are able performers, and their emotional beats sell the May-December romance and its subsequent dissolution, but they always seemed to me unable to sell both Liberace’s thirst for sexual thrills (that descent into the XXX book store ranks up there with Shame’s gay bar in terms of sex shaming, though here at least it’s woven into the very fabric of the narrative) and Scott’s snippy cattiness (Cheyenne Jackson is so much better at this, nailing the passive aggressiveness that Liberace breeds in his all too brief scenes).

Unwittingly perhaps, Behind the Candelabra has ended up crystallizing, for me, the type of “gay” prestige content that so often gets cited when we talked about progress in terms of LGBT representation, one which imagines straight viewers as its first and foremost intended audience. One could even argue it’s a perfect fit for this material seeing as how Liberace’s glass closet depended on his appeal to a mostly straight audience, but it nevertheless treats its central gay character as an ever distant figure rather than a three-dimensional character: given the screenplay’s decision to follow Scott, Liberace—despite Douglas’s pitch perfect mimicry—remains wholly out of focus, both his neuroses and his proclivities unexplored and unexamined in any real way.

It’s a shame because the film does have its great moments (any time Rob Lowe or Scott Bakula are on screen) and, of course, this:

 Fun Awards Fact: Michael Douglas won his very first Emmy for his portrayal of Liberace. This was his fifth nomination. His previous four nominations came from portrayals of detectives; his first three from the 1970s cop show The Streets of San Francisco (I have to admit I had to Google that one!), and his fourth one for playing a gay detective on Will & Grace close to thirty years later. One has to wonder if Douglas could have given McConaughey a run for his Oscar that year had the film been released theatrically—he may have easily knocked out Bale from the lineup don't you think?

Next Week: We take on The Out List where “high-profile members of today’s LGBTQ community reveal their struggles and triumphs of being ‘out’ in America” (Watch on YouTube). I’m mostly excited to watch a film that allows me to talk about Cynthia Nixon, Lady Bunny, Janet Mock and Jake Shears in the same breath.

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Reader Comments (15)

Douglas could have been easily Oscar nominated if the film was eligible, and so Matt Damon, judging upon his Bafta nomination (as Best Supporting Actor, of course)

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

Like I said in last week's comments: both lurid and antiseptic at the same time. I was disappointed. Definitely needed more "real" sex, more Lowe, more Bakuka, more Cheyenne and more Debbie Reynolds!

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I may be in the minority, but I found this film dull, dull, dull, dull, dull. If a movie isn't going to be narrative-driven -- and I'm perfectly fine with that -- then it should have SOMETHING insightful to say about its subjects or life in general.

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I found it hilarious that even though they were excellent in the film, and the press played up the "bravery" of two established hetero stars playing flamboyantly gay roles, right after the film's premiere, Matt Damon arranged to get as much publicity as possible letting us know he was taking his wife to the Caribbean for their 8th wedding anniversary - it's such a milestone, y'know?, and Michael Douglas claimed his throat cancer came from too much cunnilingus. Old Hollywood lives!

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterken s

Michael Douglas was my personal Best Actor of that year by far and I found he and Damon did really well at conjuring a twisted kind of intimacy.

I didn't mind that the sex scenes were creepy/repulsive - I can only imagine they would've been more so in real life. (I find Liberace an incredibly, if fascinatingly, grotesque figure)

But even with all that ickiness the actors seemed completely comfortable and invested in the central relationship throughout and I never got a sense of embarrassment or toning down the gayness for the sake of prestige. Quite the opposite in fact.

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I do love this film. It is everything you want to see in a film about Liberace. Plus, I love that moment where Li and Scott are watching the Tonight Show and Li is aghast in how he looked as he goes "Oh my God! I look like my father!" For a minute, I thought it was Kirk playing Liberace on the Tonight Show. I was wrong.

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I found this film dull, dull, dull, dull, dull.

It says more about the director than it does you. I always refer to Soderbergh as Sort-of-boring. He is a dull auteur alongside the autistic Terrence Malick.

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Am I the only one who found Matt Damon woefully miscast as the naive, pretty young thing (gifs notwithstanding)? I guess if it's a Soderbergh, it's gotta have Damon?

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames

I found this movie v gay-tertaining & Douglas is a hoot!! He really attacked his role w a relish and rightfully deserves all the awards he won (He swept all the TV awards) but between his loud, flamboyant, egoistic, manipulative persona, I would choose Damon's naïve, confused, impressionable and quieter portrayal.

It is easy to get swayed by the OTT antics of Douglas as Liberace (More is More!!!) but its the subdued & sorrowful performance of Damon (esp when he was dumped) that breaks your heart

Douglas rightly put it when he said his co-star deserves half of his win at the Emmy, or issit SAG???

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I remember being somewhat reserved about this film. Likely for the many reasons you suggest. The best performance is Cheyanne Jackson without a word.

Liberace is now always tied to one of my favourite Golden Girls lines.

"It is really coming down out there!"
"What is, Dororthy?"
"--- The Liberace marquee at Caesar's Palace!"

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Rob Lowe's character had me squirming in my chair, but I couldn't look away. A bit like passing a car crash. A very entertaining car crash.

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEz

James, you are not the only one who thought Damon was miscast. He was just too old, for starters.

I think 'Behind the Candelabra' is one of the least successful entries in HBO's middlebrow prestige flick series. Much too safe and totally lacking in insight.

It wasn't until I saw 'Saint Laurent' earlier this year that I fully realized how unsatisfying American representations of queer sensuality are in comparison.

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Mike: Saint Laurent is such a great comparison to make. That film is so effortlessly sensuous, nailing precisely what's lacking in Soderbergh's film. This just feels so... defanged. Glad to hear I'm not alone.

December 24, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

Behind the Candelabra is a great horror movie. I mean is there anything more shocking than Liberace without his toupe displaying his male-pattern baldness? And Rob Lowe alone is creepier than Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. He steals every scene he's in.

December 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterken s

Great write-up. I still maintain that Matt Damon was more impressive than Michael Douglas in this movie. He should've won the Emmy, hands down (kind of like Drew Barrymore over Jessica Lange in Grey Gardens).

December 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

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