‘Behind the Candelabra’: Insincerely Yours

I’ve been going to Las Vegas regularly for 30 years, to play poker and gratify a lifelong fascination with raffish milieus. In the latter context, a visit to the Liberace Museum was inevitable. I visited it in 1997, a decade after the entertainer died of complications from AIDS.

I came to scoff, having deemed Liberace a sententious fraud of questionable talent, whose fulsome effusions of universal love concealed a narcissism that could gag a goat.

I also faulted Liberace for not using his enormous clout to help the 1970s burgeoning gay rights movement by coming out of his opulent closet. His persistent denial of homosexuality grew curiouser and curiouser, when so many celebrities were affirming their gayness after Rock Hudson bravely revealed that he had AIDS.

Touring the surprisingly restrained archive of Liberace’s career and collections, I awakened to an unexpected appreciation of the wacky humanism that coexisted with Liberace’s hyperbolic self-inflation. The pleasure he took creating his gaudy entertainments was matched by the delight he derived from his audiences’ delight.

His affection for fans, family, and friends was unstinting and unfeigned – of which more presently. He lavished luxury upon himself, but was as generous to many others. His foundation to fund needy artists has given away millions.

I also learned that Wladziu Valentino Liberace, also called Lee Liberace, was a gifted child musician, if not quite a Mozartean prodigy. At age 19, he played Liszt’s formidable “A Major Concerto” with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra. An amateur musician, I could recognize the strength of his pianism, particularly evident in early videos. That he decided to employ his gifts toward other ends than competing on the concert circuit was no bad thing. I had known – and treated – worthy competitors on that unforgiving stage who had gone down into the dust.

Naturally, he trimmed and trivialized Beethoven and Chopin. But he made their music available to multitudes who might never otherwise have heard it. How many of his viewers became serious classical music devotees as a result of hearing him tart up Tchaikovsky?

Pondering the museum’s collections, I began to perceive a rowdy yet oddly refined aesthetic sensibility. Decades before European and American academics furiously anatomized the paradigms of kitsch, pop, and postmodern culture, Liberace embodied them in his persona and performances. (The Vegas casinos where he strutted his stuff have been notably caressed as postmodern cathedrals by French social theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio.)

One discerns Liberace’s intriguing “pre-postmodernism” in his campy, carnivalesque spectacles, pastiches of high- and lowbrow entertainment. At center, always the spectacle of his exuberant, androgynous self, basking in his fans’ worship as he proclaimed his love for them.

Contemporary musical theater, kitsch or elegant, owes Liberace a huge debt – notably Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas extravaganzas. (The finest of these, “Love,” a deeply satisfying tribute to the Beatles, is available now and some part of forever at the Mirage casino.)

Liberace’s over-the-top costumes set the stage for brilliant fashion experiments conceived at the behest of future rock groups and divas, from Kiss to Cher. This screwball/sumptuous garb was the subject of a provocative exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art a decade ago.

Liberace’s lipstick traces also can be discovered in the work of artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst. Liberace would have gone gaga, both as a lover of wretched excess and an observant Catholic, over the sinister opulence of Hirst’s memento mori, “For the Love of God” – a skull recast in platinum, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds.

The museum predictably avoided any mention of controversy over Liberace’s sexuality altogether. One speculates that concern for his performing image might originally have dictated his urgent need to hide what was in plain sight, lest he be mocked out of his career. It’s likely that some of his older female fans intuited his gayness at some level, but denied it, lest their ideal be cast from his pedestal.

Liberace’s deception always threatened to unravel around its own false premises. He kept up his heterosexual showbiz disguise long after it was necessary, indeed until his demise. Still, whatever his rationale, what happened in his own private Vegas had every right to stay there.

It couldn’t and didn’t. A year after his death came “Behind the Candelabra,” the book that purported to blow the lid off Liberace’s id. Written by Scott Thorson with Alex Thorleifson, it recounts Scott’s 5-year love affair cum marriage that took place during the entertainer’s last decade. To give Thorson due credit, his description of Liberace’s past is for the most part plausible, even handed, and compassionate.

Lee Liberace’s Polish father left the scene early on. His family was dysfunctional and impoverished. He was both doted upon and dominated by an overweeningly, ambitious mother. One learns about the evolution of Lee’s musical career from classics to candelabra; his consummate professionalism and stringent work ethic; since youth, the searing angst about his homosexuality and its exposure.

Scott’s narrative descends into disingenuous, tawdry TMZ dirt-dishing once he meets Liberace. He describes himself as a 17-year-old naif from a broken family who, through the good offices of several foster parents, became a wholesome unlicentious bisexual.

In his book, Scott is working as a movie animal handler with vague ambitions of becoming a veterinarian. He’s introduced to Liberace by a friend, is instantly overwhelmed by Liberace’s charisma and charm, and seduced into becoming his personal assistant, duties unclear. He moves into Liberace’s garish mansion, a triumph of “palatial kitsch,” becomes his besotted lover, is showered with lavish duds, gems, cars, an apartment of his own. Lee even proposes to adopt him.

Then emerges that inevitable “dark side” so dear to the craven hearts of the TMZ vultures. Scott intimates that Liberace’s success was enabled by Mafia connections and whinges about being preyed upon.

But he’s a remorseless user and user-upper. His depredations even predated his birth at 14 pounds: Scott psychobabbles that Lee’s depredations even began in the womb. Liberace’s dead, shriveled twin was “an apparent victim to Lee’s greed.”

Liberace boosts his sagging bedroom performance with penile implants, pills, and porn. His promiscuity is rivaled only by his insane jealousy. He perceives Scott as a projected image of his rampant narcissism; persuades him to have plastic surgery in aid of becoming his replicant. Turned off by Scott’s girth, he gets Scott strung out on “harmless” diet pills and then rails at his increasing substance abuse.

Scott increasingly must answer to Liberace’s every whim, in and out of bed. Deprived of identity, figuratively and literally; humiliated by his demeaning servitude and Liberace’s infidelity, Scott sinks into despairing addiction. Liberace uses Scott’s plight as an excuse to eject him from his life. Scott sues Liberace for massive palimony, is compelled to settle for a pittance. A year later, Liberace summons Scott to his bedside for a tearful reconciliation. He pleads with Scott never to disclose their love and his homosexuality: “I don’t want to be remembered as an old queen who died of AIDS” (which is what “Behind the Candelabra” enabled, for all its pretense of honoring Liberace’s accomplishments).

HBO’s version of “Behind the Candelabra” was directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Richard LaGravenese. (Scott doesn’t seem to have been directly involved in the project.) Michael Douglas and Matt Damon respectively play Liberace and Scott.

The film has been widely hailed, commencing with its selection for special showing at Cannes. Hollywood has changed its homophobic tune since Liberace’s day, but the industry still plays it safe by producing pictures that construe homosexual love as the persecuted parallel of straight love (for example, see “Brokeback Mountain” [2005]).

In this setting, “Behind the Candelabra” was widely rejected by major studios as being “too gay,” before HBO took it on. I commend the network’s courage, while noting its commercial canniness – the film has done well on TV and is soon to be released commercially. Nevertheless, I find it even more flawed than Steven Soderbergh’s last production, “Side Effects.” Two more viewings have only increased my reservations, indeed distaste.

Soderbergh pays little attention to Thorson’s reasonably accurate, rather affecting description of Liberace’s past. Liberace’s unique showmanship and performing skills within that idiosyncratic ambit are also scanted by their passim presentation.

These omissions markedly diminish the film’s substance. I expect they were made deliberately to further Soderbergh’s brief: probing the tragicomic dimensions of an intensely ambivalent romance between two extravagantly gay men. It’s a love that very, very rarely has dared speak its name in mainstream filmmaking.

In book and film, Liberace and Thorson exhibit a tinseled superficiality that mirrors Las Vegas’s alexithymic gloss. However, superficial characters can be the subject of the most searching, moving art.

“Behind the Candelabra” clearly invites comparison with “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), which depicted the unlikely affair between Norma Desmond, an aging silent movie queen and the naive young writer drawn into her web. Desmond is a narcissistic monster.

However, the combined talents of Gloria Swanson, Billy Wilder, and writer I.A.L. Diamond document the grotesqueries of Desmond’s self-adulation, while endowing her character with exceptional pathos.

In pictures like his debut “sex, lies, and videotape” (1989), Soderbergh likewise explored the travail of shallow narcissists with impressive artfulness. His depiction of the painful vicissitudes of Liberace’s aging queendom has drawn the high critical plaudits accorded to Sunset Boulevard’s searing portrayal of Norma Desmond’s unquiet desperation.

But the movie I saw lacked the complexity and pathos so lauded by the critical majority. It’s scathingly faithful to the sordid side of Thorson’s narrative; dwelling on Liberace’s colossal egotism, callous manipulativeness, and sexual rapacity. The “depraved indifference” of criminal justice sums up Soderbergh’s dispiriting portrait of a repellant poseur. Even Liberace’s staunch Catholicism is rendered suspect.

I don’t doubt the unsavory aspects of Liberace’s persona, but these weren’t solely, or definitively, what the man was all about. Both people who knew him at a distance or intimately consistently describe an extraordinary likeability and sincerity.

Soderbergh’s curious inability to depict Liberace’s generic kindness and specific tenderness for Thorson is abetted by Michael Douglas’s flawed impersonation (of a consummate impersonator). Douglas’s skills have grown impressively as he’s aged, but I did not for once believe he inhabited Liberace’s ultimately opaque character.

Given Douglas’s talents, I must doubt that his being straight is the problem with getting Liberace straight. Nuanced portrayals of homosexuals by heterosexual actors abound – such as Heath Ledger’s smitten gay cowhand in “Brokeback.” Douglas’s toothy smirk and arch drawl come across as unconvincing shtick, off-putting caricatures of Liberace’s flamboyant mannerisms.

Perhaps these were part of the performer’s “act” at one time, but to those who knew him well his weird, basic sincerity was never any sort of act, always the same, on or offstage. Did Soderbergh/Douglas seek to construct a Liberace so egregiously out of the closet as to underscore his lifelong terror of being outed? Everything I’ve read indicates that a spirit of compassion informed their conception, but precious little compassion came through for me.

The eve-versatile Matt Damon’s Thorson is thoroughly credible, particularly his initial naive insouciance and awestruck ability to be seduced. I emphasize again that here and elsewhere, Damon’s role is based solely on Thorson’s side of the coin. The latter’s reliability is, shall one say, a wavering quantum. (Liberace isn’t here to give his side and would probably take the Fifth if he were.)

Other strong performances include Rob Lowe’s sleazoid plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz (he bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson); Dan Aykroyd’s Seymour Heller, Liberace’s much put-upon manager of 37 years; and Debbie Reynolds’s acerbic, guilt-tripping mother.

The film is not without its pleasures, some of them guilty. Its Vegas mise-en-scene, especially of its 1950s/1960s gangster-glory days, is reproduced spot on. Douglas/Liberace gets off some memorable Mommie Dearest drag-queen send-ups, such as on the egregiously invented heartbreak over Sonja Henie’s perennial rejection: “As if I would marry an ice skater? Please. I mean, THOSE THIGHS!!!

But in the end, the viewer is as ground down by the lovers’ sulks and fits as by the rancorous, self-serving exchanges of similar gruesome twosomes, straight or gay, encountered in couples therapy.

The plot that underpins the plethora of “Behind the Candelabra’s” glitzy bitching and dishing is thin, utterly unmemorable. There’s simply no there there. I have the same feeling about Las Vegas itself these days. My intimation of the town’s staggering emptiness articulates with a poignant awareness of the skull beneath its smile. There is simply no there there. Perhaps there never was.

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