As a gay man, I had mixed emotions about watching Steven Soderbergh’s recent HBO biopic, Liberace: Behind the Candelabra. On the one hand, as a depiction of the personal life of one of the few gay entertainers of the 20th century (closeted though he was his entire life), I was looking forward to it. On the other hand, as a depiction of someone who represented some of the worst stereotypes about gay men, I held my breath.
At least there was Matt Damon’s ass to look forward to.
I must admit that, on paper at least, it sounded intriguing. Michael Douglas, master portrayer of macho hubris in such movies as Wall Street and Fatal Attraction (and now recovering from throat cancer) as Liberace, perhaps the most effeminate gay man who ever lived. Could he pull it off?
And Matt Damon, whom I’ve had a crush on at least since The Talented Mr. Ripley, as his lover, Scott Thorson. Who could resist?
Actually watching the movie, on the other hand, was kind of like watching the proverbial train wreck: repulsive at times, yet you can’t look away.
For starters: How do you depict a man who was camp personified without lapsing into camp yourself? I must admit, Michael Douglas toed the line pretty well, nailing Liberace’s voice and mannerisms without overdoing it.
But then there’s the whole creepy May-December nature of their relationship which, while accurate, is still difficult to watch. The first time I saw Michael Douglas without his wig on, I had the same reaction Scott Thorson did when he and Liberace went to the video store.
Then again, as such shows as Dynasty and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous have shown us, there’s a certain voyeuristic pleasure in watching how the other half lives and, to his credit, it appears that Liberace was in on the joke.
The movie had its genius moments, too. Cheyenne Jackson’s slow burn in the beginning as Liberace’s soon-to-be-rejected protégé, called back at the end of my movie by the soon-to-be-rejected Matt Damon. Rob Lowe as the plastic surgeon who, as a friend of mine pointed out, really did look like Michael Jackson. An unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. If nothing else, Steven Soderbergh always makes interesting casting choices.
And despite what the Times said, I really did believe Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as sexual partners, not just surface portrayals. They really did “go for it.”
So, ultimately Liberace: Behind the Candelabra accurately portrayed the dueling forces at work within one of the most famous, and most closeted, gay entertainers of the 20th century, in the process revealing the mixed feelings gay men often have about themselves as well as the mixed feelings society often has about wealth and fame.
Plus there was Matt Damon’s ass.