Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Scott Thorson on stage with Liberace in Las Vegas in 1979

Scott Thorson taking Liberace to court for palimony in 1983


BEHIND THE CANDELABRA – made for TV           B  
USA  (118 mi)  2013  d:  Steven Soderbergh 

The summit of sex—the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love. 
—Liberace description by Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra (William Connor), 1956

I call this palatial kitsch. Don’t you just love that?   —Liberace (Michael Douglas)

For some reason, the intimate story of Siegfried & Roy kept coming to mind, perhaps the closest thing to the Vegas glitz and glamor of Liberace (Michael Douglas, age 68) in our current age, where one could imagine white lions and tigers peacefully laying across the bed as if they were part of the furniture.  But this is an earlier era, where Liberace was introduced as “Mr. Showmanship,” a workaholic and consummate professional who made his millions wearing outrageously flamboyant costumes including hand-designed, gold inlaid outfits, minks, capes, and ostrich feathers while showcasing plenty of gold bling in his Vegas acts that routinely featured a candelabra on his piano.  That he should attract mostly older women was perhaps a curiosity of the times, maybe wishing this was the son they never had, viewed as rich, highly successful, and living in the lavish comfort of aristocratic royalty.  Little was made of sexual orientation in the 50’s, where the term “gay” was still used to express frivolity, such as the lyrics of Judy Garland singing “Make the Yuletide gay” in Judy Garland - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas - YouTube (2:30) from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), or Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers asking “Why do birds sing so gay?” in their 1956 hit Frankie Lymon - Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1965) - YouTube (2:19).  This film is much more successful in portraying what goes on behind closed doors than Clint Eastwood’s earlier effort J. Edgar (2011) which only hints at FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s secret homosexual love affair with his second in command, Clyde Tolson, the Associate Director of the FBI for forty years, with Tolson inheriting Hoover’s estate after he died.  Adapted from the 1988 memoir of Scott Thorson, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, the film is largely told from Thorson’s point of view, where Soderbergh wastes no time in the opening pickup scene in a gay bar where Scott (Matt Damon, age 42) is a tender 17-year old still under the guardianship of the state foster care system.  We can tell from the reaction of his foster family that this is certainly not the first time, but no one could have guessed what would happen next.

Scott’s friend takes him to Vegas to see a Liberace show, meeting backstage where the maestro’s roving eye, some 40 years his senior, fell for Scott, inviting him to his home, where he literally kicked out all the other house boys, replacing them with Scott, bestowing lavish gifts upon him, including expensive clothes, mink furs, gold jewelry, a gold-plated Rolls Royce on his 21st brithday, and even a home in Vegas that Liberace co-signed.  Yes, there is something a little creepy about seeing the cosmetically enhanced, leering face of an aging Michael Douglas leaning over onto Matt Damon’s side of the bed that very first morning as he initiates their first sexual encounter, as this would legally be considered an act of rape with the underage teenager, but the tone of the film is all about how Liberace is literally smitten by this kid, like he’s a godsend, the answer to his prayers, where the two of them are quickly seen sipping champagne in the hot tub, one of Liberace’s favorite places of relaxation.  This is one boy toy Liberace didn’t want out of his sight, while his wealth and success makes him something of a father figure to the fatherless Scott.  While Liberace’s extravagant mansion is something of a museum piece itself, with a pool in the shape of a piano, not to mention 17 pianos, a casino, marble everywhere, an ermine bedspread, portraits of Liberace, and a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel painted on the ceiling with Liberace portrayed as one of the cherubs.  Despite the performances where the two leads literally lose themselves in their roles, as well as wigs and facial reconstruction, part of the problem is the undeveloped chemistry between these two stars, lacking humor and any real emotional depth, though there are various kinds of human need, but these two simply have nothing in common, where it remains a mystery how this kid could consume so much of Liberace’s life.  The film suggests both are lonely, friendless and alone, where love may express itself as much in human companionship as anything else, though Soderbergh and his two lead actors hold nothing back, as there is certainly a blatantly raw-tinged sexual presence onscreen, complete with the use of amyl nitrate poppers, which was the club culture ecstasy drug of choice at the time.

Some of the secondary characters are equally outstanding, especially the completely unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother, still speaking in a thick Polish accent, amusingly winning big while playing the slot machines in her son’s house, but when no cash comes tumbling out, as the machine has not been refilled, she insists upon a check.  Dan Aykroyd plays Liberace’s sour-faced and brutally demanding manager, who accepts no excuses for missing stage appearances, where Liberace was a Vegas headliner for decades, even incorporating Scott into the act, garishly dressed as a chauffeur driving the performer’s rhinestone decorated Rolls Royce onstage, where he would open the door for Liberace who would emerge in an outrageously elaborate fur coat with a 16-foot train.  Also stealing the show is Rob Lowe as the sleazy and morally compromised, yet ridiculously successful Beverly Hills plastic surgeon of the stars, advertising a veritable fountain of youth, always promising to make his patients look decades younger. Perhaps the most hideous aspect of their relationship was Liberace’s insistence that Scott undergo plastic surgery to make his young protégé look more like himself, including a new chin, a nose job and enhanced cheekbones, and also an accompanying “Hollywood diet,” a cocktail of doctor-prescribed drugs that included pharmaceutical cocaine.  This eventually led to their falling out, forced to pawn most of Liberace’s lavish gifts, where Scott’s heavily out-of-control cocaine use takes a turn into the nightmarish REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) territory.  Scott is quickly jettisoned from Liberace’s life, just like the others before him, filing a highly public $113 million dollar palimony suit that was the talk of the tabloids in 1983 but coming up empty, reduced to accepting a $95,000 out of court settlement from Liberace in a death bed reconciliation before the flamboyant performer died of AIDS in 1986.  While obviously remembering the good years in the film’s finale, it’s ironic that Scott Thorson’s life has been a mess ever since, where in 1990 he was shot five times while under the witness protection program, later spending four years in prison on drug and burglary charges, and was recently just arrested on credit card theft where he’s currently in prison awaiting sentencing, noting the prison TV doesn’t have HBO, so it may be years before he’s able to watch the film based upon his own life story.  Allegedly, still hard up for cash, he’s contemplating writing a second book about his relationship to Liberace.  While the film is explicitly gay-themed, the final outcome is anything but gay.  

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