Movies We Like
Behind the Candelabra
Remember when Wilco got a ton of press for having been dropped from their record label, Reprise, just as they were about to release the album that went on to be their most critically acclaimed and popular work, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? It was a story often repeated at the time as a shorthand demonstration of how sorry and dysfunctional the music industry had become. How could one of the country’s best, most innovative and respected bands get dropped as a reward for making their finest synthesis of experimental leanings and classic Americana pop song craft? The story became symbolic of how skewed the priorities had gotten within the music industry which increasingly focused on short term profits from lowest common denominator garbage.
Well, I happen to think that Behind the Candelabra has become the filmic equivalent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Every story about the film leading up to its release had to mention how no Hollywood studio would make the movie even though it was to star two of the most famous (Michael Douglas) and bankable (Matt Damon) stars working today and directed by one of the most successful and esteemed filmmakers (Soderbergh). Bankable stars; a respected, dependable filmmaker; a juicy, ridiculous story—what’s not to like? Apparently enough that only HBO would agree to make it, effectively killing the film’s chances of a theatrical release and giving one of the best, most entertaining movies of the year over to television.
Someday interested parties may regard the fate of Behind the Candelabra as a real turning point when American movies effectively ceased to matter anymore to the American public. The writing has been on the wall for some time but while there are always exceptions to the rule (from the last couple of years I might include Up, Spring Breakers, and Inglourious Basterds) has there really been enough offered up by Hollywood to justify our continued attention? Hollywood movies are geared towards Chinese and Russian markets now, as well as, almost exclusively here, American teenagers, which necessitates a premium put on culturally non-specific characters, plots and storylines that children can grasp. The new normal here is: TV is for adults; movies are for your kids or when you need something to watch in a hotel room or on a plane.
So what did Hollywood deprive us of in terms of summer entertainment at a movie theater this year? Behind the Candelabra is easily the most entertaining thing I’ve seen all year. It may have been too gay for Hollywood—or as some have pointed out, it’s the film’s closeted, dysfunctional, tacky gayness that bothered Hollywood, which wants its gays in the more PC, less confrontational Modern Family mode—but it tells the truth about the corrosive effects of the closet and the deep wounds caused by a homophobic society that inform the milieu that these characters exist in.
Not that these characters, or the central character, are your average gay folks. Liberace is, well, he hardly needs an introduction does he? He’s a glittery ghoul, a Vegas monstrosity who embodies the contradictions of his deeply closeted era. His show, his costumes, his whole shtick is super gay by any standard but, because any gay culture was essentially kept underground, at the height of his fame he basically hid in plain sight. Michael Douglas is capital B brilliant in the role! I don’t remember him ever being better. He has always seemed a little sleazy to me and his Liberace is a perfect mix of his innate sleaziness and a distinctly Midwestern kind of awe-shucks naiveté complete with flat, nasally delivery of all his lines. Matt Damon captures the vulnerability of his wide-eyed boy-toy character who is dazzled by the life Liberace offers him before being essentially destroyed by what it demands of him.
There are a ton of great actors here who have a ball with their bad plastic surgery and terrible toupees, the enablers and bottom feeders of the bizarre circus that Liberace lived in. Rob Lowe almost steals the show as the plastic surgeon with an unmovable face. Dan Aykroyd and Scott Bakula, just for the outfits alone, are wonderful. Debbie Reynolds, as Liberace’s mother, is both goofy and touching.
The only thing that doesn’t quite sit right is that Soderbergh didn’t seem to cast a single gay person in the film. Much like with Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, which somehow found a way to cast six different actors playing Bob Dylan but not a single Jew, the film could have benefited from the input of some of the men from Liberace’s generation who surely would have understood the suffocating cultural and political climate of the time and what it meant to be a gay man just as the AIDS crisis hit.
Still, the ultimate takeaway from the film, for me anyway, is that with Behind the Candelabra Soderbergh hasn’t just adapted a gay story, but also a distinctly American one. This is a story about Vegas, class, sexuality, and the oddly parallel effects of both fame and the closet, and bad, outrageously bad taste. Sadly, I think it really was “too American” a story somehow to get theatrically released, rather than just “too gay.”