TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2013 – Day 6: Behind the Candelabra

This much-hyped and long-anticipated Steven Soderbergh TV film (HBO) about Liberace has received multiple rave reviews. Adapted from an exposé book written by ex-boyfriend Scott Thorson, who following their broken relationship went on to sue Liberace in part for palimony. As Soderbergh’s reportedly last feature film ever, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA appeared to be a suitable end to his feature run and a rich homage to the great musical legend, but regardless of the film’s high acclaim, I wanted to view the film on its own merits.

A massive fan of 1989’s SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, I’ve yet to see a Soderbergh film since then which blows my socks off in quite the same way. SL&V was an honest and groundbreaking reflection of modern society’s attitude towards sexuality and moral choice. It was a movingly gripping insight into loneliness and emotional trauma, and remains one of the greatest examples of filmmaking I’ve ever and will ever see. Now criminally forgotten to movie history, the film hasn’t been successfully passed on to the younger generations of film-lovers. Solaris came close for me, despite the critical panning it received and its remake status, but on paper at least his latest movie Candelabra suggests that Soderbergh has made a brave return to the controversies of human sexuality and morality – or has he?

A story which was waiting to be told in terms of celebrity exposés, Liberace’s private life is depicted as nothing less than dramatic. Refreshingly portrayed as neither particularly loathsome nor sympathetic, Liberace is presented to us as a highly self-absorbed and destructive personality – far from a positive modern-day queer role model. With any project where the protagonist is absent from the production process, it’s always important to bear in mind the inevitable potential biases involved. A proud man who never publicly revealed his sexuality within his lifetime, and fought hard to demolish the cases of those who did, it’s unlikely that Liberace would have ever approved the telling of this story. That being said, it’s a valuable insight into the mores and passions of this extraordinary musician.

The casting and acting is superlative. Michael Douglas’ Liberace is appropriately campy and tunnel-visioned, while Matt Damon (as the wide-eyed Scott) has another chance to demonstrate his versatility and that he’s good at playing naïve. The dialogue, production value and pacing are spot-on, our attention held until the end, in the great tradition of a well-made TV film.

In terms of assisting in LGBTQ visibility celebrity-style, my objection is not with the film itself, so much as the ridiculous hype that surrounds the film (straight celebrities are apparently “brave” for playing gay – give me a break…), highlighting again the dichotomy between hyped quality films with controversial or negative queer lead characters played by openly straight A-list actors which receive awards, and the oft-overlooked quality films featuring positive queer characters portrayed by openly queer actors. Responsibility for the hype here lies of course at the feet of myopic mainstream media who have chosen to surrender to targeted publicity focusing on Douglas and Damon.

Though deeply frustrating, the media response is to be expected. But the main issue was the fact that the film put me on a massive personal downer, as we’re reminded of the intense internalised homophobia that Liberace suffered and which supposedly justified a great deal of his passive-aggression towards his exes and anybody who got in the way of his reputation. In this sense, it is an important film, in that it reminds us of the very real paranoia still experienced by many in the public eye who fear their sexuality being exposed to the public. Neither a celebration of talent and bravery, this is a reality-check film. As with any story about a diva who casually causes collateral damage, you’re not going to get a feel-good film – you’re going to get a reality slap in the face and a bad taste in the mouth. Fame, emotional abuse, wealth and industrial patriarchy win out, there’s no room for debate or positive outlook at the end, and we’re left feeling sorry for Scott but not feeling much at all for Liberace who eventually passed away with AIDS (another fact covered up until post-death). Not that Scott is depicted as innocent in all this – there is a moment of self-redemption outlined towards the end, but by this point, the suggestion is that both men deserve each other and what happens to them.

Despite the deep tragedy of circumstances surrounding the AIDS crisis and my gut-tearing reaction to the media’s evil propaganda at the time, this movie left me with an unfortunate sense of indifference simply because it’s far too weak and exploitative for my liking. Although some of this disappointment could arguably have been increased by the much-reported struggle to get financing on the basis of its gay content (a claim now strongly rebutted by some within the industry, implying that the rumour was invented for hype purposes – *sigh*), it must be largely attributed to the fact that the story in itself is depressing and that the angle chosen by Soderbergh is overly simplified, bordering on lazy.

If only for its controversial aspect, Candelabra is worth watching, but with a serious ‘health warning’ attached for any queer people or their supporters, who are still to this day utterly starved for positive queer storylines. If Soderbergh ever does get back into the feature saddle, we only hope that he has by then rediscovered his passion for edgy stories which smash rather than create barriers and which raise an exciting debate once again – if we’re lucky, we’ll see the second groundbreaking film of his career and another coup for the independent industry. If not, we’ll be subjected to more commercialised pap, in which case hanging up his hat is certainly the preferred option.

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