Behind the Candelabra – Steven Soderbergh and the ‘appropriate gay’. (film review)

The fear behind colonization and appropriation is the most destructive force on the planet today – and probably has always been.  The desire to claim something for oneself, and negate any other interpretation is a force so pervasive we usually do not know that we have adopted it as our own. I’m going to assume this is Steven Soderbergh’s problem, because it can’t possibly be true that someone with a decent film history could decide to end their career on two such unapologetically homophobic films as Behind The Candelabra and Side Effects. Despite the severity of these comments, I actually really like Steven Soderbergh, and I think his traversing of indie and mainstream films is interesting, even if I don’t think he’s made a truly great film for years.

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But there is something deeply wrong with these last two films. Side Effects I have already commented on. It is so homophobic that for me it makes a mockery of the censorship board because a film that paints lesbians as man hating sinister predators bent on the destruction of the heterosexual white male should have been laughed out of any production company worth its salt. The only excuse for using that lez-spliotation story line outside of the 1970’s is in parody, and Side Effects is not a parody. It is doubly shocking when you realize at almost the same time, he was painting one of societies most high-profile closet-gays as a predatory old man who chases and ruins young men without ever addressing the horrible fear he must have lived with that no doubt affected that behavior. What Soderbergh has done here is appropriate homosexuality to fit in with the heterosexual fear-based gaze. Instead of asking why Liberace might have been so fearful of coming out, and why he thought (justifiably) that it would ruin his career, he makes a film that implies ‘lock up your experimenting young man, because the dirty old man who will convert him to “gay” and ruin  his life is just around the corner’. And he has money!

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As if all of this isn’t bad enough, in a day and age when the fight for equal rights in marriage is one of the hottest political footballs, and the GBLTQ community has come the closest it ever has to being taken seriously as deserving the rights of marital status, Soderbergh comes along with two high-profile films that depict homosexual relationships as damaged, destructive, and fundamentally lacking in substance. I can’t get my mind around why the left leaning media have embraced these films – except that they both play to a symbol of “gay-ness” that offers relief from the subterranean terror we all harbor that “these people” might actually get the rights they are fighting for. Soderbergh’s films tell us, in not so subtle terms, “gay’s” are “allowed” to marry, even if their relationships are a short-lived and based on a sexually predatory attitude; and lesbianism is really all about straight males, and always has been.

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And isn’t this who Liberace was?  He was a ‘Uncle Tom gay’. He played to the aspects of homosexuality that has always been socially sanctioned by the heterosexual community – the campiness and the promise to keep ‘gay’ in the closet. Liberace was well aware his entire career hinged on the very delicate balance between hamming the camp and actually imposing camp as a right.  He was the exception that proves the rule and he played his entire life out as if he were a damaged soul, never being able to make a distinction between what he ‘was’ and what society expected him to be. In many ways, he is the perfect heterosexual gay man.  It was always easy to point at him and say “see?  Gay isn’t real. It’s fucked up.”

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And now, at this crucial juncture in political history, Soderbergh brings him back to life, without using our progressive political knowledge to examine anything about Liberace that might re-contextualize his behavior.The entire film is book-ended by Liberace’s predatory attitudes. The fate of Scott Thorson as toy-boy is never in doubt, we know from the first time he meets Liberace what will become of him over the six years of their relationship.  Soderbergh even tosses in the lovely Midwestern home life that might have helped the bi-boy turn straight, if the predatory Liberace hadn’t gotten his hooks into him and stolen his appropriate career along with his chance at an appropriate sexuality. I’m not claiming the facts here are wrong, I’m claiming they have been painted in a light that gives comfort to a prevailing heterosexual ethic. Liberace coldly gets Scott hooked on drugs and then uses that as the excuse to toss him out of his perverse love nest when he “wants new cock” to take a direct quote from the film. We are never led to believe that the desire in Liberace to adopt Scott and make his face into his own might be an attempt at togetherness when marriage is refused. I imagine these kinds of adoptions were common in the gay community – they are a clever way to use heterosexually biased law against itself, bestowing many of the rights and privileges accorded marriage on a couple. Instead, while the depictions of Liberace are warm and friendly, they are condescending, never allowing him to appear as anything other than a fucked up dude who churned his way through lovers as only someone who is fundamentally fucked up can. If Liberace and Thorson were straight, after six years there would be marriage counseling and the support of family and friends. Infidelity and drug abuse are horrors that affect heterosexual couples also, but Thorson’s cry that this ruined their love for each other, is swept under the carpet by a giggling aesthetic Soderbergh imposes that says “Yes, yes… but come on!  That relationship was never real!”

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Despite my political opinions, the film is funny and Rob Lowe is an inspired plastic surgeon and one of the fun moments of the film.

What is no surprise to me is that Michael Douglass is the star of this film.  I see Michael Douglass as a sort of Charlton Heston on the 1980’s.  He was the pretty face for many anti-liberal pro-conservative films such as the overrated Falling Down and  some of the more famous feminist backlash films such as Basic Instinct which – surprise surprise carries the subplot of evil lesbians trying to hurt good white straight men – and Fatal Attraction – career girls trying to hurt good white straight men. In his early days Douglass was in some great films, but Behind the Candelabra sees him dead on track as a subterranean politically conservative poster boy. He does manage to bring some heart to Liberace, but it is the condensation that appalls. Douglass is too self congratulatory in this role.  You can see he is thinking far more about which award he will win rather than Liberace. Matt Damon is the stand out performance, though again, his forty-two years are never convincing as a seventeen year old. This is no aesthetic slip by the films makers. It speaks to their fear that the audience will react with horror if they see a sixty year old Liberace pursuing a seventeen year old boy and the fear of being accused of being anti-gay. It is more of the same, the heterosexual appropriation of GBLTQ lifestyle and image, and it also points to the abject refusal to examine this troubled, famous man through any eyes other than the heterosexual gaze.

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I’m not sure what Steven Soderbergh is up to with this film, but I am very glad he’s called it a day.  I’m going to remember him for Sex, Lies and Videotape and Erin Brockovitch and hope to high heaven that he means it when he says he’s not making any more films.

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