Beyond the Candelabra by Angela Caldin

A Riveting Film

I’ve just been to see the film about Liberace: Beyond the Candelabra and I can honestly report that I found the whole experience dazzling. Not only because of the recreated glitzy opulence of Liberace’s home and the gorgeous, outrageous outfits he and his acolytes gloried in wearing; not only because of the extraordinary performances of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon; not only because of the candid and explicit charting of a loving relationship which inevitably goes sour, but also because of the amazing way that Liberace managed to conceal his true sexuality.

When 18-year-old animal lover Scott Thorson (Damon) first sees Liberace (Douglas) on stage in 1977, he’s completely enchanted by the stage presence and the glitz, but utterly bemused by the preponderance of middle-aged ladies in the audience. ‘They have no idea he’s gay,’ says Scott’s older friend Bob (Bakula), who then introduces the teenager to the celebrity backstage, igniting an attraction that satisfies both for a time, the young victim of a deprived childhood and the older man ready to be a father figure as well as a passionate lover.

Staying in the Closet

We are in Hollywood, before the spectre of Aids, and a few years before any major star came out of the closet. There’s a reference to the death of Rock Hudson from Aids, a landmark which would change the climate as far as concealing one’s sexuality was concerned. But Liberace managed it somehow for a very long time, winking into the camera, confident that he wouldn’t be found out.

In 1956 he sued a British paper over a review that implied he was gay, and in which a columnist described him as a ‘quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.’ He won the case and subsequently adopted the catchphrase: ‘I cried all the way to the bank.’ The New York Daily News ran an article under the headline, ‘I’m No Homo, Says Suing Liberace.’ In the years to come his vindication in the British courts would have one penalty:  as America’s social climate became increasingly liberal, other gays came out of the closet, but Liberace had to keep silence. ‘I can’t admit a thing,’ he apparently said, ‘unless I want to be known as the world’s biggest liar.’

In the film, Liberace jokes with Scott about the rumours, encouraged by him, that he was once engaged to the Olympic skating champion Sonja Henie. ‘As if I would marry an ice skater,’ he scoffs. ‘Please. I mean: those thighs!’ Sonja Henie had been the world’s premiere figure skater in the 1920s and 30s and had converted that achievement into an enormously successful show-business career. Blonde and blue-eyed, she had a wonderful figure and a celebrity name so that together, she and Liberace generated more publicity than either one could separately. But after the London court case, Liberace never again felt the need to conceal his true nature by dating women.

An Audience Largely Unaware

I wondered why we didn’t know about his sexuality as it seems so obvious now. Certainly there were rumours, but the bulk of his admiring audience took him as he presented himself: a flamboyant showman who loved glamour and furs and jewellery and played the piano surrounded by magnificent kitsch. I can remember seeing him perform on TV when I was a teenager growing up in Manchester and having no idea about his sexual orientation. In fact, my sheltered life meant I didn’t really understand anything about homosexuality until I got into my twenties. Unbelievable nowadays, but I don’t think I was that unusual then. In fact, I wrote my MA thesis on a French writer and dramatist called Henry de Montherlant who was a total misogynist and really quite nasty about women in his writings. It was not until several years after I’d handed in my thesis that I discovered he was homosexual and thought, ‘So that’s why he was so scathing about women.’ But I got the MA nonetheless, so clearly such a huge knowledge gap didn’t matter then as much as it would nowadays. Things have changed dramatically in the last fifty years or so.

Two Brilliant Performances

There’s a touching scene in the film where Scott comes to visit a shrunken Liberace dying of Aids and though Liberace had cast Scott aside for a younger model, a tenderness and connection between them remains. Liberace, face hollow and sunken and without his toupé, looks with tenderness at the younger man. In this scene, as in so many others, it is Douglas’ performance that is outstanding. He is really acting, rather than playing the kind of macho lawyer or banker for which he is famous. It is almost certainly the greatest role of his career. He is nothing short of brilliant and Damon follows a close second. Go and see it for yourself and prepare to be appalled and moved in equal measure.

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