Behind the Candelabra Proves that Hollywood is Out of Touch

by JoHarrington

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon star in a multi award-winning movie, that Hollywood executives deemed 'too gay' to make.

I'm too young to remember Liberace, hence this bio-pic about his life nearly passed me by. I was only alerted to its greatness, when 'The Guardian' newspaper named it joint third in its best movies of 2013.

It was good. It was very, very good.

'Behind the Candelabra' can't win any Oscars, because it's only being shown on HBO cable television in its native USA. But the film is appearing in theaters internationally. Awards are coming thick and fast. Stacking up and sparkling like rhinestones on a piano. Even the pooch playing Baby Boy took home the Palma Dog Award!

Yet every studio in Hollywood turned it down. The silver screen looks tarnished; stained with an over-cautious assumption of home-grown homophobia.

Tragi-Comic Biopic about Liberace and Scott Thorson

Hollywood animal trainer Scott was only seventeen when he met the mega-famous Liberace. For a decade they were inseparable.

Image: Matt Damon and Michael Douglas I only vaguely recall Liberace. He died when I was fifteen. Nor had I really been exposed to him by then. Nobody in my family was an especially big fan, though I never heard anyone disdain him either. He'd simply never really crossed my cultural path.

The little I knew by osmosis was that he was a flamboyant piano player, who loved big, glittering costumes. I've since heard tell that he was - in the opinion of the reviewer - one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

Though I'd vaguely grasped that he was gay (and absolutely flaming in his ostentatious campness), I'd not encountered a single whisper about his stormy relationship with the much younger Scott Thorson.

As Behind the Candelabra detailed some of the finer points of that highly secretive romance, I felt like I'd stepped onto a roller-coaster ride. By equal measure charmed, thrilled, then utterly disturbed, gasping in shock as the story unfolded.

Nor should this story be viewed as merely the chronicle of a past time. "I don't care what anybody says, we were married!" Scott screamed in frustration, promptly raising a very topical issue. The 21st century debate surrounding same-sex marriage will find a lot of resonance here.

Behind the Candelabra: Official Trailer for the UK Theater Release

Was Liberace a Psychopath?

This was a romance with a dark side, which left me genuinely wondering if Liberace would qualify as a psychopath.

He certainly had the megalomaniac outlook, and half a dozen other ticks against the list in Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test.

The fact that it involved a homosexual couple, during the closeted days of the 1970s and '80s, meant that no-one was watching, as Scott's whole life and personality was utterly subsumed.

Anyone speaking up publicly, or running stories in the press, would have run foul of Liberace's lawyers. And he could afford the best.

Yet there was genuine love there too. Some might say mutual infatuation, whatever their differing motives may have been.

Behind the Candelabra on Amazon Instant Video

The Scope of Behind the Candelabra

This is a movie that manages to both entertain with fabulous abandon, and peel back the nuanced layers to the depths in this relationship.

Image: Michael Douglas as LiberaceIt's been a long time since I saw a movie with such a clever script as this one.

As a viewer, my alarm bells were ringing for Scott from the outset, yet Liberace (Michael Douglas) was written with such overwhelming charm that I found myself sympathizing with him too.

He was so much older, but had a childlike aspect that countered that. He was domineering and over-confident, yet surely that covered an inner vulnerability?  He was demanding and dismissive of all perspectives but his own. On the other hand, experience and star status had given him that right, and his generosity was beyond imagination.

Even when the warning signs became quite shrill, they were easily drowned out by the razzle-dazzle of those extravagant showbiz sets, the costumes, the palatial homes and dozens of classic cars.

The brilliance of the writers, set designers, costumers and director was that you are taken on this journey. You can see precisely why Scott ends up in the position that he was. It's a movie that's both stunning to watch cinematically, but also deeply thought-provoking.

The acting is so much so that I consciously peered at the screen trying to see Michael Douglas behind Liberace, but couldn't. I lost Matt Damon behind the face-lifts of Scott Thorson. I was thoroughly engaged and right there with them.

It's hardly a surprise to me that awards are cascading around this movie like the glitter on a Liberace backdrop.

Nor was it unexpected for the actors involved. They both said 'yes' the second that they read the script, despite the fact that they would have to take substantial pay cuts to do so. Matt Damon kept his schedule free, even when filming was delayed for months, while Michael Douglas received treatment for throat cancer.

Michael Douglas commented that he rarely sees scripts this in-depth anymore, hence his eagerness to embrace the role. It genuinely challenged him as an actor. It was the sort of story which Hollywood studios would disdain as being too intelligent.

Only that's not why they turned it down. They said it was 'too gay' for American audiences.

Behind the Candelabra HBO Conversation Piece Trailer

Behind the Candelabra on DVD

Behind the Candelabra

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and executive produced by Jerry Weintraub, this HBO Films drama recreates the glittering private world of Liberace (Michael Dou...

View on Amazon

Homophobic Hollywood Rejected Behind the Candelabra

Studio executives totally misjudged the mood in America, when faced with a romantic movie that was flamboyantly gay.

Image: Bedroom scene from Behind the CandelabraDirector Steven Soderbergh spent four years beating a trail to the door of every Hollywood studio executive.

His vision for the story of Liberace lent itself brilliantly to the silver screen. The master pianist practically was Hollywood! And this was a movie which would allow some of that old world showbiz glamor to resurface again.

But none of them were interested. While many studios agreed that it was a great script and a fascinating story, the fact remained that this was a romance between two men. They didn't care that Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were already signed up to portray those men, it was still a homosexual love story.

It was the considered opinion of studio after studio that Behind the Candelabra was just 'too gay'.

This story didn't have the apologetic subtlety of Brokeback Mountain; the moralistic warning of Philadelphia; the historical distance of Maurice; nor the underlying message that you can outgrow the camp, as in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Instead the life-style of Liberace and Scott Thorson was unashamedly depicted as it was. There were scenes of outlandish display interspersed with gritty realism. The homosexuality was merely a sexual preference. If Liberace had been straight, then he would have done to a woman as he did to Scott.

The only difference being that society's reaction to homosexuality at the time kept it all the more firmly behind closed doors, adding immensely to the pressure cooker claustrophobia that kept Scott acquiescing to all demands.

It was felt that American audiences weren't ready for something like that. It would fail at the box office and prove too controversial in the press.

After four years of attempting to make his movie with financial backing from Hollywood, Soderbergh gave up and turned to the small screen. HBO agreed to fund the filming, which the director later recognized as a great result. No executive there attempted to temper his story. He was given free reign to tell it in its full glory.

And American audiences loved every second, as did those further afield.

Critical receptions continued to push big Hollywood productions from the headlines. Behind the Candelabra's accolades beat many other movies to the podium. Suddenly studio executives were faced with a smash hit which hadn't originated from their back-lots, carrying with it a highly public message about why that should be the case.

Let's hope there's been some soul-searching in Tinsel Town in its glittering wake.

Biographies about Liberace and Scott Thorson

Please note that 90% of the Liberace books won't mention Scott. He was hidden away in the background at the time. The movie is based on the first book.

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Updated: 02/01/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/15/2014

Until I watched this movie, I'd never appreciated quite how good an actor Michael Douglas is! He really was great here. I'm sure that you'll enjoy it, especially if you're a fan.

I've been more familiar with Matt Damon's films in the past. He's another one who can really pull out the stops, when he's not going for the more banal roles.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/14/2014

Jo, Although I appreciate Michael Douglas as an actor, I have not seen "Behind the Candalabra." Thank you for reminding me with your interesting review. I see that area libraries have copies so I'll be checking for it on the Hot Flicks shelf.
It will be fun to see Michael Douglas in those over-the-top costumes. He seems true to the spirit of Liberace. Such a great team for this movie, including amazing, determined director Steven Soderbergh and enigmatic Matt Damon, who looks like a choir boy but plays schemers well ("The Departed").

JoHarrington on 12/29/2013

I hope you like it! Thanks for doing the hunting to see where it's available online. :)

NausetViews on 12/29/2013

Sounds like the perfect movie for me to watch on this dreary and rainy day. Great to put my HBO subscription to use as it's only available to buy on Amazon Instant Video at the moment. Hulu didn't have it either...for anyone who was going to go hunting for it :)

JoHarrington on 12/22/2013

It might be worth checking out cinema listings too. Or looking to see if you can watch it on-line in your country. Definitely worth the hunt.

Mira on 12/21/2013

So where can I see this? I do expect to see it on HBO :D. I'll have to check the TV pages now. I heard about this movie on the Emmy Awards. Had heard about it before but it was among the top 5 of the year there.

JoHarrington on 12/21/2013

Michael Douglas was amazing! It was like he was possessed by the spirit of Liberace.

dustytoes on 12/21/2013

I saw very little of the movie, but it looked interesting, and Michael Douglas certainly captured the character well. My mother is no longer around, but she would have been horrified I'm sure!

JoHarrington on 12/21/2013

He died in 1987, but he'd been entertaining for decades before then. Did you like the bits of the movie that you saw? And what did your mother make of it?

dustytoes on 12/21/2013

I have only seen a tiny bit of this movie, but Liberace was my mother's favorite entertainer. She loved piano, and thought he was just fabulous. I only watched his show because she did and all I remember is the outlandishly over the top outfits! I was very young, so I think this was maybe in the 60's..?

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