Behind the Candelabra
Up until about when I was in the third grade my family didn’t have a television. Most of the TV I saw was when we visited my grandparents in Corsicana, Texas, and naturally most of that was the things Granddaddy wanted to see. The ones I remember are The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, which was mostly boxing, and The Ed Sullivan Show. But during the daytime when Granddaddy was managing the store my grandmother never seemed to miss The Liberace Show. I watched it, too. I thought he was a little odd—back then, of course, I didn’t even know what homosexuality was—but I liked his piano playing, and he seemed like a nice guy, always smiling, with a voice not quite as gentle as Mister Rogers, but close.
Nowadays, of course, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever thought of him as anything other than a flaming queen. There were, no surprise, many, many people in show business who were aware of the “secret,” and many more than that with no connection to the biz who could clearly see it. But what is amazing is how many people—mainly women, often of a certain age when they inexplicably start to dye their hair blue—who stoutly refused to even entertain the notion. He somehow managed to stay firmly in the glitziest, chintziest, most over-the-top, outrageous drag queen closet any man has ever inhabited. Part of the reason was his willingness to sue if anyone suggested in print that he was gay. He sued, and won. He correctly understood that, in that day and age, to be outed would be the end of him. It’s sad, really, that he couldn’t have lived to see at least a part of the rising social acceptance we are seeing today. I liked Liberace. He seemed to really enjoy life, he always gave a terrific show (he wasn’t called “Mr. Showmanship” for nothing), he was aware of himself, knew what a ridiculous figure he presented, and at the same time reveled in it. If only he could have enjoyed the acceptance and honesty he could be afforded today.
I had eagerly awaited this movie. I now learn that Robin Williams was originally going to play Lee in this film, and I think he would have been perfect for the role, but Michael Douglas does a damn good job. Without trying an actual impersonation, he manages to convey the outlandishness of the man in public, and bring a lot to showing what he was like behind the scenes … at least according to the tell-all book this is based on. Neither he nor Matt Damon as his young lover go overboard on the swishiness. Damon has a certain way of holding his mouth that makes him look a little less macho than his usual role, and Douglas never really looks more gay than Liberace allowed himself to look in public … which was really a tightrope walk he must have been constantly in danger of falling from.
The story is interesting, and the set and costume design are as outrageous as Liberace’s own homes and wardrobe, some of it faithfully copied from the originals, some of it shot in a recreated Beverly Hills apartment where Lee actually lived. (The exteriors were at Zsa Zsa Gabor’s home.) I visited the Liberace Museum before it closed a few years ago, and loved it. The awfulness of the furniture and the gaudiness of the costumes have to be seen to be disbelieved. Liberace called his interior decorating “Palatial chintz,” and he nailed it.