I am old enough to remember seeing Liberace on TV, but I wasn’t old enough, or aware enough, to know what “gay” was. Looking back, I wonder how I could have missed it. But, I grew up in the suburbs, in the South, in the 60s and 70s, and went to a Southern Baptist church. So, it really isn’t surprising.
All of this prologue is to say that while the side of life depicted in this astonishing film was going on, maybe even right in front of my face at times, I was oblivious to it. Looking back, along with the movement for blacks to acquire equivalent civil rights, the push toward equality for gays is the most striking and encouraging social development of my lifetime. I live in a totally different world than the one I grew up in 40 years ago. I can’t even imagine what the world will look like when my nephews, who are twenty and under, reach my age.
OK, on to the review. Steven Soderbergh is an auteur, up there in the pantheon with Scorsese, Coppola, and Danny Boyle in my estimation. Linklater belongs in there too. In many of his films, he uses an artistic approach to popular culture subjects and in the process reveals previously unseen aspects of those subjects. I had never thought of Michael Douglas as a great actor particularly, but after watching this I do. He is fantastic in this, as is Matt Damon. I don’t believe they could have, or WOULD have, made this movie ten years ago. They both take such risks in this, in portraying the very gay life of a very closeted man, in a totally unironic way. Without being overt at all, Soderbergh is making a social statement, with this work of art, about the dramatic differences between gay life then and now.
All the performances in this are fantastic. Of particular note among the supporting performers are Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, and Cheyenne Jackson. Aykroyd is almost unrecognizable – I didn’t even relalize it was him playing Liberace’s manager until very late in the film. I just don’t know what to say about Lowe’s performance. There are a number of Emmy-worthy roles in this and Lowe nearly steals the show. Whomever is responsible for makeup deserves an Emmy too – I want to know HOW they did that with Lowe’s face? I’m sure it’s just makeup and some fine acting tricks but it truly looks like Lowe had plastic surgery in order to portray a plastic surgeon.
Soderbergh has said that this is his last film. I can only hope his “retirement” is like that of Bowie and that he spends the time gestating some ideas with which to astonish us in a few years. I see Behind the Candelabra as one of his works of art, like Traffic, in which the political, social or cultural commentary he’s making is quite pointed, but concealed within something so approachable that its lessons seep into the watcher without him even noticing. Quite subversive, really. In this, in a sense, he’s saying “goodbye to all that” in Hollywood as he moves into a new phase of his career. Goodbye to the hypocrisy, goodbye to the shallowness. Goodbye to the willful failure to adequately recognize the contributions gay culture has made to the Hollywood machine and the society at large. Really, it’s a goodbye to the vanishing world which was willing to accept the good things from gay culture while at the same time being dismissive, reactionary and hostile to the elements it found distasteful. America in a nutshell, in other words. I could go on about this, but won’t, at least in this piece. I’ll just take this space to say thank you to Mapplethorpe, Warhol, Rauschenberg, and yes, Ellen DeGeneres and that guy from NSync. Neil Patrick Harris, and countless others, too. You have managed to contribute so much of value to the world, a world which embraces your contributions while declining to fully accept you as human beings.