Why I Loved ‘Behind the Candelabra’

behind-the-candelabra-michael-douglas-matt-damon1Most critics reviewing HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra mentioned director Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant decision to temper the flamboyance of Liberace’s life with a gritty and unflinchingly realistic framing of the story. Even the slightest tic toward taking the movie over the top could’ve felt like farce, and besides, there was plenty of over-the-topness in the story — the sets, the costumes, the plastic surgery. Maybe Soderbergh overcompensated a little, thus sapping a bit of the joy Liberace clearly took in sparkly and ornate things. But I liked his approach more than the alternative.

Because he shot it like any straightforward, serious biopic, he instead brought out both the intimacy and the intensity of Liberace’s relationship with Scott Thorson. He also, through that relationship, focused on the politics underlying their lives, and thus the lives of many gay men in the ’80s. The closest they could get to being married was for Liberace to adopt Thorson, a bizarre realization that ought to send everyone running to do whatever we can to get gay marriage legalized. And how heartbreaking to see people still trying to pretend, even after Liberace’s death, that the great love of his life was a woman! There’s something so devastating about not being acknowledged for your place in your great love’s life — even as an ex-spouse, you get some recognition at the funeral for your loss.

And, oh, the vanity! Being gay and famous made Liberace, and thus Thorson, as vulnerable to the pressure to be beautiful and young as women are. I loved the brutal cosmetic surgery sequences — I couldn’t even watch them, which I think is a good thing. We too rarely acknowledge how painful cosmetic procedures are — calling them “nips” and “tucks,” cutesy names that make us forget that this is major surgery. Not to mention that this is the creepy end result. Something about seeing men go through this on screen makes a difference, too, highlighting the inherent weirdness of it all because we’re not as used to it.

Most of all, the film normalized even a rather bizarre relationship between two men, something we could stand to see more of as we march toward the (hopefully) inevitable breakthrough of legalized gay marriage.


PG

Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

Comments

  1. Ric says:

    Hey Jennifer . . . we met at your June 4th book signing in Milwaukee . . . you may recall I asked for your opinion about why this generation of “sexy feminists” would flock to Magic Mike, a flick that clearly objectifies men as sex objects. I’m also the person who is in the initial stages of developing a biopic about the woman, an unheralded icon of the 80s American Feminist Movement when she presented, for the first time anywhere, in March of 1976, male exotic dancing at the Sugar Shack in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I’m leaving this comment in your Behind the Candelabra post because there is a fascinating “connection” to Liberace and Dana Montana.

    Liberace’s limo driver, Larry Slade, used to play high-stakes poker with Dana at the Sugar Shack over the winter, Liberace’s off season from touring. Dana kept the lights on with her winnings as the club traffic was slow in the small resort town. Anyway, Dana first discussed her idea to train men to strip for women during those poker games. Finally, she was ready, decided to try it, got feedback from Larry, and eventually convinced him to be one of the first three men to ever strut their stuff on stage. It didn’t catch on until 1979 when the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article about the club, Naughty Nightlife, by Rick Kogan, and starting the next day busloads of women began filling up the Sugar Shack for five shows a night, seven days a week and that continued for ten years. Dana and her dancers were on all the national talk shows.

    Anyway, Jennifer, I didn’t get a chance to tell you how delightful your book signing talk was. You have a gift for storytelling and I have no doubt that had you chosen to go into acting you would have had a sitcom spot or made the cast of Saturday Night Live. I’m sure I”m not the first person to tell you how utterly charming your delivery was on Tuesday night!

    So, if we ever get the film about Dana off the ground, would you be willing to write up something on http://www.sexyfeminist.com? At what stage would you consider the project viable enough to post something about it. If you’ll trust me with your email, please send a reply to Ric at: heritagepress22@aol.com and I’ll keep you posted with our progress.

    I really wanted to ask you to continue our conversation about Magic Mike at the adjoining Starbucks, but I’m sure you just have to keep some distance from all the people you meet who are inevitably drawn to you, so just as well I didn’t put any pressure on you to cross that line with me, but you are a remarkable woman and I wish you continued success in all of your passionate pursuits!!

    btw, really insightful well-written material on http://www.sexyfeminist.com . . . I think it’s going to become my new favorite site to visit frequently!

    Ric

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