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Behind the Candelabra and The Comedian: The end of the affair

How to describe Liberace? Imagine a French Fancy at a grand piano, decked out in jewellery that would make the average hip-hop performer look frugal, and you're in the right ballroom. I mean, ballpark.

Behind the Candelabra (15)
The Comedian (15)

dir: Steven Soderbergh
dir: Tom Shkolnik

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra focuses on the ten years from 1977, when the pianist Liberace met Scott Thorson, who became his lover as well as chauffeuring him onstage in a cream Rolls-Royce for his Las Vegas performances. How best to explain Liberace? As a child in the 1970s, I was struck by his similarity to the most decadent item in our larder, the Mr Kipling French Fancy. It was even jazzier than the Viscount biscuit (imagine: a biscuit in a wrapper!) but it also made me slightly sick. That’s Liberace: imagine a French Fancy at a grand piano, decked out in jewellery that would make the average hip-hop performer look frugal, and you’re in the right ballroom. I mean, ballpark.

No sooner have the posters come down for Side Effects, which Soderbergh announced would mark his farewell to cinema, than this new movie is upon us. To the casual observer, the director may seem like the child who has difficulty starting his sponsored silence (“I’m not talking from . . . now! No – from now”). However, Behind the Candelabra was made for television. Soderbergh had hoped to make it for cinema, only to be told by studio executives that it was too gay. Instead, he shot it for HBO, the pioneering US cable network responsible for almost every great TV series of the past 15 years.

For Hollywood to reject something starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, the project would have to be as gay as a white, fox-fur coat with a 16-foot train, or a hunk in a diamante posing pouch, or a rhinestoneencrusted queen being pleasured in the back room of a Los Angeles porn shop. Behind the Candelabra features all these and more. As if to repudiate its subject, who sued anyone who dared to suggest he was not every bit as heterosexual as Rock Hudson, the film has no truck with euphemism. That’s not to say that it is necessarily to be trusted.

Scott met Liberace, known as Lee, when he was 17 and the star was 57. Their first encounter in Behind the Candelabra takes place in a dressing room in Las Vegas. The pianist, played by Douglas, gazes at the young man in such a way that to say he is undressing him with his eyes would sound overly demure; Scott (Matt Damon with a Farrah Fawcett feathercut) is slack-jawed, which will come in handy later. Soderbergh frames the scene so that Lee’s then-current companion is also in shot to supply a commentary of eyerolling and snorts. The rules of the game couldn’t be more explicit if there were a revolving door at the threshold to Lee’s bedroom. (There’s even a scene later in the film that replays that dressing room meeting shot for shot – only now Scott is the eye-rolling soon-to-be-ex.) But the film insists that Scott was different, that he was Lee’s enduring soulmate, never mind that their fiveyear relationship ended in drug addiction and a lawsuit.

It would say that, wouldn’t it? After all, Behind the Candelabra is adapted from Thorson’s book of the same name. The movie doesn’t skimp on detail – from the “palatial kitsch” of Liberace’s mansion to the his’n’his cosmetic surgery that the couple undergoes at Liberace’s insistence, shown here in gruesome, face-peeling close-up.

The one aspect missing is the pinch of salt necessary when adapting a story from a single, uncorroborated perspective. You have to be suspicious of any picture that shows its source (paid handsomely for the film rights) to be no more than credulous: Scott comes across as blinkered and helpless as Baby Boy, Lee’s beloved poodle, whose eyesight is fogged by cataracts.

Still, this adherence to Scott’s word throws up one of the more interesting tensions in the movie. If it is true that he was summoned to Lee’s bedside when the star was dying of Aids-related pneumonia, then only Scott can now report the conversation that took place there. This makes it doubly fascinating that we hear Lee ask him not to tell anyone how bad he looks. Scott did tell. And now the film shows it, compounding the betrayal.

The movie’s richness lies in its performances. Damon negotiates skilfully Scott’s descent from bliss to frazzled insecurity. Rob Lowe has a succulent cameo as a plastic surgeon whose rigid, feline pout reveals that he has been getting high on his own supply. Douglas, meanwhile, conveys sublimely a creosoted smarm that is rarely unsympathetic. He has captured the preening, liquid voice (he pronounces Scott’s name “Scaaaaart”) and he convinces us that Liberace’s declarations of intimacy were no less sincere for being reproduced verbatim onstage in front of thousands or in a hot tub with his latest squeeze.

The new British film The Comedian is the opposite of Behind the Candelabra in lots of ways – largely improvised, shot on handheld camera in down-at-heel locations (clubs, chippies, night buses) – but it is also concerned with gay identity and visibility. By day, Ed (Edward Hogg) is an unsuccessful telesales operator. By night, he is an unfunny stand-up comic. He isn’t even that good at being gay: soon after hooking up with the ebullient Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), he becomes involved with a woman.

This debut from the writer-director Tom Shkolnik is intense and honest about Ed’s disintegrating sense of self. “Do something! Be someone!” is the advice he receives from Nathan after a set-to with bigots. The Comedian ends with Ed realising that he doesn’t want to be himself any more. It feels almost revolutionary to make an entire film about a man so heroically incomplete.

“Behind the Candelabra” opens on 7 June and “The Comedian” opens on 31 May

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis