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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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