Behind the Candelabra & What’s in a Name?

July 27, 2013
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It is almost impossible to explain Liberace to anyone under thirty. A walking Christmas tree decked out in rhinestones, sequins, furs and ostrich feathers, with a bouffant wig the size of Uluru, Liberace had millions of fans who never suspected he was gay. When newspapers dared make such slanderous accusations he sued them and won.

Now it can be told. Twenty-seven years after the great show poney’s death from an AIDS-related illness, Steven Soderbergh has laid bare all Liberace’s secrets in a bio pic that manages to be both sordid and affectionate. The personality we meet in Behind the Candelabra is so camp, so over-the-top, that this portrait has the ring of truth. If one can’t be entirely confident it’s because the film is based on a 1988 memoir by his lover, Scott Thorson.

When the hero of the book is not around to give his version, we have to take Thorson’s account with a certain scepticism – just like Colin Clark’s memoir of his week with Marilyn Monroe. Although he spent five years with Liberace, Thorson fell out badly with his lover. In 1982 he launched a US$113 million lawsuit but was obliged to settle for US$75,000, three cars and two dogs.

At the very end he and Liberace were reconciled, allowing the book and the film to remain “a love story”, but there has been nothing lovable about Thorson’s life in the years that followed. He has been arrested on burglary and drugs charges, and hospitalised after being shot by gangsters. In February this year he was convicted of stealing a credit card, and placed on probation. He may owe his lenient treatment to the fact that he has colon cancer.

None of this is allowed to tarnish the glitter and schmaltz of Behind the Candelabra, which is guaranteed to hold viewers spellbound, largely thanks to an extravagant performance from Michael Douglas. Although he may seem an unlikely choice to play the simpering Liberace, Douglas plunges into the part with – ahem!  – gay abandon. “I love giving people a good time,” he says, eyeing Scott lecherously. “That’s what I’m all about.” It may sound like a line from a Carry On movie, but it’s exactly the kind of thing Liberace would say on stage, night after night.

It’s hardly less startling to see Matt Damon playing Scott Thorson, with a haircut that conjures up images of 70s teen idols such as David Cassidy. The love affair with Liberace begins in 1976, when Scott is only 17. Liberace is 57 and beginning to feel his age, although his sexual appetites are undiminished.

Scott is a teenager from a broken home who has been raised by devoted foster parents. He wants to be a vet, but spends his evenings in gay bars, where he meets an older man called Bob Black (Scott Bakula) who takes him to a Liberace concert. That first exposure is overwhelming for Scott and for us, as Liberace goes through his routines and plays boogie woogie at 16 beats to the bar. His audience is largely made up of adoring, mature ladies, who hang on every word and gesture.

This is a brilliant introduction, as our first meeting with Liberace is from the audience’s perspective. After the show Bob takes Scott backstage to meet the great man. Soon they are visiting Liberace’s mansion, where he gives Scott a tour of rooms furnished in a style he calls “palatial kitsch”. Scott offers to provide some medicine for Liberace’s poodle, Baby Boy, who has eye problems. After bringing the medicine Scott finds himself relaxing with Liberace in the hot tub and the seduction soon follows.

At the beginning Scott insists he’s not gay, but bisexual. The only woman in Liberace’s life is his mother, played by an unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds, although the official line is that he’s still waiting for the right girl.

Liberace showers Scott with expensive gifts and makes a job for him, which includes driving a Rolls Royce on stage for the customary grand entrance. The months roll on, and Scott settles into his new career as a kept man. As his ‘Adonis’ physique gives way to pork, Liberace has a bright idea. While he’s having a face lift, his youthful protégé can have cosmetic surgery. The idea, allegedly, is to make Scott resemble a younger version of the pianist, who is also toying with the idea of formally adopting him.

Enter Rob Lowe as the sinister Dr. Jack Startz, whose lifeless face and manner should sound alarm bells to any potential client. Not only will Dr. Startz wield the knife on both men, he will keep Scott supplied wth addictive drugs.

As with so much of this film we laugh at Dr. Startz, who seems to have stepped out of a Roger Corman horror flick, but the humour is grotesque, not slapstick.

More grotesque than anything is Liberace’s determination to keep his homosexuality a secret. He dreads the thought of negative publicity and imagines his fans turning against him. One could call him a hypocrite, but his fears were probably well founded. In the United States this film debuted on cable TV because the film distributors wouldn’t touch it, despite the big name cast.

Douglas’s Liberace may be a predatory sex maniac but he is also possessed of an invincible niceness. Scott, who might conceivably be seen as a victim, is a less attractive character. He develops a taste for luxury that lapses into boredom and claustrophobia, as his lover prefers working all the time to socialising. And it is work – the cheesy grin, the corny banter, the fabulous outfits, the unlikely combos of Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Boogie-Woogie. Liberace would joke that he was “just a piano player”, but he was something worse: the apotheosis of bad taste, the embodiment of mindless entertainment churned out with industrial efficiency. Behind the Candelbra may be presented as a romance between two men but it’s really the story of America’s unstoppable, ongoing love affair with banality.

What’s in a Name? (AKA. Le Prenom) is the latest addition to that small sub-genre of movies that deal with dinner parties. It’s not one of those films that concentrate on the food, such as Babette’s Feast, but more in line with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Abigail’s Party, as an occasion when friendly banter turns into gladatorial psycho-drama.

Alexandre de la Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte have adapted their own successful play for the screen, using virtually the same cast, with the only substitution being Charles Berling in the role of Pierre. To compensate for the fact that the action is set, almost exclusively, in a middle-class Parisian apartment, the directors have devoted extra care to the credits. In the beginning, all the people involved in the film are referred to exclusively by their first names. At the end, we get the full names, but with family photos included.

There is also a fanciful introduction, tracking a pizza delivery through the streets of Paris. Everything else is a matter of dialogue and the chemistry between actors. This never seems to be a problem for the French, who usually manage to perform convincingly in even the lamest productions. This may be due to a theatricality in everyday life in France that has little parallel in the English-speaking world.

The action takes place in the apartment of Pierre, a university professor of French, and his wife Elisabeth (Valérie Benguigui), a school teacher. They are expecting three guests for dinner: their old frend, Claude (Guillaume De Tonquedec), who plays the trombone on an orchestra; Elisabeth’s estate agent brother, Vincent (Patrick Bruel), and his pregnant girlfriend, Anna (Judith El Zein), who works in the fashion industry.

With the exception of Anna, these people have known each other since childhood. They have a lot of shared history and are well placed to analyse the traits that distinguish personalities and behaviour. The jokes and good natured teasing follow almost as a matter of course, but one topic of conversation sends the party into a tail spin. When Vincent is asked what name he and Anna have chosen for the child they are expecting, he says it is one drawn from a French literary classic: “Adolphe”, the hero of the eponymous novel of 1816 by Benjamin Constant.

Adolphe is about a young man who falls in love with an older woman, rather like Scott and Liberace, but the story is less important in this context than the name itself. Pierre, in particular, is incensed. All of his old leftist sensibilties rise up in self-righteous horror at the idea of giving a child a name the twentieth century has conjoined forever with a notorious dictator and mass murderer.

Vincent is equally adamant that Adolphe is a beautiful name that needs to be rescued from those unpleasant associations. If this sounds unlikely, I remember a classmate in my own NSW country town who had exactly the same fantasy of calling a child “Adolf” as an extreme variation on a Boy Named Sue.

The argument becomes increasingly heated, as one misunderstanding follows another. Soon the guests are picking apart each other’s personal foibles, making outrageous confessions, uncovering old wounds and insults that have been simmering for decades. From a highly civilised dinner party we find ourselves in the midst of an encounter group where everyone tears strips off their neighbour.

On one level What’s in a Name? is a classic French farce, but the comedy is tinged with spite, malice and envy. The entire movie reads like a gloss on Freud’s insight that where a joke is made, a problem lies concealed. As each new blow is delivered the party seems set for an ever more catastrophic conclusion. The abiding question for the viewer is whether the family ties and friendships of a lifetime can withstand the damage inflicted by one evening of ruthless honesty.

 

Behind the Candelabra, USA, rated MA 15+, 118 mins

What’s in a Name?, France/Belgium, rated M, 109 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 27, 2013