The Keeper and the Kept

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Behind the Candelabra
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
HBO Films

 

NO TV EVENT sparked the summer heat quite like Behind the Candelabra, the HBO biopic about Liberace’s love affair with Scott Thorson, a man more than forty years his junior. (The film was reportedly rejected by the major studios for being “too gay.”) Much of the fanfare involved the casting of Michael Douglas (now 68) as Liberace and Matt Damon as his kept boy.

The movie opens in 1977. For anyone born after that date, as I was, the name Liberace conjures a bygone era of easy listening, Las Vegas, and a gaudy kind of gayness. The name is also something of a dirty word in gay culture because Liberace denied his sexuality right until the bitter end. The pianist died in February 1987, three weeks after being hospitalized in Rancho Mirage, California. His private physician listed his cause of death as congestive heart failure, and his staff went on to claim that he died from “the effects of a watermelon diet.” (In the film, that absurdity is delivered by Dan Akroyd as Seymour Heller, Liberace’s manager of more than 25 years.) But the coroner’s office in Riverside County, in a rare move, rejected the death certificate, and—before Forest Lawn Cemetery could lay Liberace to rest—an autopsy determined that he died of cytomegalovirus pneumonia due to HIV.

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