Behind the Candelabra
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
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.
In his review of Behind the Candelabra, Colin Carman claims to be among those born after 1977. That explains his misguided remark about Liberace’s lifelong “dishonesty” about his sexuality. Those of us from the midwest and around long before 1977 remember when being gay was absolutely not an option. We saw people even suspected of being gay publicly and privately ridiculed, fired from their jobs, disowned by families and friends–careers ended. We were conditioned from childhood to believe homosexuals were all perverts or mentally ill or worse. Of course he denied being gay in the British lawsuit. In England as in many places in the US it was not only completely socially unacceptable but also illegal to be gay. You could go to jail or be sent to a mental institution for “treatment”! I was born in that era and was in my 40’s when I carefully and slowly came out. and still at the cost of some family and friends. I conducted myself no differently, but in some cases just knowing made it an issue for some. Mr. Carman needs to check his history books before judging the decisions of intelligent people from a different era.