Even the name Behind the Candelabra speaks to the salaciousness we were promised: a peak behind the curtains, voyeurism into one of the most intriguing personalities in entertainment. A chance the scratch the surface to see what was underneath the jewels, the makeup, and yes, the candelabra of Liberace. That they included the word “behind” in the title wasn’t lost on me, nor was the hype that this was a film produced by HBObecause it was “too gay” for mainstream Hollywood. And if you buy that, I have a bridge to sell you in San Francisco.

One of my guilty pleasures is the reality show Project Runway, where we watch struggling would-be fashion designers create fresh looks to the scorn of Michael Kors and the accent of Heidi Klum. The finale of each series shows a wealth of cash spent at Moodfabric store where too often the designers overdesign for an underwhelmed judges’ table. Steven Soderbergh could have learned a thing or two from Tim Gunn, et al: even with so much fabulous material to work with, the end product of Behind the Candelabra is sorely lacking.

There’s so much gaudy material to work with here (I know, a long way for a Project Runway metaphor, but now I’m committed), and a great story to be told: the father/son dynamic, the weird perversions that made them lovers. The perversion isn’t the gayness, but rather that Liberace and Scott Thorson were really looking for different holes to be filled in their lives. As social commentary in itself, with gay marriage becoming legal in more places and more gay parents than ever before, a look back to the “good old days” when someone like Liberace needed to live in a closet could be so interesting, especially given that Liberace was hiding in plain sight, disguised in the garish costumes of a Village queen. The part of him that was so unacceptable to mainstream society was suffocated, and it leaked out in awful ways–such as his insistance that Thorson undergo surgery to turn his face into the face Liberace’s son might have had. Who exactly owned the victimhood rights in their relationship: the one who gave all (material goods) only to take them away? Or the starry-eyed orphan? The power dynamic was an interesting play as well, noted in my favorite line when Liberace and Scott discuss anal sex. Lee wants it, Scott is sure he’ll hate it. Lee’s position is telling when he replies to Scott’s question, “Why do I have to be the Lucy to your Ricky?” with, “Because I am the maestro.”

And yet, with all of this to work with, we are left with a performance by Michael Douglas that is a wink and a nod–in Liberace fashion, but in the worst sort of way. What made Liberace so fascinating was that he was so outrageously and obviously gay. He told us his sexuality with every sequin and crystal. That he played it straight was wink between the performer and the audience. It was their contract, that knowing.

But Douglas’s performance takes the wrong cue. He is a (presumably) straight actor playing a gay part–and this should create a contract with his cable audience. Except that he does not commit. His gay is what a straight man thinks a gay man might act like, his voice dipping into coy baby talk, his eyes occasionally fluttering. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m not really gay.” Which is fine, if you’re Catherine Zeta-Jones. But for someone who is supposed to convince us he’s Liberace, not so much. And while we’re on the subject, I want to ask you a question: when do you think it will stop being considered brave to play a gay role?

Douglas’s lines sound as if he were reading them from a cue board just off camera. But he’s too good an actor for this to be a reflection of his ability. In the scene in which Scott, in an understated and nuanced performance by Matt Damon, confronts Lee about his indiscretions, Douglas barely shows up. “You’re right, Scott,” he sing-songs, “I’m sorry”–a trick of Liberace’s cadence, but a failure to deliver anything behind the lines. Was he sorry? Was he placating? It simply sounded as if he was reciting learned lines.

Liberace disguised his gay accent as the voice of a child: an sing-songy address to his audience (and his considerable entourage was his audience, as well) that affected an innocence. It’s a testament to the prejudice of the times that he used this to deflect attention from his sexuality: a child’s voice and sentiment as a pre-sexual way to relate to his audience, and to deny it to those who would surely have ostracized him.

Any biopic has its challenges: to honor the subject’s life; to bring out questions that serve a greater context within the time lived; and to deliver a performance that is believable and veers from caricature. Soderbergh succeeded in two of the three.

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