I was asked to direct this movie, or a movie like it, ten years ago.
It was a script based on the autobiography of Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson. I read the script, I met the producers, I met Michael Keaton who was, at that time, attached to the project. Now, I don’t remember the script, I don’t remember the producers. I remember meeting Michael Keaton in an obscure room in Santa Monica. Michael was very quiet, not at all enthused.
I remember asking myself why he would want to make this movie. I remember sharing ideas about performance and parameters. He didn’t want to do an ‘impersonation’.
Another script about Liberace arrived, a more dynamic, dramatic and excessive script. It piqued my interest. It began with Liberace’s final moments in the back of a limousine. Liberace is often damned for claiming he wasn’t gay, for never admitting to his HIV status. That those around him at the end of his life went to extraordinary lengths to hide that he died of AIDS.
Of course, there are still people, (living people) who never admit they are HIV positive. Such is the shame around HIV and AIDS. But equally there were many people at the time of Liberace’s death who went to extraordinary lengths to reveal that he died of AIDS. They exhumed his already buried body to prove their point.
There were too many people eager to shame him. For that’s what they wanted to do. Shame the gay man.
Liberace never said publicly that he was gay. He denied it. Again and again. I sympathise with his denial. It was his choice, a choice we now condemn. In these prescriptive times if you are not willing to say you are gay… someone else will.
Liberace was a brand. Like Posh and Becks. When David Beckham was caught cheating… they went to extraordinary lengths to protect their brand. It’s understandable that Liberace lied on oath. He had everything to lose. In those miserable homo-ignorant times there were plenty who would have delighted and profited from his downfall.
Reading the reviews for this film a theme emerges: Loneliness.
There are countless other references to this ‘lonely’ man Liberace. His ‘lonely’ mother, his ‘lonely’ boy friend Scott. Scott was ‘damaged’, Scott was a ‘gold digger’, Scott was a ‘lonely soul’. Scott was ‘played too sympathetically because he’s in jail for burglary’. It seems like the prophecy of fearful mothers comes to pass in this movie, that their gay sons with end up alone, abandoned, unhappy.
The relationship between Scott and Liberace may seem familiar to any powerful, older man who lets a younger man into his life: “They establish a bond that is a blend of romantic love, father-son affection, brotherly playfulness, and prostitution.”
Liberace, like Brokeback Mountain before it brings into hard focus the lives and loves of queer men. There is the obligatory delight and revulsion (in equal measure) of the kissing. Two men kissing. Two men kissing seems to remind many straight men that a tender intimacy can exist between men and that may very well interfere what they imagine we do. The gay butt fucking they imagine… immediately… after meeting one another.
Men kissing, like men getting married, seems to inflame the homophobe.
I’m wondering why Steven Soderbergh wanted to make this movie, why a gay director wasn’t chosen? Did he do it because it seemed like a cool thing to do? A straight man, so comfortable in his own skin that he can work with queer subject matter? It still feels to me like straight boys (actors and director) getting together to prove a point.
With so many talented and extraordinary gay directors in the world how did this end up being made by a bunch of straight guys? Was Liberace too difficult and distasteful and potentially divisive for a gay director? When ever I have stood before a queer audience with my queer films (confirmed by other queer, male directors) the audience who have the most problems are those who want to say: I didn’t see me.
Gay man are desperate to see themselves and their lives as they live them in TV and film. It is perfectly reasonable for them to expect this. Rather than the gay freak, the gay priest, the comedy gay… they, understandably, want to see themselves fairly represented. They want to see gay detectives, gay wedding crashers, gay teachers, plumbers, gay undocumented workers.
Many reviewers of Liberace: Behind The Candelabra smirk at the foolishness and naivety of the straight women who swooned at this obviously gay man. I once researched a documentary about fag hags. All the women I spoke to who identified as fag hags felt adored and listened to, appreciated, respected by a man. Even if that man was gay. Those women provide the clue to Liberace’s denial and downfall. Liberace wasn’t lonely. He was a performing artist who found solace and validation, like many do, on the stage.
Every night he performed he bathed in the glory of his screaming fans. The unconditional love of his audience. An adoring audience of many thousands will never be any match for the love of just one man. I remember saying that to Michael Keaton as I sat there in that small room realizing who Liberace was.