The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Behind the Candelabra

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article De-gaying or not de-gaying? That is the question.

The neutering of homosexuality seems a common theme in the promotion of any film which has gay protagonists. During the press conference following the premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra at Cannes, Michael Douglas pointed out that what attracted him to the film was not that it was a gay film, but rather that it was a love story. When the Palme d’Or went to the deliriously cinematic and beautifully touching Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), Jury members during the final press conference were also at pains to argue that the winning film was essentially a love story and the fact it was a love story between gay characters was neither here nor there.

The immediate need to de-gay gay cinema once it moves into the mainstream has a long provenance. From the coded love story of the Noël Coward-scripted Brief Encounter (1945), which could easily be seen as a story of a gay affair in which homosexuality is shifted into adultery, to the whitewashing of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), which almost totally erased the gayness of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), as if any suggestion that Andrew enjoyed a sex life with the briefly-glimpsed boyfriend (played by Antonio Banderas) would impinge on his status as wronged victim and pitied martyr. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) was the most forthright mainstream film to deal with homosexuality, although publicity materials surrounding the film seemed keen to emphasize the heterosexuality of the lead actors, as has been in the case in My Beautiful Launderette (1985), Priest (1994) and, more recently, Milk (2008). This has also repeated in the promotion of Behind the Candelabra. There has been a lot of well-meaning joshing about Matt Damon finding himself in bed with Michael Douglas, and, if one were to be extremely cynical, Douglas’ bizarre comments about the causes of his cancer (cunnilingus), managed to reposition him as solidly hetero.

Of course, the obvious reason for this is acceptability. Hollywood is happy to run ahead of the crowd if the numbers match up, but in the case of Behind the Candelabra the studio number crunchers perceived the film as appealing to a gay audience and not a big enough one at that; effectively a niche of the niche. It was this conclusion that led Soderbergh to seek financing from HBO and gave an odd mongrel status to the film as a film in the rest of the world and a TV movie in America, where it garnered a more than respectable slice of the audience on its premiere. The insistence of its publicity - typified by the press conference line above - that the gayness was not an important part of the film is understandable when seen in this context. Anticipating that no one will go and see a gay film, or tune in for that matter, everyone insists this is a love story, really, y’know, universal.

And yet Behind the Candelabra is a very gay movie and the filmmakers obviously know this. There is an abiding irony in an early scene where Matt Damon’s Scott, watching Liberace’s stage performance with a friend, is baffled that the audience doesn’t know how gay it actually is, preferring to see what they want to see. Likewise, we can see this as a universal love story, but we’re missing something if that is all we do. Within the film, despite his public closetedness, it is Lee (Michael Douglas) who is the most fully committed to his sexuality. He is voracious, experimental, enjoys porn and enhances sex with drugs. Scott is more coy and uncertain, claiming to be bisexual, but as Lee waspishly points out there is no real evidence that he’s attracted to women. Lee’s dedicated commitment to kitsch, his flamboyance and stage craft are also part of the more general performance of his life - the truth hiding in full view - and seem inextricably linked to his sexuality. Despite the ample opportunities for camping it up, Soderbergh doesn’t overindulge himself, allowing Lee his moments on stage but otherwise playing the gayness straight. Baz Luhrmann would have made a more Liberace-like film, it could be argued, but chances are it would have been as flat and uninteresting as his recent Gatsby travesty. Soderbergh is also keen to show Lee not conforming to the stereotype: wielding his flinty business acumen when it suits him, or showing something less than infatuated devotion when it comes to his mother, Frances (Debbie Reynolds).

That this is a love story about two gay men may not change a great deal from an emotional point of view, but there are obvious dramatic tensions about the love that “dare not speak its name,” compared with the more humdrum acceptability of heterosexual love. The emotional impact of Brokeback Mountain depends on the misery and heartache caused by recognizing the almost impossibility of Ennis and Jack Twist’s doomed, but lifelong affair. The tension of Behind the Candelabra comes with the way that Scott must continually adopt socially acceptable roles - first as Lee’s driver, then almost, and weirdly, his adopted son - because any bold public admission would destroy Lee’s career. Heterosexual love on the other hand has very little in the way of obstacle to it, which is perhaps why it has left behind classic melodrama for the soggy mush of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, or - more frequently - the refuge of romantic comedy. With the increasing acceptance of homosexuality - most visibly apparent in the widespread fight for same sex marriage - it is perhaps no coincidence that Brokeback Mountain, Milk and Behind the Candelabra are all period films, a final nostalgic goodbye and good riddance to the good old bad days when love had everything ranged against it. Homophobia becomes Verona, but now Verona is largely gone.

The argument against this can be seen in the triumph of Blue is the Warmest Color (released here in November). Abdellatif Kechiche’s film is uncompromisingly gay, with a ten minute sex scene of rare explicitness, beauty and power (the word “scene” in fact feels misapplied), and yet it deftly avoids all the clichés of the coming out story that it essentially is. There is no scene of parental disapproval, very little overt homophobia, and an unusual lack of angst. Its contemporary setting also means there is no historical prejudice with which to contend. The agonies and ecstasies of love and sex come from love itself and not the social status of a specific sexuality. The lovers could be heterosexual, except for the fact that, of course, they’re not.

This Alternate Take was published on July 13, 2013.

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