Gay is the Old Black

Emmy bait.

Emmy bait.

One wonders if Michael Douglas would play the part of the homophobic father of Jonathan Allen, the 20 year-old from Tennessee who, after being thrown out of the house by his parents two years ago for being gay, wowed the judges on America’s Got Talent this past week.  Or, better yet, if Steven Soderbergh would even choose to direct a movie about it.  Or if Jerry Weintraub would ever decide to produce it.  The way all three did with the continuously lauded and now award-winning HBO film about Liberace’s later years and prurient love life, Behind the Candelabra.

My guess:  probably not.  Most movie stars of Mr. Douglas’ generation dislike playing roles they deem too unsympathetic.  And don’t use the example of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.  That film was made in and about the 1980s – a time when the general population actually agreed that “greed was good” and that ole Gordy was not so much a villain but a slightly tainted ideal many aspired to.

Of course, the majority of critics, audiences, and the cast and crew have not deemed the cable TV portrait of uber-gay Liberace unsympathetic either.  That would require that the real-life tale of the entertainer and his former lover Scott Thorson had been truly told.   The one about a 16-year old boy who was lured into the Las Vegas home of a fifty something mega-millionaire star with promises of wealth and family.  The one where the star repeatedly had sex with the boy for several years before he turned 18 (as well as any number of years after) with full knowledge said star was breaking the law. The same one where, when the older man got bored with the boy and the boy started taking too many drugs, as many young boys do, found a replacement and tossed him onto the street as he had so many others before him that were of age, with a little bit of money and a couple of fur coats – all the while publicly denying to his dying day that they ever had that kind of relationship or that said entertainer was even gay.



I’ve resisted writing anything but a few paragraphs about Behind the Candelabra up to this point because it seemed like the kind of film that would get some recognition for the circus stunt of Michael Douglas in sequins and a blonde-tressed Matt Damon screwing him from behind, and then disappear.

Such is not the case.  The cable film just won best drama and best actor from the Broadcast Critics Association.  It played to large and enthusiastic crowds at the Cannes Film Festival.  And mostly straight audiences (and some gay) seem to have embraced it as bold and groundbreaking.  Even those few writers who have dared to write critical pieces about the movie are often skewered, lacerated and told to get over themselves in the comments sections (even in respected places like Salon).   Also, Behind the Candelabra is likely to get nominated and win a slew of Emmy Awards, and go down in the books as “the courageous film all of the studios passed on with that director and that cast (can you believe it!) because they were too afraid of the gay subject matter.”  The latter is the meme that Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Weintraub have been tirelessly and successfully peddling during the last six months.

Which is why, at this point, I’m weighing in.

Frankly – this film disgusts me.  Not as much as the lies about the war in Iraq, gay bullying or the right wing trying to take away a woman’s rights to choose.  That’s a different level of disgust – maybe more like infuriation.   But disgust – yeah, that about covers this.

I’ve thought a lot about other words to use to describe my feelings – queasy, nauseated, annoyed or even…jealous?  But finally, after much consternation, I decided that the perfect world is, indeed….

dis·gust  A feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive.

It is worth noting it’s not the people attached to this film that signal disgust to me – I respect them all (professionally that is, I don’t know them personally).  It’s the film itself and everything it tells us about where the industry is today vis-à-vis movies about gay people – or about most minorities – that makes me want to run to the toilet and be sick.

Someone tell that to the Emmys!

Someone tell that to the Emmys!

This is also not to say that the life of Liberace might not make an interesting movie.  That story – the one about how a young Midwestern piano prodigy invented (and for years carried off) the flamboyantly effeminate (some would say homosexual) persona of a character named Liberace and became the world’s greatest entertainer while still managing to convince his mostly gay intolerant world of fans he was anything but homosexual, would indeed be fascinating and almost certainly would not have caused me to write any of this.  And, even if it wasn’t particularly good, I doubt it would actually have made me feel disgusted.

Of course,  we will never know for sure since that tale was far from the one HBO and this prestigious group of A-list film professionals chose to tell in 2013 – a time when gay marriage is not only favored by the majority of people in the US (and an overwhelming majority under 25) but where its difficult to read any daily print or online news source where a major story about something homosexual is not featured on the front page.  I mean, even me – a middle aged guy who was “born that way”- sometimes gets gay fatigue.


Still, true change in the movies, and the world, is not solely about the amount of ink you get or the measure of RAM you occupy on someone’s computer or website.  True change not only moves at a glacial pace but is often a one step forward, two steps back deal.  And this is where Behind the Candelabra comes in.  And me.  And my disgust.  The kind that I’m feeling right now as I compose this.

Writers are told all the time that their movies need a reason to be made. So are producers, directors, actors and studio executives.  But since writers are, by definition, the inventors of the first tangible version of a project, perhaps it is best to start with us.  As a writer one asks oneself:  What is the reason for this story?  Why make it?  What compels it to be told?  What would interest an audience?  Why will anyone care?  Why do I care?

I feel you Neil.

I feel you Neil.

I teach my writing students to ask these questions early on because I don’t want them to waste their time working on anything they are not fully invested in.  Even if it is the silliest, most exploitative story in the world, the author must find a way to imbue some kind of personal feelings of – well, something – into it.  Because if it doesn’t mean much to us, how can we expect it to mean anything to you?

I’ve watched Behind the Candelabra twice and have been looking for meaning, or even relevance, to today’s audiences.   Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • The story of a May-December relationship told from a gay perspective could be fair diversion, one supposes.  But that would seem only fair (and not exploitative) if we had a bunch of films about other, less prurient (and more successful) same sex relationships to compare it to – which we don’t.
  • The emotional journey of a relationship can sometimes be enough to override a lack of story.  In essence, the ride you get having a front row seat to the ups and downs of human interaction between two people over a period of time can substitute for a paucity of plot points.  There are some emotions here – for instance, shock and sadness that an older person could actually convince a younger person to have extensive plastic surgery to remake their face to that of their “mentor.”  But certainly not ever sadness or shock that this relationship will end badly – or interest in how it does – which knocks out most of the tension throughout the film and causes the last hour (and more) to be deadly dull.

    A sharp contrast to this knee-knudge heard 'round the world.

    A sharp contrast to this knee-nudge heard ’round the world.

  • Maybe it’s the spectacle??  Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere.  The sequins, the clothes, the excess of a hidden lifestyle and time period in show business that no longer exists is lots of fun.  And those gays – who better than them to do this up in style!  (Though note: there is not a single gay person in the principal above-the-line talent or crew).
  • Another attraction could be the over-the-top characters themselves, who are at the very least entertaining in a very broad, stereotypical manner compared to what else was going on in the world at that time.  The homosexuals have always done this well since time began and it makes audiences quite comfortable to view them this way, thank you very much.   And certainly, why make any movie that is not at least fun!!??
  • Juicy parts for actors who can be cast against type.  The old Hollywood joke: Every time a straight man puts on a dress they give him an Oscar?  Well, not anymore.  (Note: Even James Franco’s Marilyn Monroe drag as Oscar host fell flat a few years ago).  So, you have to find new ways for them to do it.  How about a happy recipient of anal sex who dies tragically that can’t be X-rated?  It’s Oscar/Emmy bait for Michael Douglas.  (He even gets to have AIDS, but we can downplay that ‘cause the real life Liberace did!). Plus, what about an enjoyment of Speedos, suntans and Las Vegas?  It’s the flip side of Ocean’s 11 for Matt Damon and he’ll jump at that!   What actor wouldn’t want to play younger than they are, get fat and then skinny and then fat and skinny again as they age, become addicted to drugs and then recover?  No one, that’s who.
Yeah, I'm exhausted too.

Yeah, I’m exhausted too.

But please, please, please, please – do not tell me this movie is groundbreaking or even something different.  And if you’re a high-powered A-lister, don’t keep spreading your tales of woe about how the heads of movie studios are ruining the business by not taking chances on this kind of film.   They might be ruining the business by not taking chances but NOT taking a chance on this film was exactly the right choice.  It has no relevance to 2013.  It had relevance in 1983, and in 1993 – at the height of the AIDS epidemic – when it might have meant something other than an easy way to make some money, get some attention and garner a few awards for “courage.”

The people who made it should know better.  And might benefit from watching Jonathan Allen tell another all too familiar, yet far more commercially relevant and compelling story for today.  This story was  indeed shown last week not on the big screen or on cable television but on, of all things,  network reality TV  – America’s Got Talent, to be exact.

It is indeed the golden age of television.  In some circles, at least.

5 thoughts on “Gay is the Old Black

  1. I had the same thought — why is it that nearly every movie with gay characters is ABOUT being gay. That is, there is no plot other than the relationship? Why can’t we have a gay relationship that serves the regular plot, as straight relationships do. It will never be really equal until the world stops making gay movies for straight actors to win awards playing (it’s always straight actors “stretching their range.” Why are all the gay actors afraid of playing gay characters? Why does it matter whether the actor is gay or straight? It’s unspoken, but I think most people don’t think a gay actor is really acting if he is playing “gay.” In that way “character” goes out the window, and only “gay” remains.)

    That being said, I have to admit that I enjoyed Behind the Candelabra otherwise, mostly because I confess (maybe I’m too young?) that I knew NOTHING about Liberace. His life fascinated me. And that is what kept me engaged. But that is probably a generational thing. As you said, for people that did know of him, there is perhaps a much better film to be made.

    • More and more gay actors are happy to play gay – some hesitate if they’re not out because they don’t want to be labeled but that’s slowly becoming a bit of a vestige of the past. Straight actors, however, love playing “gay” because they see it as a “stretch,” usually. I can’t help but feel, perhaps wrongly in some cases, that the gay character, especially the larger than life ones, are seen/shown as “the other.” Which is what irks a lot of gay people. This was not the case with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. He was larger than life but not a grotesque other. Liberace and his would not necessarily have to be portrayed as grotesque, either. I believe it’s a choice that was made. I knew that world – it was a mix of fun, grotesque, smart, sad and average. They simplified it and never got much beyond the surface. There’s a great story to be told here. This wasn’t it. It was a carnival attraction – which doesn’t mean there weren’t entertaining moments. Carnival attractions can be entertaining too. When they’re amusement park rides – not lives.

  2. I, for one, would absolutely love to see a good movie about the life of Liberace. I have the fondest memories of watching him on TV from childhood. He was funny and sparkly and talented and nice on TV. As a child, watching him made me want to adopt those qualities. And there was always this sense that he was different from the norm, in a way I didn’t understand at the time, but somehow just knew. He always made me feel like I could take what was different and awkward about myself and still have something to give, something that could make people happy. And he sparkled yet didn’t make me feel ashamed as so many sparkly people did during those years. I just felt joy and delight. Or maybe I wouldn’t love to see a well-made movie about his life. Maybe I’d rather continue to enjoy the public view.

    I have heard that he gave back to the community in his home in Vegas, years and years of music lessons for disadvantaged children. Many talented and successful people throughout history have sucked at personal relationships. Many have gone so far as to be willfully abusive to those close to them. I don’t condone that behavior, but it’s common enough to warrant analysis by society, I think. And there have been many books written and movies made that expose those personal stories.

    I haven’t seen this film so I can’t comment on it specifically. I’m inclined to not see it now that I’ve read your review, despite my original interest in it. But I am still interested in the story. So I can’t agree with you fully when you question why it was made. I don’t have the perspective you have on the history of homosexuality in our culture. Nor do I have the experience and knowledge of the film industry that you have, so my opinion may not be very useful. But the idea of this film, as I have heard it presented in interviews with Steven Soderbergh, struck a chord with me.

  3. I also liked him very much on television and always remember him as being sweet and fun – not sleazy – sort of like an odd, eccentric uncle. But we were both children 🙂 I like the idea of doing a film on this interesting life, but the part chosen and then way it was presented seemed to skirt so much of what was interesting in favor of so much that was sensationalistic and, well, not really tackling what was most interesting about him – while also leaving out important real life details about the reality of the relationship being covered.

  4. It will be interesting to compare this movie to “Kill Your Darlings” which I am very much looking forward to!

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