Apparently, 'Behind the Candelabra' Was too Gay for the Big Screen

Sunday night, HBO aired Behind the Candelabra staring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his long time lover, Scott Thorson.  From the moment I heard about this movie, I was very excited to see it and not because I am a fan of Liberace. There are very few films or television series in which the authentic lives of gay men are depicted.  If we do see gay men together, what we tend to see is a whole bunch of fade to black moments, with them clothed like they are going out in a winter storm.  We certainly don’t get to see that their relationship are every bit as complex as heterosexual relationship because that just might make them appear human and we simply can’t have that can we?  There’s morality to think about and ridiculous privilege to protect.

Douglas did a wonderful job playing Liberace and I personally believe that had this been on the big screen, at the very least he would have gotten an Oscar nomination. It struck me that Liberace could never be public about who he was and even wrote a book claiming that he never married because he kept seeking younger and younger women.  I think Behind the Candelabra, showed just how little the world has progressed since the Liberace died.  GLBT people are still closeting themselves because the world is filled with hate.

What I didn’t know when I watched Behind the Candelabra with the unhusband, is that it was intended to play in theaters. Apparently, Steven Soderbergh approached several studios and was resoundingly rejected.

Nobody would make it. We went to everybody in town. We needed $5
million. Nobody would do it…They said it was too gay. Everybody. This
was after Brokeback Mountain, by the way. Which is not as funny
as this movie. I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us…[The people
at HBO are] great and they’re really good at what they do, and
ultimately I think more people will see it, and that’s all you care
about. Studios were going, “We don’t know how to sell it.” They were
scared. (source)

What exactly is “too gay”?  How can there be something which is “too gay”? I am really glad that HBO decided to air this movie and did not shy away from it.  And this we don’t know how to market it line was absolute crap.  All they had to do was simply market the movie as exactly what it is – a story of two men who shared their lives for a significant length of time.  Sure, the morality police and the bigots would have been up in arms, but since when has controversy (note: I don’t believe the move in and of itself to be controversial) ever been bad for a movie?  In fact, the more bigots protest, the more people would want to see what all of the fuss is about.

This is not to say that I didn’t find elements of Behind the Candelabra disturbing.  In the movie, Liberace told Scott that he didn’t want to be remembered as an old queer, which means that even on his deathbed, he hated who he was.  In his lifetime, Liberace actively sued anyone who claimed that he was gay because he was desperate to remain in the closet.  Some of this certainly had to so with the effect it would have had on his career.  I am quite sure that the unspoken agreement with his fans was don’t ask, don’t tell.  The other part of course is that being gay is a stigmatized identity and as a Catholic, he would have been raised to see who he was as something to be ashamed of. 

Liberace was clearly a man with many issues, after all, who demands that their lover have plastic surgery to look like a younger version of themselves?  That is deeply, deeply, deeply twisted.  There is also the fact that Liberace died of AIDS and thus we had another portrayal of a gay relationship that ended in tragedy and death.  To defend his choice to make Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh brought up Brokeback Mountain, which is yet another movie, which ended in death.  So, even the few portrayals that make it to the light of day, always have a tragic ending — as though the moral we are supposed to walk away with — is that gay people die as a result of who they are.  If you compare the amount of gay death to the amount of straight death in the media, you will see that they are most certainly not equal.

In and of itself, a movie about Liberace is not a bad thing but I for one am waiting on a movie that shows two people engaged in a same sex relationship, who share their lives together, support and love each other and end with a little HEA.  Media portrayals of same sex relationships make it appear as though all LGBT people lead lives of absolute misery and unhappiness.  It would be nice to see a functional, healthy relationship for a change.  Stories like Behind the Candelabra do indeed need to be told but so do stories with a positive portrayal.  As much as Hollywood is always perceived as progressive, the truth of the matter is that they are just as married to problematic narratives regarding BLGT people as any other group. The stories they choose to tell are not accidental and come from a particular frame of reference.  Behind the Candelabra is not “too gay” for the big screen but it is yet another example of the gay death, and misery trope that has become representative of GLBT  people in the media.

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