Socialist Worker

Behind the Candelabra—Liberace's glittering career spent hiding in plain sight

by Josh Hollands
Issue No. 2357

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Lee and Scott in Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Lee and Scott in Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra is about the relationship of showman W?adziu Valentino Liberace—known to his friends as Lee—and his young lover, Scott Thorson.

The story is based on Thorson’s memoirs. 

Liberace dazzled his audiences for five decades. He became a millionaire superstar with his opulent pianos and stage costumes—his “palatial kitsch”. 

He went to great lengths to hide his sexuality as he became more and more successful. He hired lawyers to sue ex-lovers and publicists to create a heterosexual identity for him. 

He never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality and this continued after his death as his staff attempted to cover up that he died of complications from Aids in 1987. 

If this seems faintly ridiculous in retrospect, it’s much worse to be reminded of Hollywood’s homophobia now. 

Director Steven Soderbergh—despite his many awards including an Oscar—said he couldn’t get Hollywood studios to release it. 


Soderbergh was told the film wouldn’t be viable because its audience would be too small—it was just “too gay.”  

The television network HBO seized the opportunity. Screened at primetime in the US it got 3.5 million viewers—making it the network’s most successful original film in a decade. 

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are very engaging as the two lovers. 

Rob Lowe plays the plastic surgeon, whose stretched frozen face shows he’s been sampling too much of his own merchandise.

 Soderbergh draws us close to Liberace and puts a barrier between us as well, just as Liberace does in his relationship with Thorson. 

We are captivated by Liberace’s skills and despairing at his ploys to exercise his power and manipulate people around him.  

Scott for his part gets jewellery, suits, impressive cars and even homes. 

In return he is forced to resign his own identity—even having plastic surgery to look like a young Liberace—at his lover’s behest. 

Liberace bought his way out of persecution. 

Ordinary LGBT people had to fight for their rights on the streets, in elections and workplaces through the 1970s. 

As the 1980s rolled in and the Reagan government did nothing to fight HIV-Aids, Liberace—with many others—remained silent, to protect his own image and legacy as products to be sold for years to come.

No one survives this depiction unscathed. But what a story! As Liberace says, “It’s got everything but a fire in the orphanage”. And those Hollywood fools couldn’t see it.

Behind the Candelabra on general release now

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Article information

Tue 11 Jun 2013, 17:35 BST
Issue No. 2357
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