The acting is great, the sets and the costumes are beautiful, but the film lacks conviction says Lucy Clements
As Pride hits London this weekend, the praise that HBO is enjoying for being gutsy enough to make ‘Behind the Candelabra’ highlights how far mainstream cinema still has to go in its portrayal of non-heterosexual characters.
Rejected by the Hollywood studios as too controversial, in America the Liberace biopic was released straight to TV, with Michael Douglas praising Matt Damon’s bravery for taking the role, saying “‘Bourne’! A man in the prime of his career going this route?! I was in awe of Matt's courage."
In fact, there is little controversial about the film, other than that the love story is about two men, and we briefly see them in sexual situations. Matt Damon is a well-established straight actor with a wife and kids; if this was a brave role for him then we really haven’t made that much progress since the times of Liberace. An actor can play a myriad of unsavoury characters but the role that they’re most worried the audience won’t forgive them for is one which shows them having gay sex.
The acting is great, the sets and the costumes are beautiful, but the film lacks conviction. With such a depth of material available to pull from, it largely ignores the wider context and plays it safe, accepting without condemnation that Liberace’s audience would have deserted him if he’d been openly gay, without exploring any effect this had on him. This is a problem actors still face today: there’s no shortage of rumours about Hollywood heart-throbs remaining in the closet because networks believe the audience could never accept them as action heroes, while James Bond has to be unquestionably straight both on screen and off.
Selling it as a beautiful love story is misleading, and a further example of this nervousness about what the audience will accept. Rather, it is a cynical tale of grooming. At one point Douglas turns to Damon and whispers darkly into his ear, “I want to be your father, your brother, your lover.” The bisexual vulnerable young man is manipulated by Liberace in a doomed, unbalanced relationship.
Let’s not herald the film as brave simply because it’s about a gay relationship. Instead we need more films that fight against the notion that anything other than a heterosexual relationship is controversial. With Alan Carr, Clare Balding, Graham Norton and Grayson Perry all winning TV Baftas this year, the UK audience is ready: it’s time for films to catch up.