‘Behind The Candelabra’ And The Corrosive Impact Of The Closet

“It’s funny that this crowd would like something this gay,” Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), tells his date, Bob Black (Scott Bakula) at a Liberace concert in Las Vegas at the beginning of Steven Soderbergh’s HBO movieBehind The Candelabra. “Oh, they have no idea he’s gay,” Bob tells him. That willingness to see what you want to see, and the question of who can hide in plain sight, and under what circumstances, is at the heart of this biopic of the musician, and Scott, who would become his lover. Behind The Candelabra is campy, blunt, and strange, but most of all, it’s an enormously perceptive movie about how the closet works, and how the lack of legal recognition for relationships can become not just a weapon the state uses to distinguish between its citizens, but a void that the people in those relationships can use to hurt and degrade each other.

The New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in her review of the movie that for Liberace, “His was a closet that had its own pleasures, particularly since he had the resources to decorate it to his specifications.” That is undeniably, tackily true, but there’s a larger point there. Liberace had the resources to design a closet that would be largely impregnable to the outside world, including the ability to get rumors about which woman he might be dating, and what kinds of women he liked, into the press, and the lawyers who could successfully mount libel suits in countries like Britain, discouraging other press outlets from pursuing the suggestion that he might be gay. But because Liberace had to construct that closet so carefully, and to consider the consequences were he to be outed, he also had confronted his sexuality fully. If Liberace was going to go to the effort of closeting himself, he was going to make sure he had a dandy time while ensconced in it, whether explaining to Scott that “I’ve had implants,” asking the younger man to use poppers during sex, or consuming pornography and visiting sex shops.

Scott, by contrast, has neither Liberace’s need nor resources to hide his sexuality from the outside world. His foster parents seem relatively understanding about his sexuality—though not his decision to take up with the older musician—and before he meets Liberace, he’s obviously got a social life, meeting Bob at a Los Angeles bar. But Scott also seems to have a more ill-defined relationship to his sexuality, and to the very act of sex with men, than his more formally closeted lover. He maintains that he’s bisexual, a sexual identity regarded with contempt by Liberace’s houseboy Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay), who witheringly tells Scott that he’s replaceable, and later by Liberace himself, who says he sees no evidence that Scott likes women at all, suggesting that bisexuality is a sort of waystation Scott’s stuck at because he can’t admit that he’s gay. And it’s not just the label he uses that comes under criticism from Liberace. “I don’t know how you can be gay and be such a prude,” the older man asks Scott when the younger man objects to some of the pornography Liberace is watching. “Disgusting is all in the eye of the disgustee.” And when Liberace wants to switch up their customary sexual positions, Scott expresses discomfort, telling his lover no “Because I don’t like it…Because it’s kind of repugnant.” “Only when it’s done to you,” Liberace deftly diagnoses him.

But one area where Scott is clear of his feelings, and where he wants clear structures to validate them, is in terms of his emotional commitment to Liberace. At one point, Liberace floats the idea of adopting Scott, in part on the grounds that he wants to fill every familial void in Scott’s life. “Why would a grown man want to adopt another grown man?” Rose (Jane Morris), Scott’s foster mother asks him. “So we can be family,” Scott tells her, grasping for the words to explain to her that it’s the only legal recognition available to them as gay men in the 1980s. But the movie quickly exposes the limitations of that substitute status when Scott, after having acquiesced to Liberace’s request that he have plastic surgery that makes Scott look like a young Liberace, is mistaken for Liberace’s son by a fan. In attempting to be seen as part of Liberace’s family, his real role in the pianist’s life has become part of Liberace’s disguise. And later, during their breakup, Scott’s confronted bluntly by the limits of the law to protect him when Liberace casts him off. “I don’t care what the judge says. We were fucking married,” Scott tells his lawyer bitterly during a series of depositions when Liberace denies any feelings for hims whatsoever. “Well, the law says you weren’t,” the man tells him. “And a contract for sex can’t be enforced.” This isn’t a matter of a hospital keeping a man from his partner. Rather, Liberace, master of the bureaucracy of the closet, is using the lack of legal recognition of his relationships to reduce Scott to a mere employee.

But in an oddly tender coda to the movie, Scott, now far removed from his former grandeur, working in a copy shop and living in a modest apartment, goes to visit Liberace on the eve of the older man’s death from AIDS-related complications. “I don’t want you to touch me,” a very ill Liberace tells Scott, echoing the early conventional wisdom that HIV could be spread by simple physical contact rather than bodily fluids. “I don’t think that matters, Lee,” Scott tells him gently. It may have taken Scott longer to come to terms with himself than Liberace did. But at the very end, Scott is the more modern gay man.