In the 1970s Liberace was one of the highest paid entertainers in America, up there in the showbiz pantheon with Frank, Elvis and Barbra. Now he has virtually disappeared from the collective cultural memory-astonishing really, for whether he inspired devotion or nausea, he most certainly was a one-off. The nearest thing we've had since in terms of piano-playing diamond-encrusted showmanship — at least before he became all worthy and paternal — is Elton John, and he comes from a different tradition. Liberace was Variety through and through, albeit on steroids and as produced by a hallucinating Ken Russell.
Few if any people under 20, glancing at the posters on the tube for Behind the Candelabra, the new biopic with Michael Douglas, can have any clue who Liberace was. I think it was this, and not the rampant homophobia complained of by its director Steven Soderbergh, which caused every Hollywood studio to turn the picture down (it ended up being made and shown by HBO, but in Europe has cinematic distribution). Hollywood cares about money and money only, and if gay-themed pictures got the tills ringing loud enough they'd be churning them out three a week. But the fact is, studio bosses these days have to have their eyes fixed firmly on the likes and dislikes of 14-year-old Mexican, Japanese and, increasingly, Chinese boys, for they are their main audience. And these kids like superheroes and elves, not 1970s camp retro, however knowingly or not it's served up.
I've never in any case been convinced by the homophobia charge that's levelled regularly at Hollywood by actors, indie directors and Rupert Everett. I can't think of a town that has a more established and visible gay power base, nor one where that power really means something; our own gay A-list is by comparison paltry. And it is right-on Democrat too; I recall attending one party in the Hollywood Hills (known locally as the Swish Alps) hosted by an out gay producer, packed wall to wall with guys who were there on the basis of wealth, influence or simply looks. It was a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. In five years in LA I met just one out-and-proud Republican, and he was an agent.
In Liberace's day it was admittedly different. Concentrating on his relationship with Scott Thorson, 40 years his junior and on whose memoir it is based, Behind the Candelabra does a good job of recreating the 1970s without wallowing in postmodern irony; it's a straight-up period film. It also has the virtue of taking Liberace seriously where it would have been so easy to make him into a cartoon. If anything, Michael Douglas makes him slightly less grotesque, slightly harder and more masculine than the soft-as-marshmallow character I remember seeing on TV. We're never really convinced by the spin that in the midst of all this gilt and fur there was a story of true love, because it's clear from the start that poor Scott (played by Matt Damon) will eventually be traded in for a younger model. But it is still a highly absorbing portrayal of the particular kind of symbiotic relationship that has always existed between rich, powerful men and poor but handsome boys, or pretty girls for that matter.