Why is 'Behind the Candelabra' Like 'Valley of the Dolls'?

5.23.2013

By Jerry Portwood

And 14 other things we learned from Steven Soderbergh (including what it is like to turn 50)

We recently sat down with director Steven Soderbergh and his younger brother, Charley Soderbergh (a hairstylist in Atlanta), for a free-ranging interview to discuss their childhood growing up in Louisiana, memories of Liberace, and why Steven made his gayest movie ever, Beyond the Candelabra. Here are a series of outtakes from the interview that explain his "early retirement" as well as why Lee (as Liberace was known to friends) remains an important cultural touchstone that will appeal to a new generation.

Why Candelabra is like Valley of the Dolls...

Fellow filmmakers ask, 'Why would you want to watch something that isn't great? And are you making fun of it?' I don't understand why you wouldn't want to watch Valley of the Dolls. I'm like, 'Man you're missing out. I don't know what to say.' It's a good evening! I'm not a snob; I like a lot of different kinds of movies, that's why I've made a lot of different kinds of movies. And in some ways Candelabra was an opportunity to sort of make use of all those hours spent immersed in an attitude and aesthetic that I've wanted to mix up and add my whatever to it and put it out. For me, I'm just really glad that I got to finally make that kind of film, which is a kind of film that I really enjoyed. 

On taking Lee and Scott's relationship seriously...

I wanted the movie to be very generous to them. I took them seriously, and I took the relationship seriously.  I think it was a real relationship that was derailed and it ended up being derailed because of some very odd external forces, some of them social some of them professional. there was an extended period where they were fat and happy. If Lee didn't work in a business where he thought that was a problem, or being gay was a problem, I think there would have been a very different outcome. 

On Liberace being a great guy...

You can't find anyone to say anything bad about Liberace. By every standard, he was a great guy. And generous and loyal and just a sweetheart. But it was also very clear he never discussed his private life even with his close associates who he talked to every day. It will be interesting, difficult for those people to watch the movie. It is largely about a part of his life that he kept separate even from them. 

On forgetting that it's a gay thing...

Halfway through the movie, I sort of forget it's two guys, and I'm just in the relationship. I didn't know that was going to be the experience of it. But they are so present in it, and they really seem to behave like people behave when there's no camera around. It becomes really compelling to watch the two of them doing this together. It's sort of a Thelma & Louise thing, they decide to jump off the cliff. And they did, right out of the gate. 

On reading the legal depositions, and the truth about Scott's plastic surgery...

I managed to get a hold of the depositions, some of which are in the film. We had the transcripts, and Scott and Lee tell completely different stories about how Scott's surgery came to be. So somebody is not telling the truth. We went with Scott's version because, I don't know, I love the image of Lee bringing the painting over and saying, 'I want him to look like this.' Lee's saying that's not what happened, it was all Scott's idea. 

On why performers are all a little crazy—and different than movie stars...

[Liberace's life] was set within a landscape that was so extreme, and it involved a performer. Jerry Weintraub will be the first person to tell you that performers like that are very different than movie stars. There's a specific kind of need and specific kind of animal that's fed by performing in front of 20 or 25,000 people that's very different than being an actor. And Jerry's seen them all and worked with them all. And I get that. 

Anybody who's been in the business for any length of time has had the experience of crossing the line with someone really famous. At least all the ones I've dealt with are actually decent people. But I've seen it happen when you make a joke, something you would say to a friend, and then you realize, Oops, I just found the one area in which they're not like the rest of us. And I just managed to throw a dart and hit and how do I extricate myself and get things back to the way things were? This is sort of about that. Scott's called Lee a 'queen' a bunch of times, but then he calls him it at the end of that argument and you see the mask drop and you go, 'Oh shit, it's over.' Everybody has that point. I'm not saying it's specific to movie stars.

I was really interested in this sort of power dynamics in this relationship. You've got wealth, a certain kind of fame, and that presents a certain power, and Scott's power is that he's young and beautiful and amenable. Where's this going?  

On the first time Soderbergh realized someone he worked with was gay...

There was somebody I was working with on this show in 1980/81 at NBC who was gay who didn't fit any of the stereotypes that I'd been exposed to. This is someone who's affect had no sort of indicators whatsoever. Only after working together, and understanding what was happening in his life, did I understand that he was gay. That was another element of orienting myself to the range of definitions of what could be encompassed by this one tiny word. I realized I had been sucked into that stereotype, too—although I'd grown up with someone who is called that word. 

I think all of this, the fear that is generated, is all based the threat comes from the unknown. And not understanding what it is. The one way obviously to counteract that is people to be exposed to this sort of wide range of possibilities. So this doesn't seem like a threat to you at all. 

On why Debbie Reynolds' portrayal of Frances Liberace is so great...

[Debbie Reynolds] showed up on set one day in her costume and makeup, just to show me the full effect the day before she was going to shoot. We talked and someone asked, 'Who was that?' I said, 'That's Debbie Reynolds.' And he was like, 'Get the fuck out of here.' 

Debbie knew Frances, so she had the voice down; she knew her really well. Because she and Lee were in Vegas a lot together performing, and they would go out after. She knew Scott Thorson, so she was really helpful in describing the relationship with his mother—which was obviously a very significant one.

On the sadness and stigma caused by AIDS (and Elizabeth Taylor's greatness)...

I remember how intense the stigma was. It was overwhelming and, honestly, Liz Taylor was the only one from the get go who was like, 'I don't give a fuck.' I have a strong memory of how forceful and courageous she was. 'You need to get your act together and solve this,' she said. I remember being in Baton Rouge when the Rock Hudson headline came out.

You know, again talking about that era, there's such a real layer, an undercurrent of melancholy about the whole movie because of what we know was going on with AIDS. The fact is, were this happening now, they wouldn't be having a lot of these issues. They could be Elton John; they could be married. Nobody would care. 

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