There is a scene in the movie Behind the Candelabra where Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) takes his young lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) to a lawyer's office with the intention of adopting him. Liberace planned to secure Scott's future in a time and place where men who were lovers were unable to legally marry. Sounds very similar to the state of play in the US even today, and of course it is. Fortunately in the UK and many other EU countries same-sex lovers can now marry, or enter into a civil partnership, and while there are a few States in the US where this is possible, the Defence of Marriage Act (1996) means that such marriages are not recognised at a Federal level.
All the same, older men and women can still adopt their younger lovers, and they do. When I was at University in the late 1970s a fellow student and friend told me that he was going to be adopted by his lover. In the film, when Scott tells his foster mother that he is going to be adopted, she is left dumb struck; and so was I when my friend told me the same. I was young and unaware of this possibility. I discussed it with my friend only once. The following fall term he returned, with a nice new wardrobe (for the time) and a brand new surname. It was difficult at the start for me to remember to call him by it, but he would remind me that if he were a woman and had married he would have changed his name. I always through the maiden-name/married-name convention was pretty retrograde and recognise that lots of people doubt that marriage can ever be made equitable to both partners. In the UK many different-sex couples want to be able to enter a civil-partnership, which, as its name states, is about two equal partners before the law.
I am in a civil-partnership and would not want be married, but respect the rights of those same-sex lovers who do, and am very happy that the reactionary forces in the Church of England and the Houses of Lords and Commons have been out voted. But having my basic rights voted on leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Either we are all equal under the law, or we are not. Russia has just passed a draconian anti-gay law, as has Nigeria, and Uganda is still trying to introduce the death penalty which already exists in many Islamic states for homosexual acts.
From left: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe
While my friend's adoption went well (and he eventually inherited his partner's estate) the movie documents Liberace's cold hearted betrayal of Scott. He never filed adoption paperwork, eventually tired of Scott, and replaced him with a younger model (as Scott had displaced a predecessor). Douglas and Damon brilliantly portray a disturbing relationship, in which various forms of dependency are at play. Thorson longed for a father figure, whilst Liberace longed for youth and companionship; we hope it will end in love, but know it will end in tears. At one point, Liberace has Thorson's face operated on by a deranged plastic surgeon (spookily played by Rob Lowe), to make him look like his younger self. Lowe steals every scene he is in, which is saying something as the leads are so honest (and naked) in their portrayals, and the sex scenes feel authentic (if creepy). Director Steven Soderbergh handles the material expertly.
In his life time Liberace (a favorite of ladies of a certain age and in-the-know homosexuals) always denied that he was gay, even winning a lawsuit against the UK Daily Mirror (in 1959) when they implied that he was. He famously said that he "cried all the way to the bank". Yet Soderbergh reported that every studio in Hollywood turned the film down claiming it was too gay for a general audience. The film was not shown in American theatres (making it ineligible to be nominated for an Academy Award, despite Douglas' Oscar-quality performance) only on HBO, who are to be commended and hopefully rewarded for their faith in the project, having adopted the film as it were.
Behind the Candelabra
on general release
Photo Credits: Entertainment One