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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Behind the Gothic Candelabra

Updated: May 5, 2023

Last month I graduated with a MA in Gothic: Culture, Subculture, Counterculture from St Mary's University Twickenham. The University is next door to Strawberry Hill House, the Gothic home of Horace Walpole who wrote what is considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764).

I did my dissertation on four films featuring plastic surgery, paying particular attention to the dynamics of the creator and the creation, and the Gothic novels to which they allude.

Here's a extract from a conference paper I gave on one of the films, 2013's Behind the Candelabra....

Steven Soderbergh’s made for TV movie stars Matt Damon as Scott Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace. Based on Thorson’s memoirs is traces their 5-year relationship both on and off stage. Told from Scott’s POV we are first invited to witness the public persona Liberace has created, before going to see what lies behind the candelabra.

Liberace’s extreme level of narcissism is portrayed in the film through the set décor of his mansion, All based on Liberace’s own home and in his on-stage costuming and performance style.

And, of course, through the use of plastic surgery:

Liberace has already had work done, but on Seeing himself on TV exclaims "I look like hell. Why hasn't anyone told me how old I look?" and books in for more surgery with Dr Jack Startz.

Dr Jack (Rob Lowe) was a real plastic surgeon to the stars. Although he did have some minor surgery, not to the extreme portrayed in the film.

The Liberace/Scott relationship is a complex web of emotional needs and desires for both. They are clearly shown as lovers, and at the same time Liberace wants to adopt Scott (who was in his late teens/early 20s in real life, 40 years Liberace junior, and Scott agrees. When Liberace decides for a second round of surgery he suggested that Startz surgically remake Thorson into a younger version of himself. The operation was deemed a success and he was frequently thought to be Liberace’s son. The adoption didn’t go ahead, and they drifted apart sexually. When Liberace takes on a new younger healthier model, Scott is later evicted.

Just as Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson) was evicted following the arrival of Scott. Although it was not made a feature of, you can see from the styling that we are meant to think that Billy also underwent the same ‘twinning’ cosmetic surgery.

All of these traits, could lead one to ascribe Liberace as suffering from Narcissistic personality disorder, which is usually characterised as exaggerated feelings of self-importance, a constant and excessive need for admiration, a lack of understanding of others' feelings, taking advantage of the people around them or surrounding oneself with acolytes, spending a lot of time thinking about achieving success, obsessing about their appearance. All of which Liberace displays.

Like Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection, here Liberace has taken a step beyond mirrors and portraits, and so intoxicated by his own image makes his sexual partners look like him, so he effectively is making love to himself. Liberace could also be seen as a Dr Frankenstein-figure rejecting the very thing he created, whilst the obsession of staying forever young as your portraits is the wish Dorian had on seeing his says “How sad it is! I shall gown old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.”

As you may know, I do love a bio-pic, so much so I wrote a book on them! You can snap up a copy of Bio-Pics: a life in pictures here.

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