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Michael Douglas Liberates as Liberace

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Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderberg's highly buzzed-about final bow, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, has arrived on HBO, and it has made Douglas' father uncomfortable. In an interview with ABC, Douglas said, "My father was uncomfortable with--," before pausing. With what? With the furs and makeout scenes, to which the press constantly, anxiously directs our attention? Not exactly. The actor continued: "With my death scene." Douglas had been diagnosed with stage-4 throat cancer prior to filming Candelabra, so his mortality was understandably on his father's mind. But with all the talk of these "brave" straight actors stepping into "flamboyant" roles, Douglas' poignant admission may clarify the discomfort this film more generally evokes, revealing what lies beneath (or behind) male anxieties about homosexuality, feminine behaviors or anything we associate with vulnerability: the fear of death.

Fear of death "will culminate in a disparagement of the feminine," writes professor Jerry S. Piven, explaining that internal conflicts that men have about women (e.g., lust vs. rejection, love vs. loss, power vs. vulnerability, etc.) are often "displaced onto those feared and detested women, and they become sirens, murderous temptresses ... while the men gain moral victory." Ironically, two of Michael Douglas' iconic characters are seduced by "murderous temptresses," in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. So when the press marvels at his "risky"/"risqué" turn in Candelabra, it may have less to do with him kissing a man than with his willful and thorough embodiment of a "temptress" (a seductively feminine rather than victoriously masculine character) and the great vulnerability he reveals, which we've never before seen from him. Perhaps it's no accident that he embraces this effeminate role at a time when he has no choice but to confront his own mortality.

Douglas gives an emboldened performance, and though he consistently moves and speaks with a mellifluous, feminine sensuality throughout the film, what's most uncanny is that he seems to be playing Michael Douglas. Rather than impersonate his sparkly subject superficially, his flame is lit from within, and as if by anesthetizing his own famously gruff, straight-leading-man-persona, he exposes a playful, gentle, compassionate version of himself. (Watching him in the role, one imagines that he understands Liberace's vanity and struggle between public and private life much more deeply than initially meets the eye). As the complicated, glitzy piano man, Douglas is confidently life-affirming and love-affirming and boldly death-aware, reminding us, by contrast, that when we limit our expressive possibilities, we deny ourselves access to such empathy and creativity, instead perpetuating fear and hate (of death, of women and of those more vulnerable than ourselves).

Do all men have to wait for death to flutter so close to be allowed such freedom? Douglas praises his co-star, Matt Damon, for risking "career death" and taking an effeminate, gay role while still in his prime, but Damon is an outlier among his peers, and films about gay, effeminate or just plain vulnerable men are nearly nonexistent, even to this day. (Behind the Candelabra was turned down by every major film studio.) Are men and boys expected to limit their expression to forms of dominance and aggression until death taps on their doors?

Here we might consider the great resources within women: the willingness to play a range of emotions and gendered behaviors onscreen among them. Studies show that women cope with stress, grief and loss more openly and seek support (including mental health treatment) more frequently than men do, suggesting that they generally have a stronger grasp on researcher Brene Brown's conclusion that "[v]ulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is courage." If we allowed more men to believe those words, we might see fewer of them anxiously grasping at illusions of virility and impenetrability, as if to cheat death. We might see less aggression and derision at the expense of women, gay men, effeminate men and emotionally sensitive men. For example, when Ben Affleck presented an award to his good friend Damon before filming for Candelabra began, he felt the compulsion to facetiously impersonate Damon's father, saying, "Terrific, Matt. I can't wait to see you up there blowing Michael Douglas under a piano." In contrast, Candelabra producer Jerry Weintraub says that while on set during a sex scene between Damon and Douglas, he turned anxiously to Damon's mother, who simply stated, "That was beautiful."

Hopefully we won't view this as a masculine/feminine divide for long. The new Star Trek film, for example, indicates that men embracing vulnerability could be the way of the future. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (as Kirk and Spock, respectively) give wonderfully sensitive performances, and although we are reminded that their characters are both unquestionably straight (Kirk constantly flirts with every species of female, while Spock frequently kisses Zoe Saldana), the film is undeniably centered on the love story (or "bromance," if you like) between the two men, both of them affected and changed by the possibility of the other's death. This focus on a male/male emotional relationship only strengthens the story rather than weakening it, allowing both actors to play a variety of emotions, freely and without restraint. We can see more of this if we allow it. Men don't have to be at death's door, or play the most bedazzled guy who ever was, in order to express themselves with emotional freedom.

Michael Douglas' performance as Liberace is vital, revealing what is possible beyond fear of loss, fear of emasculation or fear of death. Maybe soon we'll see more leading men playing emotionally diverse roles and more films about women and gender-nonconforming people, and maybe more of these people will be able to play themselves. As for the rest of us, perhaps we'll risk more discomfort as we perform our own lives, enriching them with vulnerability rather than enshrouding them in fear.

This piece first appeared in Mark O'Connell's column, "Quite Queerly," on PsychologyToday.com.