Steven Spielberg, possibly the most recognizable name in Hollywood, has entertained and educated America for decades with his films—Jaws (1975), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones (1984), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998)—to name a very few. Steven Spielberg’s resume lists one big-grossing blockbuster after another, and no other director, producer, or writer comes close to duplicating this. He stands alone on top of the "Ivory Tower of Hollywood," where he could rest comfortably on his laurels with a career that goes beyond even his wildest dreams.
Steven Soderbergh inspired by Spielberg
Yet, there is another successful Steven in the movie-making business, set on that course by receiving serious exposure to movies from his movie-buff father, coupled with an awe-inspired viewing of Jaws—directed by Spielberg, of course. This man is Steven Soderbergh and he can boast an impressive resume as well. Soderbergh spun out his own movie-making magic with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Traffic (2000), the Ocean’s Eleven series (2001), and Magic Mike (2012). His movie Erin Brockovich (2000) won him a much-deserved Oscar.
Soderbergh's calling - a film on Liberace
Born in 1963, Soderbergh was among a generation familiar with America’s infatuation with the flamboyant Liberace—an outrageous pianist, singer, and actor. Soderbergh felt called to do a film on Liberace, but struggled with a framework to base it upon. When he came across the book written by Liberace’s alleged lover, Scott Thorson—Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990), he knew how he was going to preserve Liberace on film. However, finding a studio willing to finance a project is the necessary evil for every director with good ideas in Hollywood.
Directors can easily round up the best among available screenwriters, costume designers, actors, prop designers, etc., but coming up with the money to make the movie is the first order of business. Even in this age of enlightenment for LGBT causes, studios are still skittish about financing gay-themed movies. It’s all about return on investment. The concern about the Liberace film was whether or not mainstream America would open their wallets to watch unsettling scenes of an older man romancing a teenage boy. Producer Jerry Weintraub, another movie-making legend, said this about his attraction to the project (HBO, 2013):
What excites me is story and character. . . . The other thing that excites me is working with people like Steven Soderbergh. He and I have a great relationship. That excited me. Working with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon excited me. Working with Richard LaGravenese’s script excited me. Working with Marvin Hamlisch excited me. The people involved are so creative and compelling; I’d be out of my mind not to do it.
Thus, Weintraub managed to interest HBO executives with Soderbergh’s idea and a deal was eventually sealed. These executives were subsequently rewarded for their risky investment in Behind the Candelabra with two Golden Globes and numerous other awards.
Soderbergh attracts top actors to HBO
It must be a testament to Soderbergh’s reputation that he was able to attract two big-name actors, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, for a movie that was not destined for the big screen. These actors’ skills contributed enormously to Behind the Candelabra's success. I am wondering if we are entering an age heavily influenced by Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and home theater technology, where actors don’t think of making it to the big-screen as the ultimate determining factor of success in Hollywood. The same must go for directors.
Now today, according to IMDb (“Steven Spielberg,” 2016) Steven Spielberg has a slew of movie projects in the works, so he is not resting on his laurels anytime soon. Yet, Soderbergh has decided that the time has come to fold up his movie-making chair. He has since moved on to other ventures such as releasing a novella on Twitter (@Bitchuation). In my view, it will not be surprising when he feels called to make another movie.
Entertainers, musicians, movies, and all popular cultural items come and go, but some manage to keep their profiles high across multi generations; Elvis, The Beatles, Star Wars are examples among many. It is a safe bet that our great-great grandchildren will be reading books on a certain boy wizard named Harry.
While these cultural icons survive the test of time, there are those that belong to only the generation that first embraced them. Liberace—American pianist, singer, and actor—is clearly one of those.
20th Century “Mr. Showmanship”
Also known as “Mr. Showmanship,” Liberace’s fame spanned the mid 20th century, when many a woman had a “celebrity crush” on this flamboyant entertainer.
Liberace’s shows in Las Vegas were stuff of legend, and rightly so according to my husband who saw one during a business trip. He recalls when his mother’s dressmaker replaced a framed picture of Cary Grant with one of Liberace, an entertainer who had that knack of making you feel like you were the special person in the audience, that he was performing solely for your enjoyment.
Liberace unknown to millennials
Recently while visiting in the hospital room of my granddaughter, as a steady stream of young nurses and patient care techs trickled in, I asked each one if she had heard of Liberace. They all expressed confusion, scanning their brains for mention of that unusual name. Not a one could give an affirmative response. Liberace must be slowly but surely dying that third death in which no one speaks of him or remembers him anymore. One nurse did not even bother to ask who Liberace was, and instead started talking about Prince, an entertainer that I know next to nothing about, except that my Facebook newsfeed was inundated with posts regarding his recent death.
Can there be a Liberace revival?
However, there is hope for Liberace’s name and fame to linger on for more years. For the movie, Behind the Candelabra (2013), Director Steven Soderbergh made the wise choice to cast Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson; both actors are well renowned with multi-generational appeal, and loyal audiences. In a way, Scott Thorson, his life story, and how it resonated with Steven Soderbergh, saves Liberace from becoming obsolete.
How is that? Well, Behind the Candelabra focuses on the volatile six-year relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, who is the author of the book (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990) from which the movie is adapted. Thorson, approximately 40 years younger and Liberace’s alleged lover, was just 16 years old when their paths crossed. Yes, that might be statutory rape, but this is the entertainment business after all.
Now, how did a boy whose childhood was spent bouncing from one foster home to another end up personally involved with a world famous entertainer? It started with Thorson’s knowledge of animal care, and a chance visit backstage where Liberace invited the teenager to care for his blind dogs at home.
Thorson bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle
One does not need a psychology degree to understand how the best defense against being swept away by cults, gangs, and toxic individuals is a strong and consistent family foundation. Thorson’s family background was anything but, making him a prime target for Liberace to pick up and play with exclusively for the next six years.
Thorson was understandably bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle, so he fully consented to the twisted sexual/father-son relationship, which included a chin implant with the purpose of looking more like the entertainer. It is not a surprise that drugs came into the picture; and Thorson became addicted, sending him into a tailspin that continues to this day with his imprisonment in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center (AP, 2014).
Thorson sues for palimony
People who come onto you strongly leave just as strongly, so it was inevitable that Liberace would eventually move on to other boys. However, after being discarded, Thorson did not go quietly into the good night. He sued Liberace for palimony, gave interviews about their relationship, and released his tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra in 1988. Intensely private about his homosexuality, Liberace would have denied all allegations and gone out of his way to counter Scott’s claims. Yet, it is that very book that caught Steven Soderbergh’s eye, and started the ball rolling toward a movie focused on Liberace, keeping him in his favorite position—in the spotlight—more than 25 years after his death.
Liberace’s entertainment continues
After Soderbergh approached a number of studios with the project, HBO took the bait, and Behind the Candelabra ended up winning two Golden Globes in 2014. While Liberace belongs to a time that is long past, Michael Douglas’s performance should give these nurses a reason to search for videos of the real Liberace on YouTube. For the essence of LIberace, they would best start with his Christmas special from 1954.
The Danish Girl provides a highly entertaining version of the lives of Gerda and Einar Wegener. However, it appears that the book Man into Woman (1933/2004) provides a more accurate assessment of the married couple. Differences between the movie version and book version are listed below:
The Danish Girl portrays sexual passion between Gerda and Einar/Lili. In reality, their relationship was almost purely platonic.
By 1931, Gerda and Lili had separated. The King of Denmark had annulled their wedding. Gerda married an Italian officer and Lili was in love with a young French painter.
It was after this that Lili went in for one more surgery to have a uterus put in her body, which failed. The first successful organ transplant didn't happen until 1980. By that time, anti-rejection medicine had been discovered.
After Lili's death, Gerda divorced her husband. She rented a small flat in Copenhagen. Her art was out of fashion. She drew Christmas cards that sold for one Danish Krone apiece to support herself. She started drinking and died alone in 1940.
Dr. Renee Richards, American ophthalmologist and former tennis player, gives the book, Man into Woman, credit for inspiring her transformation in 1974 (Herman, 1976).
Gerda's art was rediscovered in the 1980s when some of her erotic drawings turned up in Copenhagen junk stores.
Gender differences are suddenly a front-burner concern for citizens of Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia—possibly frightened because of the Supreme Court decision last year that gave the right to marriage to same-sex couples (Liptak, 2015). Their particular concerns about gay, lesbian, and transgender people have led to passing laws that have drawn reactions nationwide.
In Mississippi, companies such as Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts International, Nissan and Toyota, all major employers in the state, have raised objections to the law signed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The far-reaching legislation allows individuals and institutions like churches, religious charities and privately held businesses to decline services to gay people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs on marriage and gender (Mele, 2016).
North Carolina Law Bars Transgender People
The North Carolina law “bars transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates” (Mele, 2016). Because of Gov. Deal’s veto of Georgia’s so-called “religious liberty bill,” we narrowly escaped state-sponsored bigotry ourselves. To me, this simply underscores the ignorance and strange attitudes that exist surrounding human biological characteristics and the relationships of these characteristics to a spectrum of other associated human attributes.
Thus when I refer to gender differences, I conceptualize a sub-set of all human differences. I envision these gender differences along a spectrum of characteristics that people have typically limited to simple notions of male and female. But, where do we draw the lines?
In truth, we are all naturally curious about other humans and how they look and behave. We have observed and/or heard about all manner of people in our lifetimes, from those who seem to look like us and adapt well to day-to-day activities and conflicts, to those who are different and whose behavior is dangerous, problematic, or puzzling. We have all formed opinions about others ourselves, based on our own experiences—coupled with public opinion. In fact, what we consider appropriate or inappropriate largely relates to public opinion.
Gender Differences Not Fully Understood
Over the years, discussion about gender differences, esp. those outside a heteronormative worldview, has gone underground because of censorship, which of course is related to public opinion. Now, gender differences have suddenly become a critical social issue, even though obviously genderqueers have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Do you think The Danish Girl (Hooper, 2015) contributed to the urgency of this perceived public problem?
First, considering the fact that all of humanity is not fully understood in societies gives rise to fear and distrust in many for how to think about “the other”—that particular person or group that is beyond their experience, e.g., queer or otherwise different. Sometimes these differences have led to marginalization because people think of them as disabled or dysfunctional or scary. Any number of physical, intellectual, emotional, and/or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments; however, these do not necessarily lead to disability unless society fails to take account of, and include, people regardless of their differences.
Defining a “Problem” of Gender Differences
Next, and consequently, human differences may be considered as a “problem.” Thus the person who has characteristics that are outside recognized norms is in danger of unjustified social limitations. Further, simply how a problem is defined or the particular tools available to manage it dictates its solution. (“If your only tool Is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.”)
In our movie this month, Einar/Lili pursues a consultation with medical doctors for help with gender identification. This reveals that in his/her context, she and Gerda have defined this distressing condition as a potential medical problem.
The following are three ways that people typically define individual human systems dysfunction:
Mental disorders are usually defined by a group of attributes: how a person behaves, feels, perceives, and thinks.
Medical problem: physically disabled, a medical model of disability:
“the result of a physical condition intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body), may reduce the individual’s quality of life, and cause clear disadvantages to the individual” (Medical Model of Disability,2008, p. 718). Once a condition is classified as medical, a medical model of disability tends to be used in place of a social model. Medicalization may also be termed ‘pathologization’ or (pejoratively) ‘disease mongering'(Medicalization. 2017, Oct 23).
Religious-belief or faith problem: sinful, acting against God’s laws
When a condition is classified as religious problem, it may further be classified as a physical, metaphysical, or moral evil.
By the way, regarding terms and definitions, I didn’t realize until recently the distinctions that the LGBT community makes regarding the destructive nature of certain terminology. Both the Associated Press and The New York Times restrict usage of the term ‘homosexual’—a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased, or psychologically and emotionally disordered.
The editors have also established rules against the use of inaccurate terminology such as “sexual preference” and “gay lifestyle” (GLAAD, 2013). It would be good for all of us to become familiar with these distinctions so that we might not be guilty of promoting hurtful prejudice.
The Problem Represented in the Movie
Now, let’s look at how the gender identification problem is represented in The Danish Girl, particularly regarding Einar/Lili’s diagnoses. First, a medical doctor treats him with radiation, but it is not clear why. Then, a psychiatrist weighs in, at which time the diagnosis becomes schizophrenia, and in that scene, he barely escapes the men in white coats pursuing him with a straitjacket. If he had been shown to consult with a priest, would the treatment have been exorcism to cast out his demons or evil spirits? If a pastor, would the treatment be to shun him until or unless he repents and remains celibate (Ben, 2013; Denison, 2014)?
Lack of information and/or understanding can produce all kinds of responses thought to be helpful (or hurtful), but this movie depiction simply underscores a societal misunderstanding that still exists (Sasson, 2015).
Psychopathia Sexualis (Krafft-Ebing, 1886) is said to be the first scholarly attempt to shed light on human gender differences, and this book is available for reading thanks to the Guttenberg Project and the Internet Archive.
Krafft-Ebing proposed a theory of homosexuality as biologically anomalous and originating in the embryonic and fetal stages of gestation, which evolved into a ‘sexual inversion’ of the brain (Richard von Krafft-Ebing. 2017, Jun 22).
The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is a more recent contribution from an author who has lived through the experience herself (Bradford, 2007).
The focus of The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is gender identity conflict. … The condition is examined from the perspectives of medical science, religion, political theory, the arts, and others. Perhaps as compelling as the nature of the condition is society’s reaction to it.
The Bradford work appears to be a courageous book that is worthy of our reading.
Medicalization is the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment.
The Danish Girl is an appropriate choice to continue Movies on My Mind’s LGBT theme, as transgenders are prominent in the news of late. This movie, directed by Tom Hooper and starring the accomplished actor Eddie Redmayne, was released in November 2015 and was subsequently nominated for four Oscars. Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Gerda Wegener in this film.
2015 a Banner Year for LGBT
Producers of The Danish Girl chose an auspicious time to release the movie, as 2015 was a banner year for the LGBT cause. In 2015, openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris hosted the Academy Awards ceremony, gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, and Caitlyn Jenner made her grand debut with a Vanity Fair spread (Bissinger, 2015, Jul 15).
The Danish Girl, set in 1920’s Copenhagen, focuses on a married couple, Gerda and Einar Wegener. A synopsis is available on IMDb, as good as any, and as is typical in true stories, the movie is an entertaining version. Further, the movie’s success is reflective of our times’ progressive march towards full acceptance of the LGBT community.
The theme of cross-dressers has been in the movies throughout the history of motion pictures. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon endeared themselves in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. Dustin Hoffman impressed critics in 1982 with his performance in Tootsie. Robin Williams charmed in Mrs. Doubtfire in the mid-1990’s. Among these movies of the past is one that shocked the audience: The Crying Game. Yet, as we recoiled then recovered from the major twist, the movie was simply chalked off as ‘alternative.’
Moving the focus now to transgenders, The Danish Girl is significant because it forces us to watch a real person just like you and I, struggle with gender identity and delves deep into the transformation from a he to a she. It is not a comedy, nor is it a thriller, but a movie based on a true story.
Transgenders and Sex Change Surgery
The concept of sex change surgery is still awkward in mainstream society, but Caitlyn Jenner imposed it on American households in summer 2015. My generation lauded the gold medal that Bruce Jenner brought home from the 1972 Olympic Decathlon Competition. The next generation enjoyed eating Wheaties in front of Bruce Jenner’s picture on the cereal box at the breakfast table. Current generations associate her with the Kardashian Family and Reality TV. When the time came for Bruce to become Caitlyn, it was a lot for Americans of all ages to digest. But digest it we did, and we listened. We read the sincere article in Vanity Fair. We opened our eyes to the harsh realities and complexities of gender. With this very recent introduction to transgenders, the timing of the release of The Danish Girl could not have been better.
Complexities Evident in Gender Identification
At the moment of conception, each of us is assigned a gender by God or by science, however you see and/or experience it. In any case, most assume that one is either male or female with no gray areas. Yet, gender is not always as simple as black and white. Much controversy was raised over the gender of African female athlete Caster Semenya, and whether or not she had an unfair advantage over other female athletes due to her abnormally high testosterone levels, the presence of internal testes and absence of female reproductive organs. She was found to be a hermaphrodite, considered by many a derogatory term. Those in book club circles will remember the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2013), in which the main character was a mixture of male and female traits. There is also Klinefelter Syndrome, where those afflicted have an extra X chromosome in addition to an X and a Y. The result is a tall and thin body type with no shape. Some historians speculate that George Washington had it. The idea that gender can be considered a spectrum is a slowly emerging one.
Caitlin Jenner’s Life Change
There is no doubt that Caitlyn Jenner was genuine when describing the feelings that propelled her to make such a drastic life change. She has reported (Bissinger, 2015, Jul 15),
The uncomfortableness of being me never leaves me all day long. I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live.
The inner turmoil of a gender mis-assignment must be desperate; otherwise, why would people go through the massive ordeal of a sex change operation? And it is not just the surgery. Caitlyn Jenner and other transgenders undergo the legal process of the sex change at the Social Security Administration, on their driver’s licenses, passports, credit cards, and any other official documents. Just the paperwork alone should give anyone tremendous pause on following through a gender-change. The Social Security office alone would do me in.
Recently, my daughter and I visited a friend in the hospital immediately following her knee replacement procedure. We saw her post-op, in the haze of anesthesia with tubes and wires in and out of her body. My daughter asked why my friend or anyone would subject herself to such a painful surgery as a knee replacement. I replied that the pain in the joints can get so severe that one is willing to take any measure to do something about it. I believe the same goes for transgenders who subject themselves to the sex-change surgery. The desperation and inner turmoil of a gender mis-assignment must be that painful.
There were scenes in The Danish Girl that showed where Gerda had prevailed upon her husband, Einar Wegener, to be a model for her paintings. His body type was typical of one afflicted with Klinefelter’s disease, although it is pure speculation that he had it. Einar’s posing as a female for Gerda’s paintings proved to be an eye-opening experience for both artist and model. Dressed in female clothes and adopting female mannerisms, the model experienced an awakening that led to his transformation as Lili.
Gerda’s Paintings and the Fashion Industry
A theory is floating around that Gerda’s paintings are the origin of the fashion industry’s ideal female body type. Artwork from this era is said to be the origin of Twiggy, Kate Moss, and all successful models with the androgynous body type whose images have tortured many women for decades. The ideal female of the Renaissance was forever banished from the artwork. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus would be considered a plus-sized model.
Despite the growing media attention to their plight, transgenders are rare, a minuscule part of the general population. Since no well-meaning human being should feel ostracized, may the world be more welcoming to those who suffer a genuine need to change their gender. May they feel free to come out and do something about it.
Cross-dressing is the act of wearing items of clothing and other accouterments commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society.
A person, animal, or plant having both male and female sex organs and/or other sexual characteristics.
On June, 26, 2015, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, and the world erupted in celebration of gay rights. Rainbow flags flew with pride, the White House lit up in rainbow colors, and millions of Facebook users commemorated the occasion by adding a rainbow to their profile pictures. In the midst of the euphoria, there was not one mention of Vito Russo that I remember. That is akin to Americans forgetting Martin Luther King, Jr. while appreciating what the Civil Rights Movement has achieved for African Americans.
Why had so many forgotten Vito Russo? After all, the record shows he is credited with writing a landmark book (Russo, 1987) that led to the making of our featured film, The Celluloid Closet (Epstein & Friedman, 1996), with being a "a giant in the fields of gay and AIDS activism" (Tomlin, 2011), and the "founding father of the gay liberation movement" (Schwartz, 2011).
Russo was born in the 1940's and grew up in New York City and New Jersey. As a child, he was surrounded by boys playing stick ball in the alleyway, but he, himself, never felt compelled to join them. It was a lonely childhood because he knew something was different about him from other boys. Film provided an escape from those confusing emotions.
Like a good Catholic, Vito went to confession many times to ask for absolution after having sex with a man.
And of course, (the priest) recognized my voice because, you know, every week he was hearing me say this, so he says finally, 'Look, enough is enough! Next time I'm not giving you absolution' (Ibid., p.38).
That was a turning point for Russo, who realized that being gay was not a sin. How could it be when it felt so natural to him? It was simply a part of who he was, and he could no more change that than the color of his skin.
Cabaret Nights and Firehouse Flick
Russo began to embrace his homosexual nature and proceeded to encourage others to do the same. He reached out to other gay men through his passions for theater and film in “Cabaret Nights” and “Firehouse Flick.”
Cabaret Nights was an instant success since it guaranteed entertainment from talented gay men and gave performers an outlet to express their talents, thoughts, and feelings in a safe place. Through Firehouse Flick, Russo had the opportunity to network with gay men by gathering in an old firehouse to watch movies. This allowed good camaraderie and total acceptance from their fellow man, something they did not have in mainstream society where they were openly shunned at places of employment and multi-tenant complexes.
One Firehouse Flick movie they watched was Battle of Algiers, which fired up the audience to storm up and down 6th Avenue screaming for rights. At the same time, Russo had witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr. advancing the cause of black people in the Civil Rights Movement, which inspired him to do the same for gay people. Russo felt called to dedicate himself to improving lives of gays; thus, he became the first true activist for the gay community.
Russo's gay rights activism cut short
Sadly, in 1990, Russo's life was cut short by the big AIDS monster. Though he did not get to pursue gay activism for as many years as he would have liked, others were more than willing to pick up the torch and carry on through the 1990’s and beyond. There is no question progress has been made in all areas.
Today, many gay people will not have to fear their lifestyles’ affecting their jobs. People who are openly gay, e.g., Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, et al., are hired in starring roles on TV and in movies. Nary an eye is blinked at a family with gay parents, or parents of gay children. Now, we’ve achieved the ultimate: gay marriage. Michael Schiavi, Vito Russo's biographer, believes that back then, gay marriage was so far beyond Russo's frame of reference that he would never have conceived of that victory (2011). For that reason, Schiavi does not know how Russo might have reacted. But I think it is safe to say he would be waving a rainbow flag!
So, here we are in 2016. It would be a grave disservice not to tip our hats to Vito Russo.
Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). (1996). The Celluloid Closet. B. Grey, S. Nevens, H. Rosenman, & L. Tomlin (Producers). USA: Home Box Office (HBO).
Russo, V. (1987). The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (Revised ed.): Harper & Row.
Schwarz, J. (Director). (2011). Vito. B. Singer & S. Nevens (Producers). USA: HBO Documentary Films.
Schiavi, M. R. (2011). Celluloid activist: The Life and times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.
Tomlin, L. (2011). Editorial review. In M. R. Shiavi (Ed.), Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.