“Tell Me How You Talk and I Will Tell You Who You Are”:

Generational Conflict Among Homosexuals in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra

A. Introduction

Behind the Candelabra is a 2013 television film produced by American premium television network HBO. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay written by Richard LaGravenese. The film stars Michael Douglas as American pianist and entertainer Liberace and focuses on the last ten years of the singer’s life and his relationship to Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon, his 40-years-younger personal assistant. LaGravenese’s screenplay is based on Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, which was co-written by Alex Thorleifson and published in 1988. Despite spending several years in development due to Soderbergh’s inability to fund the film between 2008 and 2012, since the major film studios deemed the screenplay “too gay,”[1] Behind the Candelabra became a critical and commercial success, achieving the highest ratings for a television film since 2004 and winning eleven Emmy Awards, including for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie.

This article explores the linguistic differences between the film’s main protagonists to argue that it depicts the conflicts between the gay liberationist movement and previous generations of homosexuals – a battle which was also and predominantly fought in the area of language. First, we will have a look at the emerging linguistic research on gay language from the 1950s onwards, which was conducted by some of the first openly gay scholars, and the implications it had for the then-burgeoning LGBT movement in terms of self-perception and social identity that led to growing tensions between older homosexuals and younger, politically progressive gay men.[2] Second, the troubled relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra will be shown to portrait this generational conflict with the help of the differences in the way Liberace and Scott – and to a certain extent other characters in the film – talk, before concluding with a judgement on this thesis, the importance of linguistic research for people’s lives, and the problem of ideological appropriation of linguistics in particular and science in general.

B. A brief history of gay language and its research: Four Phases

Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick argue that the history of research on the relationship between language and homosexuality “has gone through four main phases” (Language and Sexuality, 75). The first phase, which occurred from the 1920s to the 1940s, regarded homosexuality as a pathology and continues to have a huge influence on what non-scholars associate with gay language. Since “the linguistic characteristics that are commonly imagined to index homosexuality are often ones that also index gender” (Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 74), gay language tends to be strongly associated with or thought of as resembling female speech. Therefore, homosexual speech is often equated with gender-inappropriate speech,[3] so that heterosexuals and homosexuals are not merely conceived as different from, but direct opposites of one another.

According to this sociological perception of homosexual speech which impeded an acknowledgment of the existence of an independent gay language, scholars tended to focus on several linguistic traits that indexed gender – more specifically, femininity; however, vocabulary made up the lion’s share of these traits. Examples include the use of gender inversion, such as the use of female names and pronouns to refer to one’s self and others, and the use of qualifiers such as lovely, adorable or fabulous. The latter was especially seen as an indicator of homosexuality when in combination with talk about hair, flowers, or poodles – topics usually seen as belonging to the sphere of female responsibilities (cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 76). According to Robin Lakoff, these “words restricted to “women’s language” suggest that concepts to which they are applied are not relevant to the real world of (male) influence and power” (Lakoff, Language and Woman’s Place, 13). Therefore, this view of homosexual speech is not merely descriptive, but suggests that homosexuals are intellectually incapable of participating in public life, placing them hierarchically under heterosexual men who know better what is good for homosexuals and which political rights they can be granted.

The second phase of research on gay language covers the 1950s and 1960s. These studies, which were conducted by some of the first openly gay scholars, were accompanied by activist struggles to fight for political and social rights for homosexuals – a struggle that came to be known as the gay liberationist movement. This movement rejected the notion that homosexuality was a pathology and instead proclaimed the existence of a uniquely homosexual identity. However, this new homosexual identity was formed by highlighting differences among homosexuals, valorising some, while subjecting others to critique. This led to a division between what was seen as an old-fashioned, misguided homosexuality of individuals that used the language that had come to be associated with their sexuality and the homosexuality of politically progressive gay men who avoided it (cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 77).

This movement felt the need to distinguish itself from the pathological identity of homosexuality, which manifested itself in a language that suggested intellectual inferiority through concern with trivial subjects and gender-inappropriate speech patterns. This notion of homosexual speech equating female speech was rejected to showcase that homosexuals were not direct opposites of heterosexuals, but merely slightly different. The consequence was a complete lack of gay language; the old homosexual speech was only used by what was seen as misguided older generations that were damaging the community’s fight for rights, tolerance, and acceptance, while the movement felt no need to proclaim the existence of a new form of uniquely homosexual speech. The gay liberationist movement wanted gay men to be seen as equals to heterosexuals by appropriating “their” speech – the “normal” speech of white middle-class heterosexual men that would indicate that the existence of a barrier between these groups was imaginary, so that their political and social divisions had become obsolete.

These debates not only influenced the way younger gay men spoke due to the reasons mentioned above, but they also changed the movement’s terminology. As already hinted at in the juxtaposition of older homosexuals and younger gay men, the term “homosexual” came to be avoided by politically progressive gays. The gay liberationist movement rejected the term’s connotations of female speech and femininity in general, the association with triviality and a lack of intellectual capacity to deal with serious issues, such as politics, and the implication that homosexuals stood in direct opposition to heterosexuals (cf. Karr, Homosexual Labeling, 3; Jandt, Coming Out as a Communicative Process, 21; Hayes, Lesbians, Gay Men, and Their ‘Languages’, 32). Since the first phase had addressed their language as “the language of homosexuality,” this terminology came to be associated with the language of politically retrograde homosexuals (cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 77).

The third phase of research on gay language, which covers the 1970s and 1980s, toned down the divisive nature of gay language, mainly because it was assumed that the old-time effeminate homosexuals and their gender-inappropriate speech were on the verge of extinction. Homosexuality was now seen as a single monolithic, oppressed minority culture. This phase saw the re-emergence of a distinct gay language, influenced by sociolinguists who studied African American Vernacular English or women’s language, since it was assumed that a homogeneous social identity created a definable language of its own. This view was challenged by what Cameron and Kulick consider to be the fourth phase, which started in the 1990s. The dominance of white middle-class homosexuals was questioned, which triggered an acknowledgment of and, subsequently, a study on the diversity among homosexuals and their languages (cf. Language and Sexuality, 77-78).

C. The depiction of generational conflict in Behind the Candelabra: Liberace and Scott’s relationship

It can be argued that the depiction of the relationship between Liberace and Scott in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra relies heavily on the assumptions of the second phase of research on gay language and its ideological backdrop. The nature of their relationship will be briefly discussed to point out the plausibility of its connection to the way the gay liberationist movement related to older homosexuals. This will work as a basis for this article’s thesis to make it reasonable to analyse the languages of Liberace and Scott, respectively.

Behind the Candelabra covers the last ten years in the life of Liberace, from 1977 to 1987. According to Cameron and Kulick, this was the time of the third phase, which means that the ideas of the second phase and its underlying social commentary dealt with in the gay liberationist movement were well known and established, even outside of linguistics. The fact that Cameron and Kulick define the third phase as still dealing with homosexuality that uses the language by creating a social identity based on the belief that the generation that used the language is going or gone, adds another layer of authenticity to the claim that these ideas may have played a role in the relationship between a young man and his 40-year-older lover in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, not only do Liberace and Scott talk in different ways as will be discussed in the next chapters, but they also have a love-hate relationship similar to the generational conflict among homosexuals in the second half of the 20th century. Their relationship starts happily, but tensions grow, which ultimately leads to their breaking up and a court case. To some extent, this evolution equals the generational conflict by depicting an initial bond, a common history, but also insurmountable obstacles to a long-lasting union due to both sides’ nature. Scott and Liberace eventually reconcile at the pianist’s deathbed, showing that only at the end of the third phase mutual respect and acknowledgment of the other side’s contribution to their relationship became possible.

Performing femininity: Liberace, parody, and the art of linguistic playfulness

If we assume Liberace to represent a typical pre-gay liberationist movement homosexual, then the way he speaks is essential to this interpretation, since language became an important aspect of identification with the movement. As will be shown, Liberace’s language represents everything the movement felt was wrong with their predecessors; he speaks in an effeminate way, uses a specific vocabulary, frequently according to certain morphological and syntactic patterns and constructions with recurring rhetorical devices, and even a distinct phonology.

Both Julia Penelope in a 1970 study and Keith Harvey in his description of what he calls “camp talk” suggest that the frequent use of exclamations is a typical feature of the language of homosexuality. According to Penelope, who divides the language of homosexuality into a core vocabulary that consists of terms also used by heterosexuals such as butch, dyke, and one-night stand and a fringe vocabulary that forms according to certain syntactic patterns, exclamations are a typical feature of the latter (cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 85-86). Harvey argues that exclamations belong to one of two key templates of camp talk, namely femininity (cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 100-101).[4] Liberace makes constant use of this feature. When Scott first sees him on stage, Liberace uses exclamations, some even repeatedly, such as “I love it!” and “that was terrific!” to engage with his audience.

Another aspect of Harvey’s femininity template of camp talk is the use of vocatives. These features serve to index the speaker’s orientations through the use of forms associated with “excessive, catty femininity” (cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 101). Liberace’s first use of vocatives happens again on stage, in the scene that introduces him. “You see, George?” and “mom, I tell you what” are two examples from this first scene. The scene in which the audience gets to know Liberace introduces him literally as a performer; according to Harvey, a performer of a rhetorical strategy he calls Parody of femininity.

Liberace also engages in Harvey’s second key template of camp talk, aristocratic mannerisms. Both key templates belong to one of four rhetorical strategies that make up camp talk, Parody. Parody is meant to “drive a wedge into the supposed natural and unproblematic relationship between language and identity” by “both index[ing] and exaggerat[ing] speaker orientations to identities and social relations” (Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 100). According to Harvey, aristocratic mannerisms are invoked through the use of French. When Liberace calls out Billy Leatherwood on stage to play a duet, he refers to him as his protégé.

Another rhetorical strategy that forms camp talk according to Harvey is Paradox. Paradox is defined as the juxtaposition of contradictory or clashing meanings. One of its features is the co-occurrence of ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ experience, i.e. “talk about mundane or seedy experiences described with reference to high culture” (Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 99-100). One such instance in Liberace’s speech can be seen in the scene that follows his first show. Bob introduces him to Scott backstage and Liberace tells him of his early days as an unknown pianist in Milwaukee. He goes on to explain that the audience wanted him to play a song with a very simple melody called “Three Little Fishes.” He describes the extraordinary reaction he received from his audience back then after he “play[ed] it as if it was composed by Strauss.”

Harvey’s third rhetorical strategy of camp talk is Ludicrism. Ludicrism is defined as linguistic playfulness through “utterances that suggest or underscore the indeterminacy or multiplicity of meaning in language“ (Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 100). One feature of Ludicrism is the use of double-entendre, always exclusively sexual. After talking about his early days in Milwaukee, Liberace sums up to Scott what that time taught him. Referring to the night he understood that the audience just wanted to be entertained and that a simple pop song was more effective to achieve that end than complex classical music, Liberace concludes with the words: “And I knew right then it was all about giving them a good time. And that’s what I’m all about. I love to give people a good time.” On a surface level, he is still talking about his job as a pianist and the demands of his audience, but a closer look reveals that he is playing with the double meaning of “giving someone a good time.” It is his way of telling Scott that he wants to have sex with him and to demonstrate that he possesses a healthy dose of sexual appetite. Furthermore, he is also commenting on the sexual role he is about to play, describing himself as a passive sexual partner, willing to suppress his own desires to fulfil what his audience, i.e. his sexual partner, wishes him to do.

Arnold M. Zwicky suggests that there is apparently a way to ‘sound’ gay. This gay phonology is referred to as The Voice and seems to be culturally recognizable. Studies show that there is a high level of agreement on whether someone has The Voice or not. Although not everyone who uses The Voice is gay and not all gay men use The Voice, it is closely associated with effeminate homosexuality. Some of the phonetic characteristics of The Voice as propagated by various linguists are a wide pitch range and frequent fluctuation in pitch, the frequent use of a specific pitch pattern, namely high rising-falling, concentration of pitches toward the high end of a speaker’s range, a large fast fall in pitch at the end of phrases, breathiness, the lengthening of fricatives, the affrication of /t/ and /d/, and the dentalization of alveolar sounds (cf. Two Lavender Issues for Linguists, 31). Liberace makes constant use of all of these features. Almost every single sentence he utters presents the audience with his wide pitch range, usually with a fall in pitch at the end of the respective sentence. One example can be seen when Scott visits Liberace for the first time in his mansion. Scott, who works with animals, offers help to cure Liberace’s poodle, who has been suffering eye problems. Liberace immediately exclaims “oh, that would be fabulous! No one’s been able to help my little Baby Boy. I hate to see him suffer,” using his characteristic wide pitch range with a high fluctuation and a fall at the end of the last sentence.

According to William L. Leap, who wrote the first and up to date only monograph on gay language, homosexuals engage in a strategy of secrecy and silence when talking to heterosexuals (cf. Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English, 72-73). This is especially important in the case of Liberace who during his entire lifetime kept his sexuality a secret to the public, even inventing heterosexual relationships he did not have. The occurrence of secrecy in gay speech in public settings relies on gay-centred vocabulary and the coded meaning this argot conveys. Though not explicitly gay, this theme of secrecy allows the homosexual speaker to be able to present a gay message through an allegiance to gay-cooperative discourse. During his introductory scene on stage, Liberace engages the male audience in participating in his musical number by shouting out “Hey!” during the boogie woogie’s break. He then addresses his brother, who is in the audience, with the words “you see, George? I told you. Men do come to my concerts.” For the rest of the audience, unaware of his sexuality, this is just a remark on the fact that he engaged his male audience in some kind of call-and-response act. For his brother, these words have a deeper meaning, hidden to the outside world, but obvious to him and whoever knows of his sexuality. “Men” is not meant to refer to all men, but explicitly to heterosexuals. Liberace’s emphatically pronounced utterance of this word suggests that he is aware of the presence of “real” men, i.e. heterosexuals, and that his show is not just attended by women and homosexual men. This connotation to the word “man” and the homosexual appropriation of the notion that homosexuals cannot possibly be real men goes back to “The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary,” the first English-language text listing a distinct lexicon for homosexuals (cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 80). For Liberace, a public man with a hidden sexuality, this way of using secrecy as a way of expressing himself became a crucial aspect of his performances and his stage persona.

It can also be noted that other characters in the film depict a gradual generational evolution towards losing homosexual speech. Bob Black, portrayed by Scott Bakula, gets to know Scott in a gay bar in the film’s first scene. He then introduces him to Liberace and although we do not get to know his exact age, it is reasonable to assume that he is a lot older than Scott. He has been a close friend of Liberace’s for many years and must be at least in his thirties. He uses some of the language associated with homosexuality; although not as much as Liberace, Bob certainly uses more of the language of homosexuality than Scott.

He does not use “the voice” or gender inversion – the foremost features associated with effeminate homosexuality – but he engages in what Harvey calls Ludicrism, one of four rhetorical strategies of camp talk. One instance is the scene in which Bob takes Scott to Las Vegas to see a show of and afterwards introduce him to Liberace. After Liberace calls out his protégé Billy Leatherwood on stage to play a duet, both pianists are shown wearing similar-looking, almost identical, eccentric jumpsuits. Bob laughs and says to Scott “oh, look! A matched pair of queens.” This kind of pun or word play is a typical feature of Ludicrism. On the one hand, Bob uses a metaphor of playing cards to refer to identical pairs, but on the other hand the use of the term queen is clearly meant to show that both performers are homosexual. Stephen Murray states that a high statistical frequency among homosexuals suggests that there is a “prevalence and productiveness of the x + queen construction” (Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 89). Scott’s reaction to Bob’s pun shows that he lacks any kind of language of homosexuality, even the subtler, less-effeminate features such as Ludicrism. Scott plainly states that “it’s funny that this crowd would like something this gay.” It seems as if there has been an evolution; from Liberace, a pre-liberationist movement homosexual that speaks by the book, to Bob, a middle-aged gay man aware of those features but unwilling to implement certain effeminate ones in his own speech, and finally to Scott, a young post-liberationist bisexual, completely lacking any kind of either ability to or knowledge of how to speak and sound gay.

The erasure of gay voice: Scott, the gay liberationist movement, and silence

While Liberace engages in secrecy when talking to or in front of heterosexuals, Scott uses the other strategy propagated by Leap, silence. Since the use of secrecy is only possible with a gay-centred argot and its coded meaning, i.e. “the language of homosexuality,” an ideologically based lack of such a language, as reiterated by the gay liberationist movement, means an inability to engage in secrecy. Therefore, Scott’s language in front of heterosexuals represents the “erasure of gay voice in the presence of heterosexual discourse and the many forms of gay compliance with such erasure” (Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English, 72). This is very evident in the scene that shows Scott at the dinner table, introducing his foster parents Rose and Joe to the audience. They suspect that Scott is homosexual, but get no response to their innuendo. After talking about Scott’s mother, Rose states “oh, and a man named Bob Black called.” The audience already knows Bob to be the man Scott met at a gay bar. Scott’s only reaction is “oh, okay.” The camera then moves to Joe’s face who seems not too pleased with the situation. He asks with an irritated facial expression “is that one of them San Francisco fellas?” and gets a disapproving look from Rose, clearly showing that Scott’s rumoured homosexuality has been a topic in their conversations. With San Francisco as a synonym for homosexual culture, Scott cannot possibly have missed Joe’s intention. However, he chooses not to understand what Joe is referring to, answering “no. He’s from here. West Hollywood.” If not for the hidden meaning of Joe’s question, it would be impossible for the audience to understand that this conversation is about homosexuality. Nothing in Scott’s reaction to this unmistakeably intimate question indicates the existence of a homosexual argot meant to either dissipate Joe’s concerns through the use of secrecy or even to overtly acknowledge his sexuality.

The use of what Leap calls the strategy of silence is symptomatic of Scott’s way of not participating in the language of homosexuality. It is symptomatic, because the only detectable feature of gay language in his idiolect is the erasure of a gay voice, a passive lack of language. Neither does he use The Voice, nor does he engage in Harvey’s rhetorical strategies, or confirm the results of Legman, Penelope, and Murray. Other than Liberace, who is 40 years older than Scott and whose language represents what the gay liberationist movement felt was wrong with their predecessors in their struggle for social rights, Scott completely lacks all those features associated with, especially effeminate, homosexual language, fulfilling the liberationist movement’s wish for a generation of gay men who do not act as if they were women in order to show that they are as manly as heterosexual men.

D. Conclusion

A cut with what the movement felt had been a former compliance with heterosexual oppression of gay men through the use of gender-inappropriate speech with its lack of relevant concepts, showcasing an intellectual incapacity to deal with male power, led to an atmosphere of a generally stigmatised gay language, no matter if certain features still indexed powerlessness or not. This is a prime example of ideological appropriation of scientific results. Since part of the language of homosexuality had been identified as being counterproductive to the movement’s goals of social acceptance and political rights, at some point this view was transferred to the language of homosexuality as a whole. The results of linguistic research on gay language, which were only meant to be descriptive, were taken as a guide on how not to speak. Innumerable historical examples show that scientific results are likely to be used to back up ideological prescriptions. Linguistic research in particular with its temptation to portray language through the lens of linguistic prescriptivism tends to be misused and misunderstood. Therefore, linguists should be aware of the fact that they are not operating in a hermetically sealed field of study, but in a branch of what constitutes our everyday life. They should not limit themselves to offering scientific results, but participate in arising debates.

In the case of Behind the Candelabra, the thesis that the film’s main protagonists represent both extremes – pre-liberationist homosexuals with a language that has come to be stereotypically associated with effeminate homosexuality and post-liberationist gay men who avoid these linguistic features out of ideological assumptions on their implications – withstands the results of this analysis. First of all, there is a convergence of our expectations toward the way each character ought to speak according to his generational relation to the gay liberationist movement with the way these characters end up speaking in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. We expected Liberace, who had been socialised long before the emergence of the movement, to talk the so-called language of homosexuality first analysed by Legman in 1941, and that is what he did. Scott lived up to our expectations as well, not showing any sign of gay language, as propagated and ideologically promulgated by the beliefs of the movement, the generation responsible for his socialisation. We even found further evidence for a gradual change, showing that Bob, a (generational) member of the movement and therefore the evolutional link between pre- and post-liberationists, works as an in-between, knowing and to some extent speaking the language of homosexuality, while at the same time avoiding those features most closely associated with his generation’s fears.

Acknowledging the existence of this convergence, our next question is whether these characters were meant to portray a generational conflict among homosexuals, through linguistic features, no less. There is no evidence that Steven Soderbergh wanted to implement such an allegory on the generational conflict in his film, apart from the fact that his work holds up to our analysis. However, pure coincidence can be ruled out. We have to bear in mind that this film and its screenplay are based on Scott’s autobiography and that Liberace was a public figure for decades. Whether knowingly or not, Soderbergh and LaGravenese incorporated this generational conflict into their film by adapting and adopting authentic material from two homosexuals, one a public figure, the other still alive, and their personal conflict. Actors Michael Douglas and Matt Damon had infinite hours of performances, interviews, and shows to study how their characters talk, endless pages of autobiographies, recollections, and personal letters to get a glimpse of the characters’ more intimate language. It does not really matter whether the portrayal of a generational conflict among homosexuals had been the intention of Steven Soderbergh or Richard LaGravanese, since their film is based on authentic material. Behind the Candelabra is not an example of cinematic symbolism, but a straight-forward retelling of personal struggles that mirrored the generational conflict of their time.

Works Cited

Cameron, Deborah & Don Kulick. Language and Sexuality. Cambridge. University Press, 1997.

Hayes, Joseph J. “Lesbians, Gay Men, and Their “Languages””, in: Chesebro, James W. (Ed.). Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication. New York. 1981.

Jandt, Fred E. & James Darsey. “Coming Out as a Communicative Process”, in: Chesebro, James W. (Ed.). Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication. New York. 1981.

Karr, Rodney G. “Homosexual Labeling and the Male Role”, in: Chesebro, James W. (Ed.). Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication. New York. 1981.

Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman’s Place. New York: Harper Row, 1991.

Leap, William L. Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Zwicky, Arnold M. “Two Lavender Issues for Linguists”, in: Hall, Kira & Anna Livia. (Ed.). Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford. 1997.

[1] As revealed by director Steven Soderbergh during a Television Critics Association press gathering. Cf. Jagernauth, Kevin. “Steven Soderbergh Says ‘Behind The Candelabra’ Was Rejected By Hollywood Studios For Being “Too Gay””, in: IndieWire. URL: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/steven-soderbergh-says-behind-the-candelbra-was-rejected-by-hollywood-studios-for-being-too-gay-20130105.

[2] This juxtaposition of the terms “homosexual“ and “gay“ is itself a consequence of this generational conflict which will be addressed in the next chapter.

[3] Which extends to the fact that lesbian language is thought of as resembling male speech. Cf. Cameron, Language and Sexuality, 74.

[4] The other key template being aristocratic mannerisms through the use of French.

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Rafael Alves Azevedo lives in Germany and has a master's degree in English, History, and Education. Despite his interest in politics, art, and culture, he firmly believes that association football is the most important thing in life and supports Benfica Lisbon. However, he is well known for his questionable beliefs, such as insisting that Rocky IV is the best film ever made and that 1980’s Italo pop is superior to other musical genres.

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  1. This was very interesting. Thanks, Rafael.

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