Movie Review – Behind The Candelabra
– Summary –
Director : Steven Soderbergh
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Tom Papa, Nicky Katt, Cheyenne Jackson, Paul Reiser, Boyd Holbrook.
Approx Running Time : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: The story of Liberace’s illicit homosexual affair with young “friend” Scott Thorson, through their turbulent relationship and the master showman’s eventual decline due to AIDS.
What we think : Michael Douglas’ pitch-perfect portrayal of Liberace, the famed Vegas showman and legendary performer, steals the film right out from a solid, moving performance from Matt Damon. As far as bio-pics go, Behind The Candelabra isn’t revolutionary or even really controversial (after all, we all know now that Liberace was gay); what makes this film interesting is its “behind the scenes” look at a man whose on-stage persona was vastly different to his private one. Regardless of what you may think, this film is well worth a look.
Look, even George is here!
Soderbergh’s last hurrah (for the moment) as a Hollywood director is something to savour. Behind The Candelabra sees Soderbergh directing Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (two previous Soderbergh alumni) as famed entertainer Liberace, and his younger lover, Scott Thorson, respectively. The film is based on Thorson’s autobiographical book of the same name, about how he came to meet Liberace, and eventually become his lover and assistant, before a falling out in the 80’s saw them part ways for a time; eventually, when Liberace was dying from HIV/AIDS, he and Thorson reconnected and made amends, before passing away in 1987. The film (and, I guess, the book) seem particularly focused on the inherent loneliness of fame, almost a wishing away of time and money in pursuit of something unachievable: a solid relationship. The people within Candelabra aren’t entirely pleasant, although they make a show of it, and the spiral of animosity between Liberace and Thorson is somewhat mishandled, but the end result is something I think most people will find enlightening – if not altogether entertaining. Those of a certain moral disposition might find Candelabra to be utterly contemptible, since it depicts homosexual relationships and lifestyles throughout its entirety, but for those of an open mindset, willing to embrace the story for what it is, Behind The Candelabra is eminently enjoyable.
It’s 1977, and Scott Thorson (Mat Damon) is an animal handler for film sets in Hollywood. He is also proclaimed bi-sexual, and lives with foster parents on a ranch, parents who disapprove of his “lifestyle” choice. Thorson meets Hollywood producer Bob Black (Scott Bakula) at a gay bar, and Black introduces him to popular Vegas showman and entertainer, Liberace (Michael Douglas). Liberace is having problems dealing with his current protege, Billy Leatherwood (Cheyene Jackson), and soon finds his charms working on Thorson’s impressionable mind. Liberace invites Thorson to become his personal assistant (read: closeted lover) and live with him in his sprawling mansions, assisting in his shows, and being a general dogsbody. Thorson willingly embraces the lavish lifestyle, until Liberace’s demands (including having Scott undergo plastic surgery to make the young man look more like Liberace himself, as allowed by Liberace’s surgeon, Jack Startz, played by a wonderfully creepy Rob Lowe!) and philandering eye cause a rift between them. With Liberace’s loyal manager (Dan Aykroyd) detesting Thorson’s presence, and the demands of money for his increasing drug habit making him sell off a lot of his expensive jewellery, Thorson and Liberace eventually separate, their animosity plainly evident for all to see.
Behind The Candelabra pulls no punches in its depiction of homosexual relationships, so for those of you who don’t think that kind of thing is right, then this most definitely isn’t the kind of film you should watch. For the majority of us, however, especially those of us who appreciate great storytelling, this film will be a joy. It’s sad, sure, and it’s occasionally depressing, but taken in its entirety the film is a big ol’ hug from Hollywood to one of its brightest (if not its most flamboyant) stars of the 70’s and 80’s. Liberace’s career spanned decades, encompassing television, books, music and film, but this film picks up in the mid-70’s, when he was performing sold-out shows in Las Vegas night-after-night. Told from the perspective of Scott Thorson, on whose book the script is based, Candelabra feels like it should be a celebration of the man rather than a breakdown of his faults and foibles. Liberace was nothing if not the consummate performer, although away from the cameras and publicity, he seemed to be something of a recluse. In the film, Thorson cries out at one point that they never go out, spending all their free time holed up inside one of Liberace’s mansions. Liberace preferring the company of himself? Or at the least, the company of someone who idolised him? Sounds almost introverted, to me.
Regardless of your thoughts on Liberace as a man, Michael Douglas portrays him with a spot-on nuance and near-effortless charm; a softly spoken man, a man who enjoyed happiness and love, but never seemed to be able to handle being in a real, tow-way relationship. Liberace comes across as something of a user in this film, which is fair considering he asked Thorson to undergo plastic surgery in order to look more like Liberace – it’s an amazing conceit, and yet anyone checking out Thorson on YouTube will see his elaborated cheek structure, and dimpled chin (pointedly noted in the film) are recreated superbly by Soderbergh and his team. Douglas’s ability to inhabit Liberace’s mannerisms and physical styling is exemplary; this isn’t Michael Douglas playing himself, as he seemingly does in most film, rather, it’s a convincing chameleon-like portrayal of a man with whom Douglas has only the mildest physical resemblance. What Soderbergh manages to accomplish, both with Douglas’ performance and the use of strategic makeup and prosthetics, is just amazing: at one point, Liberace undergoes surgery for a facelift himself, and they seem to shave ten years off Douglas’ craggy features. Liberace’s refusal to listen to any kind of argumentative reasoning to counter his way of thinking is frustrating, as it must have been for Thorson, and one gets the sense that Liberace lacked the confidence to control himself when it came to confrontation. He was outwardly placid, almost motherly in demeanour, and became quite uppity when he felt people were taking advantage of his fame and fortune (which, more often than not, one suspects, they weren’t). It’s a fascinating examination of the conflict between lifestyle and projected image, and how damaging it can be to those caught in the crossfire.
Matt Damon, as Thorson, anchors the film with a large amount of pathos. Initially, he seems somewhat selfish, but as we get to know him and how he interacts with Liberace, Thorson sways into a sympathetic manifestation of everything wrong with loving somebody with a roving eye. Damon’s physical transformation is equally laudable, mainly because he spends the latter half of the film with reconstructed cheekbones and a chin-dimple that would make John Travolta weep. When Damon and Douglas are on screen together, the film sparkles, yet things seem to come unglued when it’s just Thorson in the narrative. Probably a lot like real life, I think. Damon and Douglas have a rapport with each other that many major stars might not enjoy, and this ease of place within the film makes for grand, effortless watching. The rest of the cast are also good, even if they aren’t the focus of any real subplots or subtext. It took me half the film to figure out that it was Dan Blues Brothers Aykroyd playing Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller, while Rob Lowe steals every scene he’s in as a repugnant physician who isn’t backward in coming forward about his skills with a ten blade. Bit parts to Scott Bakula (Star Trek: Enterprise, Quantum Leap) as Bob Black, an unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother, and Paul Reiser (Aliens) offer no real depth to what is an ensemble cast of many, surrounding a delightfully wry core of two, doing a wonderful job with the material.
The production on this film is superb. The 70’s and 80’s landscape of Vegas and LA are evoked easily, with period costuming, vehicles and accoutrements all making this film feel like it really was filmed back in the day. A special nod to the late Marvin Hamlish, who’s score work here is sublime; it was his last film, and the perfect ending to a magnificent career. The most appreciative aspect of the film is easily the cinematography (Soderbergh did it himself) as well as the editing, and it’s weird to think of this film as being the same hands who made Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s 11, because Candelabra is possibly the most mainstream film I’ve seen the director put out. The film is filled with grand camera moves, terrific lighting and some dazzling production numbers (in Liberace’s Vegas auditorium), eliciting that thrill of being let in on something special that most people would never get to see. It’s a fabulous recreation of old-style showbiz, and well worth the price of admission alone.
Behind The Candelabra is one of those films that goes “behind the scenes” in showbiz, and if you’re someone who appreciates the inward look at a cutthroat industry, then this will hit all the right notes for you. Tinged with tragedy, smothered with affection for the source, and easily one of the more accessible films if its kind outside a pure documentary, Behind The Candelabra gives us a taste of a man who very few really understood; if he even understood himself. If this is Soderbergh’s last film, then he’s ended one a good one.
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