BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
(US - 2013)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Richard LaGravenese. Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, Debbie Reynolds, Paul Reiser, Cheyenne Jackson, Nicky Katt, Tom Papa, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce Ramsay, David Koechner. (Unrated, 118 mins)
The prolific Steven Soderbergh's seventh or eighth consecutive "last movie" is based on the memoir by Scott Thorson and the film retains what's largely Thorson's side of events in his relationship with legendary pianist and entertainer Liberace. Set between 1977 and 1987, everything is seen through his eyes, and it's less a Liberace biopic and more a study of an average young man seduced not just by an older man, but by fame, fortune, and excess.
In 1977, 19-year-old Thorson (Matt Damon) meets Liberace (Michael Douglas) backstage after a Vegas show and the two immediately hit it off. Before long, Liberace's "protégé" (Cheyenne Jackson) and his houseboy Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay) are moving out of his mansion and Scott is moving in, despite his getting warnings from Carlucci that someday, the time will come when he'll find himself being moved out of the house by Liberace's loyal attorney Seymour (Dan Aykroyd) and someone younger will be moving in. Scott, who grew up in a variety of foster homes due to a mentally unstable mother, is initially apprehensive but grows attached to the flamboyant Liberace, both as a lover and a father figure, and for the first time in his life, feels like he's part of a "family," especially when Liberace offers to make him his legally adopted son. Problems develop in the relationship--Liberace makes Scott get plastic surgery to look more like him; Scott gets addicted to painkillers and starts selling Liberace's jewelry to support his drug habit; bisexual Scott refuses to be the bottom and Liberace starts looking for sex elsewhere, even resorting to glory holes in skid row peep show booths. Several years go by and the relationship grows more strained, and Scott notices a new young protégé (Boyd Holbrook) hanging around as Carlucci's prophetic warning comes to pass. Believing their relationship was practically a marriage, Scott files a palimony suit against Liberace.
"I Feel Love"), instead presenting it as more of an acting showcase for Douglas and Damon. 42-year-old Damon manages to overcome some serious miscasting by conveying the demeanor of a guy in his early 20s rather than convincingly looking like one. Douglas, in his first acting role since recovering from his throat cancer battle, does a terrific job of expressing the flamboyance and effeminate nature of Liberace (who never came out of the closet and publicly presented an image of "just never finding the right girl," still using 1930s Olympic skater-turned-actress Sonja Henie as his beard even after her 1969 death) without resorting to caricature and clichéd broad strokes. Douglas still has some fun sinking his teeth into some scenes, particularly with the devilish grin he flashes as Liberace fondles Scott under the sheets and says "Look who's up!" before going down on him. Soderbergh complained that he intended BEHIND THE CANDELABRA to be a theatrical release (which it will be overseas) but that US distributors found it "too gay," before HBO agreed to back it. The sex scenes in the film aren't especially graphic and aren't shocking other than the novelty of seeing Douglas and Damon in them together.
There's some very humorous elements throughout--not just of the "Look who's up!" variety: Rob Lowe is ghoulish as Liberace's pill-pushing plastic surgeon who looks like he spends his spare time operating on himself; Scott's shocked reaction to a post-facelift Liberace sleeping with his eyes open because they can no longer close; and there's a marvelously dark-humored bit where Scott, regretting his new face, complains to his friend Bob (Scott Bakula, sporting a big moustache that makes him look like Gay Sam Elliott) that he doesn't even recognize himself anymore and in the same breath, this average guy ponders which of the several luxury cars at his disposal he should use today. Soderbergh leans a bit too heavily on the GOODFELLAS/BOOGIE NIGHTS "coke-fueled paranoia-cam" in the scenes with Scott and his dealer (Nicky Katt), and there's somewhat of an "unreliable narrator" feeling in the way Thorson is presented, but it could be argued that it's simply the filmmakers staying faithful to the source. It is, after all, an adaptation of Thorson's book.
With that in mind, it's never mentioned that Thorson was a key witness in the 1989 trial of the 1981 Wonderland murders and spent some time in witness-protection as a result, nor is it mentioned that, in the years following Liberace's death from AIDS in 1987 (Thorson tested negative for HIV), Thorson served time in prison for charges ranging from drugs to burglary to credit card fraud. All we see of Thorson's post-Liberace life in BEHIND THE CANDELABRA are scenes of him working at a Kinko's and living a quiet life in a small apartment. On one hand, it feels a little whitewashed, but those elements aren't part of the story being told. All things considered, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA won't go down as Soderbergh's best film, but it works thanks to the performances of Douglas and Damon.