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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Behind the Candelabra is not a biopic. Although the story revolves
around the life of Liberace, the film is more than that. It is a love
story that encompasses universal themes with a surrealistic twist.
It is well crafted by Steven Soderbergh, a veteran director with such films as Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven under his belt. And although Soderbergh describes the work as "Alice going down the rabbit hole," it is a surprisingly strong film with convincing performances and a tender, yet out-of-the-box, point of view.
Two of Hollywood's big-name alpha males Michael Douglas and Matt Damon play the lead roles delivering strong and convincing performances. It would have been easy to portray the over-the-top flamboyance of Liberace in high camp theatricality. But not here. Douglas is restrained, measured, and deliberate. His Liberace straddles both sides of the male persona. Douglas goes from being tender lover and father-protector to the excessive, power-hungry controlling tyrant driven to an addiction for acquisition: homes, jewelry, dogs, new lovers, and all things Louis Quinze.
Damon's Thorson is both a quintessential 70s male hooker and passive disco diva. All through the film, he is dazed and awestruck by his surroundings. As Liberace's latest boy-toy, he basks in the glow of rococo excess. And he is bewildered and confused when Liberace -- moving on to the next conquest tragically, and predictably, takes everything away. Always, Thorson seems to be a man to whom things happen. He is not a figure who takes control of his surroundings but rather is controlled by them. This passivity is quite surprising in as much as the movie is based on a book written by Thorson who is hell-bent on casting himself in the best possible light.
In contrast to the one-sided take of Thorson's book, Soderbergh's film provides Thorson with depth and dimension. He is more than a victim. He actively plays into his victimhood. Soderberg shows Thorson as actively doing nothing to improve his life or circumstance. Instead of taking full advantage of his relationship with Liberace, Thorson lives in, and for, the moment. He piddles away the opportunity to make something of himself beyond the rentboy persona. It brings new meaning to the old Freddy Fender song "Wasted days and wasted nights." At the end, all he ends up with is another diet, addiction, a new face and a paltry $95K.
The supporting cast members are equally effective as the leads. The standout here is, unquestionably, Rob Lowe as Liberace's plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz. His face is wonderfully plastic and his acting sublime. Scott Bakula is Liberace's mustachioed procurer; Dan Aykroyd is his Foster-Grant-wearing manager/henchman; and Debbie Reynolds is Liberace's prosthesized-up-the-ying-yang Polish mother. All submit strong performances despite brief appearances in almost cameo roles. None of the supporting actors distracts from the focus on the two tragic lovers whose end comes as expectedly as any Shakespearean tragedy.
To convey that 70s and early 80s look and feel, Soderberg seems to have used old-fashioned film in lieu of going "straight" digital. The movie is bracketed by what appears as grainy home movies. It opens with the LA bar scene and 17-year-old Thorson at his outlying rural foster home. It ends with the melodramatic flourish of Liberace's death in Palm Springs and the resulting saga over the Riverside County coroner's attempts to autopsy the body despite the family's efforts to keep his AIDS-related cause of death from public view. The conflict is told via newsreel storytelling straight out of Orson Well's Citizen Kane.
In between, we are taken on a trip to wonderland. Like riding in a monorail, we are shuttled between houses in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Palm Springs. We enter rooms upon rooms replete with white painted pianos, crystal chandeliers and gold-gilt furniture. The journey is a magical mystery tour into a bizarre world inhabited by two larger than life figures beset with very ordinary problems. Like everyone else, they face issues of money and power; attraction and rejection; youth and old age; addiction and dysfunction; life and death. And weaving through it all, is the all-too-common story of "the next new thing; the next big fix." I guess in the end, the grass is always greener on the other side. And what we have is never enough.
Soderberg weaves a morality tale where choices have consequences and people get exactly what they deserve. In this movie, the consequences are cruel but quite sober and sensible. There are neither suicides nor any type of saccharine sentimentality. And while the pathos could be deliciously comedic especially on a story about the avatar of kitsch when punctuated with high camp Soderbergh is refreshingly restrained. He tells his story with a firm grip and a cautioned mannerism.
On stage and in front of the candelabra Liberace lived a life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But behind the glitz and the glamour, we glimpse the flawed, all-too-human and imperfect everyman who is uncomfortable in his skin, seeking miracles from plastic surgery and sexual hedonism. He is not a hero or anti-hero; victim or victimizer; predator or prey. He is all and neither. Liberace's life is heroic because he was able to achieve much despite the odds. But his real life was lived in darkness cast by the shadow of the lights behind the candelabra.
I would not want to be the person shopping around a serious script in
Hollywood about the life of the famous pianist Liberace. It would be
the toughest of sells to a culture that would likely feel the material
is too dry and the demand too little. A slightly campier script, with
luxurious set design and intimate portrayals of characters the public
wouldn't likely know about is what I'd like to get my hands on. The
story of Liberace is stranger than fiction and dryer, more serious
material could've corrupted its overall goals and ambitions.
The film with the campier script, luxurious set designs, and intimate portrayals is Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, a wonderful, limitless look at the life of Liberace, an enigma in every sense of the word. In addition to playing many sold-out shows, the man had a lovelife like no other at the time, meeting and becoming fast friends with Scott Thorson, an aspiring veterinarian who was quickly made his lover. Thorson seemed to have a genuine understanding of the loneliness and lack of friendship Liberace had and provided him with great talks, great compassion, and great sex.
The relationship, however, resulted in drug addiction, intense plastic surgery, lies, mistrust, and ended with a lawsuit. Soderbergh and writer Richard LaGravenese don't hesitate to explore this and make it one of the deepest focuses in the picture. The relationships the men had had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The scenes when they are together in a hot tub are human and romantic. The scenes when they are fighting are heartbreaking because you realize that these men haven't just come so far to make their relationship work but losing each other after so long would be detrimental to their self-esteems and egos. They complete each other and that's where the magic is at its strongest.
Liberace is played by Michael Douglas in one of the bravest roles of his career. So brave and powerful that it's unfortunate that because of the film's TV movie status it is ineligible for an Academy Award nomination. Douglas is an actor who is never conventional with his role choice. The same man who played a common-man pushed off a cliff of sanity, an executive victim to a consuming, real-life game, and a worried father of a drug-addicted daughter is the same man playing a middle-aged, flamboyant pianist with a love for wonder, music, and men. The diversity in role choice is stunning.
Matt Damon appears at his youngest as Liberace's lover Scott, in an equally conflicted, complex performance. Damon fills the shoes of the role beautifully and effectively, giving off much in the way of creative energy and heart as he shows just how stressed and torn Thorson must've been in a relationship with someone who truly loved and understood him but wanted to manipulate him. Supporting performances from Rob Lowe as Liberace's doctor, prescribing medicines to both him and Thorson and Dan Aykroyd as his manager are terrific and often are seen providing strong comic relief.
For a TV movie to have the cinematography and atmosphere that Behind the Candelabra does is truly a feature worth nothing. It may not be as excessive as Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby - I don't expect anything of the next two years to be on par with that film - but rarely has a TV movie achieved such phenomenally vibrant and luscious standards. The only thing that could make it better is Soderbergh proving he knows how to work with it and he most certainly does.
HBO seems to be the go-to network for biographical films about figures that wouldn't likely make appropriate return in the theaters (Behind the Candelabra especially considering the summer movie season has already hit the ground running). David Mamet, just a few months ago, directed the delightful and shockingly unbiased Phil Spector, with actors like Al Pacino and Helen Mirren receiving top-billing. Seeing as a Liberace biopic is directed by none other than Soderbergh, I wouldn't be surprised at seeing a slew of films about eclectic media figures being made and released on HBO in the next few years. Networks that have the drive and willingness to air these kinds of films are a necessity to the success of film.
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, and Dan Aykroyd. Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
The big studios passed on this film despite the fact that it is
directed by Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen,
Traffic), and would star Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. They thought
is would be "too gay."
Well, thank goodness for HBO, as they jumped in and green-lighted the film, which is in competition for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
All the action took place in the seventies and eighties. Liberace was about 40 years older than his new lover, Scott. Michael Douglas was fantastic as Liberace, and Matt Damon was also brilliant in the role of Scott.
Rob Lowe and Dan Ackroyd supplied outstanding support to the story.
Just the right amount of music; maybe there could have been a little more. This was a fascinating story about a man who was in love with himself far more than he could have been with Scott or anyone else.
I decided to watch this film on HBO because I thought it would be a hoot - one of those catastrophic and pretentious productions which are so laughable. Within 20 minutes I realized that the film was rather important. Michael Douglas captures the late Liberace's mannerisms and voice with astonishing ease. He is quite stellar in his performance, and I see him now in a new light. Matt Damon is excellent as Scott, his protégé. The personages involved are deeply complex, even if one is only familiar with the contemporary "National Enquirer" reports one realizes their is something one can not quite understand about "Lee & Scott's" relationship. Douglas and Damon are brilliant in delving into these characters. They are unrecognizable, at times, from the familiar roles we all know of them. I think the film well worth watching. As a bonus, Matt Damon shows his bum on several occasions, for those who are interested; if not, one cannot help but be interested in the wonderful performances from two of Hollywood's great stars! A courageous undertaking well done indeed!!!
By sheer coincidence, just two nights prior to the debut of 'Behind the
Candelabra', I had the pleasure of viewing one of my favorite films,
1965's 'The Loved One', in which Liberace played 'Mr.Starker', a casket
salesman. So it was with Liberace's voice, image and mannerisms fresh
in my mind that I encountered Michael Douglas' portrayal of the man and
boy, did he nail it.
The story itself is pretty much by the numbers with the kind of shorthand one expects from a TV movie bio; it's the performances that bring this to a certain level of greatness. Douglas all but disappears into the role, right from the start. It's truly an amazing thing to watch, and considering the subject, a brave and unapologetic performance. Matt Damon is equally impressive and while I have no idea if he does the real Scott Thorson justice, his transformation from an eager and innocent young man to a jaded, coked-up and surgically altered paranoid boy-toy is stark and convincing. Add to these chameleon-like performances an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds and a truly unnerving Rob Lowe and you have two hours of truly compelling, master-class performances.
For a film about a gay relationship - I had my doubts when I discovered
the two male leads were to be played by straight men, but I couldn't be
more convinced by their on-screen personas.
The kitch was eye-wateringly OTT, Douglas superbly needy yet controlling and Damon sucked into the whole charade. Rob Lowe's performance had me recoiling with his creepiness/plastic surgery face and it couldn't be farther from his more mainstream performances. For a role that appeared for only a few minutes - it stuck with me long after the film was over.
All in all, a very solid biopic film that unfortunately won't be Oscared as its been shown as TV movie in the USA. A great shame - Douglas and Damon deserve nominations - their *chemistry* is totally believable.
Final point - either Douglas is a superb pianist or the CGI of his hands on the keyboard is first rate!
The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by
Scott Thorson (with Alex Thorleifson) adapted for the screen by Richard
LaGravenese about the tempestuous 6- year relationship between Liberace
and his much younger lover Scott Thorson. This film along with SIDE
EFFECTS are purported to be Steven Soderbergh's last films he will
The cast is very solid. Matt Damon embodies the role of Scott Thorson well - a young apparently bisexual man who has been tossed from foster home to foster home while he does odd jobs (he is 17 years old) tending to animals. In a gay bar he meets Bob Black (Scott Bakula) who takes Scott to a Liberace concert (his first exposure to the mega-star) and to meet Liberace afterwards. There is tension in the air with Liberace's current paramour and performing partner Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson) and we soon discover that Liberace (impeccably played by Michael Douglas) only keeps his 'boys' around for a while before his manager Seymour (Dan Ackroyd) gets rid of them with a check. Liberace and Scott find common ground in being needy people without confidants and soon Scott becomes Liberace's next lover. All goes swimmingly until Liberace sees himself on a TV show and sees how aged he has become. He engages plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe in a very fine performance) to perform a youthful face lift and at the same time convinces Scott to undergo plastic surgery to make him look more like Liberace! And here begins the downfall: Dr. Startz prescribes pain meds to Scott who becomes addicted and moves into heavier drugs, and his behavior, along with Liberace's need for a 'new face' (Boyd Holbrook), signals the breakup of a 6 year relationship - the best relationship either has ever had.
There are excellent cameos by Debbie Reynolds as Liberace's mother, Paul Reiser as Scott's lawyer, and others, but the star of the film is in all ways the flamboyant showman Liberace in some of the most interesting outfits ever created. The on screen relationship between Michael Douglas and Matt Damon is entirely credible and neither of these fine actors has a problem with being sexually physical without seeming to be a parody. There are moments that could have been cut, but as Liberace says, less is more and more is wonderful.
Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of Steven Soderbergh as I find a lot of
his films quite boring. But this film really blew me away.
It has everything I want to see in a movie: great performances, true stories, same sex love, a little bit of nudity, but not too much, truthfulness, warmth, minimum amount of violence and good cinematography.
I have a newfound respect for Michael Douglas, who becomes completely unrecognizable (with a little help of good make up) , gives it all in his performance as Liberace, and yet only just beat cancer a year earlier.
10 out of 10**
This is a first-rate piece of work by Mr Soderbergh and his team (kudos
to Ellen Mirojnick's flamboyant costumes and Howard Cummings'
outrageous interiors). The otherwise excellent screenplay by Richard
LaGravanese loses a little steam around two-thirds of the way through,
but recovers to give a genuinely touching conclusion.
Nominally this is a biopic. In fact, it uses the biopic format to examine a particular relationship in depth. The narrative focus is on the dynamic between two people rather than the inner turmoil of one. This, as well as the director's good taste, has kept at bay the sprawling pretentiousness and sentimentality which usually infest the genre, regardless of how good the central performances are: films as diverse as LA VIE EN ROSE and MILK have been scuppered in this way. Not so BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, which is an altogether more sophisticated affair.
The acting is dazzling. Michael Douglas, in a beautifully-written role, communicates the complexity of a real human being, not just a two-dimensional celebrity. At the same time, he gives full value to Liberace's famous showmanship. A star performance, sure - the subject demands it - but also much, much more.
Matt Damon is a revelation. For me, up till now, he has represented the worst kind of dead-behind-the-eyes, don't-dare-express-anything movie acting. The nearest I came to thinking any different was his turn as the scout in the Coen Brothers' remake of TRUE GRIT. In BEHIND THE CANDELABRA he displays a range I never thought he had in him. The character moves from naivety through rage to despair and on to quiet understanding. Really, really terrific.
The two leads create a totally believable relationship between their characters, in all its aspects. A triumph.
The icing on the cake is the supporting cast, led by Dan Aykroyd and Scott Bakula, and spangled with cameos from Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Bruce Ramsay, Cheyenne Jackson and Paul Reiser.
Here in England we're fortunate to see this film on big screens. As is well known, it was financed by a TV company (HBO) and will not be released theatrically in the USA. That tells a sad story about the American movie industry, from which an independent-minded artist like Mr Soderbergh is wise to walk away.
It's starting to look like 2013 is Soderbergh's year. Side Effects and
Behind The Candelabra seem to be my favourite of his career so far,
though that's only relatively, as I'm not a big fan of him. I do have
Out Of Sight on my to see list coming up soon and I do need to give
Traffic another watch before I make any final assessment on him.
Although Soderbergh is frequently the director, cinematography and
editor on his projects, he may be efficient but he's far too clinical,
pushing the audience as an observer that it's difficult to feel
emotionally involved in his films. I can't get excited for his
half-baked premises that most likely haven't been fulfilled to their
potential. However, Behind The Candelabra may be the first film I've
seen of his that suits his style ideally. His style is still distant
and voyeuristic, but in this bizarre world where Liberace adopts his
lover for a son and pays for plastic surgery to make him look like
himself, it feels more deliberate to keep us at a distance.
Instead, the scenes of dramatic conflict, decision and choice are played off for jokes and it's really effective, always earning belly laughs with its brilliant one-liners without feeling like it's silly. Perhaps its nervous laughter but it makes for an entertaining and interesting film. Michael Douglas is terrific as Liberace. I've never seen him take a character on like this. He's nearly up there with Sean Penn's Milk. It feels like it's been a while since Matt Damon has been in films I've wanted to watch and with this and Elysium, I've forgotten how reliable a lead he is. The characters inhabit a flashy world, but its kept on the costumes and sets which are incidental more than anything and the style of the film is kept subtle, besides a great choice of swooping cameras. It does have its flaws with nearly soap opera-esque structure and conflict but my expectations were very low so this is a pleasant surprise. I think I even prefer it to Side Effects.
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