Review: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Directed by – Steven Soderbergh
Written by – Richard LaGravenese
Based on Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by – Scott Thorson & Alex Thorleifson
Starring – Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula & Tom Papa

Deemed “too gay for Hollywood”, Behind the Candelabra – a HBO drama from one of the most versatile directors in the business, Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike, Contagion) – offers an intricate but critical look at the final ten years of the life of Liberace, one of the most popular Vegas entertainers of all time. Based on the memoirs of Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon; The Bourne Identity, The Departed), Liberace’s lover of ten years, this part biopic, part-drama explores the ups and downs of the relationship between the two men and the personal problems that both of them faced.

The strength of Behind the Candelabra rests primarily on the fact that Liberace’s life is so interesting that making a film about it isn’t all that hard. Liberace was a popular man, albeit one whose entire on-stage persona was a total sham, and there are numerous angles from which Soderbergh could have approached this story; thankfully, the ones he chose are the most intriguing and the most complex. Soderbergh’s film focuses not on Liberace the performer so much as it focuses on Liberace the fraud; the snapshots of the fraught ten-year relationship that we see show Liberace to be a coward and a bully, and they show Thorson to be manipulative and weak-willed. After speeding through their initial meeting, much of the film is devoted to an exploration of how this relationship broke down, of the emotional abuse that Thorson suffered and of how Liberace’s life came to such an undignified end.

Behind the Candelabra - 2013

What Soderbergh does so well – and it’s something he’s always been quite adept at – is he establishes a powerful juxtaposition between the glamorous façade and the grim reality of Liberace’s life and subsequent death. The film is a rich and often garish piece of cinema that feels as false and as shallow as Liberace’s act, yet beneath the surface some dark themes are brewing. It is, in many ways, a contemporary film that critiques the entertainment industry. The wealth and the popularity might seem desirable but, as Behind the Candelabra demonstrates quite nicely, they can often lead to disillusionment and self-loathing. The film asks whether fame is a price worth paying, especially if it means that you must live a lie, and gives an answer that is surprisingly uneasy; it’s a tentative, rather than a definitive no.

On another, more personal level Soderbergh’s film tells an intimate tale of two lovers who become trapped in a relationship that is unhealthy for both of them, a situation to which a lot of people will be able to relate. As both Liberace and Thorson lose their humanity in a haze of celebrity-induced debauchery, Soderbergh does his best to ensure that we don’t forget that the story is definitely human. It’s nominally a love story, though one can never be sure if either man is actually in love with the other or if he just craves companionship, but it’s also a story about the influence such a hedonistic, narcissistic lifestyle can have on a person and the lengths to which people will go to hold on to someone or something.

In Behind the Candelabra, what Liberace is seen to be trying to hold on to is his youth; in the last years of his life his performances grew gaudier, his appearance became more artificial and he even attempted to turn Thorson into his adoptive son, so much so that he forced him to undergo a series of operations so that he would look more like Liberace did when he was young. The film doesn’t shy away from the truth that Liberace was often vicious towards Thorson, nor does it hide the fact that for all of his stage bravado and pizazz, Liberace was actually a deeply insecure man. Yet, despite Liberace’s nastiness, it is still a tragic tale about how we’ll all grow up to be irrelevant and how none of us have much control over if or how we’ll be remembered. Though the style of story-telling is rather bland, Soderbergh’s crafty exploration of these ideas grants the tale enough relevance to the lives of his audience that, in combination with the almost overbearing kitsch which all but suffocates every single scene (though with good reason), gives the film a tragic and harrowing quality.

However, amidst all of the camp chaos and kitschy beauty of the film, the one constant is the phenomenal performance from Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction) who is just unrecognisable as Liberace. When watching the film I was struck by just how likable Liberace was, even when he was at his most abusive and cold, and a large part of that is down to Douglas who grants the character a real sense of terrible insecurity. He brings to the character fabulousness and cruelty, hilarity and cruelty, and joy mixed with tragedy. His interactions with Damon, who for my money has also never been better than he is here, grant the relationship between Liberace and Thorson a morbid fascination, and the two of them act their designer tights off to deliver a film rich in character and drama.

Behind the Candelabra is by no means a perfect film. It sometimes feels lost between a critique of the entertainment industry and a generic but intriguing personal story of bitterness and jealousy, thus resulting in a film that sometimes feels like it has nowhere left to go. However, thanks to a witty and engaging screenplay, great performances across the board (a special mention must go to Dan Aykroyd – Ghostbusters, Grosse Pointe Blank – who is wonderfully dry as Seymour Heller, Liberace’s agent and personal friend) and some great cinematography, Behind the Candelabra is one of those rare mini-biopics that feels both historical and contemporary.

Oh, and one more thing; “too gay for Hollywood” – don’t make me laugh! This is far less camp, and much more entertaining, than most of the dreck we usually get from Hollywood…

★★★½

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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