It’s an unfortunate twist of fate that a film featuring an outrageously flamboyant central figure who was one of the world’s biggest stars ended up being relegated to the small screen in the United States.
Despite starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and featuring Steven Soderbergh behind he camera for what is supposedly his final film, the Hollywood studio system shamed itself by refusing to back Behind The Candelabra for being ‘too gay’.
In the end, it took HBO to fund the picture and remind those who had forgotten that we’re living in the 21st century. This meant the movie only saw the light of day in America via the cable TV giant, a bittersweet irony considering it played in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and made it into cinemas outside of the States.
Best known for overtly masculine roles in the likes of Basic Instinct, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, Douglas plays seriously against type as Walter ‘Lee’ Liberace, the world-famous pianist extraordinaire who became the highest-paid entertainer on the planet and the epitome of Las Vegas excess.
Behind The Candelabra chronicles the last 10 years of Liberace’s life, focussing in particular on the covert affair he had with the much younger Scott Thorson (Damon), on whose eponymous memoir the film is based. An animal trainer for movies, Scott is introduced to Liberace through Bob Black (Scott Bakula), a Hollywood producer who he meets in a gay bar. Scott is dazzled by Liberace’s piano skills, while Lee is instantly taken with the handsome younger man.
While’s Liberace’s carefully managed public persona portrays him as being straight, in real life he and Scott become lovers and behind the candelabra embark on a passionate relationship that takes a turn for the surreal before finally ending up in acrimony.
The slightly fuzzy lens reflects the affection Soderbergh clearly has with his subject matter. There are similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, both in the late 70s and early 80s setting and Damon’s beautifully observed portrayal of Thorson, whose journey from eager-to-please greenhorn to a hurt and embittered shadow of his former self calls to mind Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler.
When the story takes a painful turn, Soderbergh is careful not to trade in black and whites and place the blame on any one person’s doorstep. Liberace and Scott are essentially two sides of the same coin, both lonely and desperate to be loved. In Scott’s case this stems from his time as a foster child, in Lee’s it’s from his mother Frances (played by Debbie Reynolds), whom he feels stiffled by. In a telling scene, Frances wins the jackpot on a slot machine she’s playing in Lee’s home, but no money comes out. Lee offers her whatever money he can find, but she refuses and demands a cheque instead.
Being two such lonely souls looking for companionship, it’s of little surprise their relationship is so intense, although things start to get very odd when Lee brings in plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) to perform some off-kilter work on Scott.
Watching Behind The Candelabra, it’s remarkable to think no-one publicly questioned Liberace’s sexuality when he minced about on stage in all manner of camp and ostentatious costumes because it naturally formed part of his self-styled ‘Mr Showmanship’ image. Even Scott looks taken aback when, after watching Liberace on stage for the first time and suggesting to Bob “it’s funny the crowd would like something this gay”, Bob tells him: “They have no idea he’s gay.”
Although ironically one of Soderbergh’s least flashy films considerig the subject matter, he still includes a number of clever touches, not least of which when a surly Scott is eating a meal while Lee is flirting with a group of younger men which subtly parallels a scene earlier in the film when Lee’s piano protegé Billy (Cheyenne Jackson) is sat in the same seat dourly eating food while Lee is first chatting to Scott. It’s a nicely observed moment of how disposable things are in Liberace’s world.
While Damon is superb, Douglas is just as good, showing a pain behind the eyes and the showman’s smile that looks decades old. He tells Scott he wants to be his “father, brother, lover and best friend”, but doesn’t know how to be any of them. Lowe, meanwhile, is hilarious as the half-baked nip/tuck doc who’s hardly the greatest advert for plastic surgery.
Behind The Candelabra may be a relatively low key film for Soderbergh to bow out on, but it is consumate filmmaking nonetheless and fully advocates Liberace’s motto that “too much of a good thing is wonderful”.
I’m hoping to catch this at some point, it looks pretty decent and I’ve read decent reviews of it. Liberace isn’t someone who I’ve ever really taken notice of, but this looks pretty interesting, if just to see Damon and Douglas camp it up!
Douglas is on proper campy form. The costumes he and Damon wear are hilarious. It’s well worth a watch, let me know what you think when you catch up with it.
Too bad the studios were afraid of this, it’s one of the better movies to come out his year
I really enjoyed it. It’s no work of art, but it’s a lot of fun and really nicely made which counts for a lot.
In a really weird way, I loved this. More so than I thought I would. Douglas and Damon were superb. Also loving your tags, you been getting some advice off someone by any chance? 😉
Ha ha. Yeah, anything to get those visitors numbers up! I can’t compete with a lot of you guys!
LOL. Sell out 😉
I’ll do anything for better stats!
Is it working? Genuinely interested if it does, I mentioned these tactics on a Question Time a while back. Always curious to know.
Not really working much so far, but maybe that’s because I’m using the wrong tags. I’m obviously doing something wrong compared to many of the blogs I follow.
Lot of it is luck. Last night on UK tv The Reef movie was on. I reviewed it last year, just stuck my normal basic tags on and left it. After it was on last night, Ive had nearly 1000 views in past 24 hours on that review. No idea why, it seems to be high on google somehow yet Ive done nothing different. Happened a few times, Shark Night 3D did well recently. No dodgy tags, just a bit of luck. Not my best work at all, which is worse when I spend hours writing some things and after their one day one my site as the new post, they barely get seen again. More obscure stuff I guess there are less people writing about, so more chance of being found. 🙂
Yeah, you’re right. The key is to write lots of stuff and wait for it to come on TV!
I just Reddited it…see if that increases your numbers a bit…http://www.reddit.com/r/moviecritic/comments/1gt9ew/behind_the_candelabra_2013_review/
Thank you, really appreciate it! I’d love to say I’m tech savvy when it comes to spreading the news on my site but I’m not so hot on it!
No worries, we’ll do it for you! 🙂
Ha ha, you’re a star cheers! 🙂
This was a really good, low key “minor Soderbergh,” more tonally similar to Bubble and The Girlfriend Effect. I hope this isn’t his farewell from cinema like he says it is. Excellent write up!
Appreciate the kind words! Soderbergh’s one of my favourite directors so I hope this his farewell too. It would be a real shame if it is, although I suspect he’ll be back.
I don’t get quite why Soderbergh went with this story to direct, but I have to say that he gives it his all and seems to really be having a great time with this material. He’s not done for good, but if he is and this is the last we see of him; it’s a good note to go out on. Good review.
Absolutely, we’ll said. Thanks very much 🙂
What a great review! I find it weird too that it was shown on TV in the US. It belongs in a cinema
Couldn’t agree more. It’s a bit of a scandal really that the studios were so spineless – and homophobic. Thanks for the feedback!
Good review. Looking forward to catching this. It is opening in cinemas out here soon.
Great review and a shame indeed this didn’t play in cinemas in the US, it really is a quality film.
Absolutely, it’s an indictment of the US studio system. Thanks for the kind words.