A film review by Craig J. Koban May 28, 2013 

RANK: #15




2013, No MPAA rating, 120 mins.

Michael Douglas as Liberace  /  Matt Damon as Scott Thorson  /  Rob Lowe as Dr. Starz  /  Debbie Reynolds as Frances Liberace  /  Dan Aykroyd as Seymour Heller

Directed by Steven Soderbergh / Written by Richard LaGravenese, based on the book by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson

There’s a rather telling scene during the opening sections of Steven Soderbergh’s BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, an HBO film - and his self-proclaimed “last film” - about the latter sections of Liberace’s life.  Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and his friend, Bob Black (Scott Bakula) are attending one of the legendary performer’s lavish Las Vegas stage shows in the late 1970’s.  Thorson is immediately star struck with the performer’s talent, innate charisma, and the effortless manner that he has with winning over a crowd.  “Oh, they have no idea he’s gay,” Black informs Thorson, who then responds with a look of inquisitiveness. 

Liberace publicly maintained his heterosexuality during his lifetime as a performer, and even when news publications so much as winked at the possibility of the star’s homosexuality, he returned in kind with successful lawsuits.  Yet, Soderbergh’s BEHIND THE CANDELABRA paints a darkly funny and sometimes tragic and sad picture of the musical icon, told largely within the hidden and vehemently protected insular world of his homosexuality.  The basis of the film is Thorson’s own book on his years in the late 1970’s through early 1980’s with Liberace, when he was, for all intents and purposes, Liberace’s chauffeur, confidant, pseudo-adopted son, and, yes, lover.  Thankfully, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY) never bashfully skirt around the Thorson/Liberace love affair and Liberace’s publicly subjugated, but obvious homosexual leanings.  The film crafts a telling story of a time and place when the social politics of the era meant keeping one’s homosexuality a vigilantly guarded secret, not to mention relaying the psychological side effects it had on both Liberace and Thorson. 

It’s no wonder that this film found a home on HBO.  Soderbergh has come out to state that he would have, most likely, never been able to make BEHIND THE CANDELABRA as a mainstream studio film, as studio chiefs labeled the property as “too gay.”  Compellingly, the film is indeed about Liberace’s gay lifestyle and the way he charmed and lured Thorson into his tightly sealed inner circle for five-plus years.  Yet, the film never really dwells on this in any sensationalistic or tawdry manner.  It’s more about not only showing Liberace as the flamboyant on-stage showman that he was, but also portraying him as a flawed human being that knew he was gay, but could never reveal it to his legions of fans.  The inherent sadness of BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is that Liberace lived a lie until his death of AIDS-related illness in 1987; even then, his publicists try to pass it off as heart failure. 



BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is almost more about Thorson himself.  Much like Dirk Diggler in BOOGIE NIGHTS, Thorson started from relative obscurity in the 1970’s to becoming - relatively overnight - a person lured into a tempting world of mega-celebrity affluence, which all came crashing down by the mid-80’s.  The film mostly recounts Thorson’s love of Liberace – both for his pianist gifts and as a man – but later shows how his intimate relationship with him turned south over the course of many dysfunctional years.  Liberace was much older, more powerful, and more vastly wealthy than Thorson, so it’s easy to see how the allure of his lifestyle greatly appealed to Thorson.  Yet, the deeper Thorson submerged himself within Liberace’s world, the more the entertainer became a demanding control freak that ultimately affected Thorson’s sense of personal identity and worth. 

Liberace sensed the vulnerability of Thorson, who grew up in a largely parentless upbringing.  The opening sections of the film in 1977 show the glitz and glamour of Liberace’s world through Thorson eyes, which makes it easy to see why he fell instantly for the man and became engulfed in his tempting world of money, drugs and excess.  Soderbergh wisely shows Liberace here at the zenith of his hypnotic grasp that he had on his largely female audiences: they truly seemed to think that he wasn’t gay, when all other obvious signs pointed to the contrary.  It’s almost as if Liberace disguised his homosexuality in plain sight.  Yet, Thorson and his then lover Black knew what was really going on with the megastar,  

Liberace took Thorson in, mostly because he was attracted to him and wanted him as a lover, but he later developed a misplaced sense of paternal kinship to him, even wishing to adopt him at one point.  This all makes the seduction much easier for Liberace: he sensed Thorson yearned for a father figure, which only made their relationship that much more complex.  Like most aging men of limitless wealth, notoriety, and power, Liberace began a slow, but callous process of “owning” Thorson and remaking him however he deemed fit.  He even went as far as to hire his plastic surgeon (Rob Lowe, hysterically acting with a perpetual squint and creepy smile) to not only help the lad lose weight, but also to remodel his face into something that may approximate a younger version of himself.  Yet, the emotional weight of being Liberace’s plaything got the best of Thorson, and through a series of devastating indiscretions, Liberace cast Thorson out after a long relationship, which resulted him suing Liberace in a $113 million palimony suit.   It settled out of court; Thorson received  $75,000. 

I’ve seen Michael Douglas in many brilliant performances over the years, but I have never seen him so completely lose himself within a role as much as he does with Liberace.  A ghastly miscalculation on his part would be to engage in all-out mimicry, which might have proved to be a horrid distraction.  Douglas is a dead ringer for the musician, to be sure, and captures his vocal inflections in spades.  However, his performance is more sly and layered, evoking a confident man on stage that nonetheless was inwardly plagued by fears of having his homosexuality revealed to a fan base that revered him.  Douglas' performance is not about blatant character assassination; he shows Liberace as an oddly multi-faceted man, capable of being kind, considerate, and loving towards Thorson while, at the same time, being an ego-driven narcissist that wanted to change Thorson against his will into a toy to be controlled.  Ultimately, Douglas’ Liberace is a haunted and melancholic figure that wanted to be loved, but found the inappropriate outlets to achieve that; he has never been better in a role. 

At first glance, Damon is awfully old to plausibly play Thorson as a man in his early twenties at the opening sections of the film (granted, makeup helps sell the illusion).  If you can suspend your disbelief, Damon is absolutely stellar as Thorson, a young man that wanted to be a veterinarian until Liberace ensnared him within his clandestine world of excess.  It would be easy to label Liberace as the leacherous predator in the film, but it should be noted that no one forced Thorson at gunpoint to begin a relationship with him.  Emotionally, Thorson was a wounded and vulnerable young man that felt the need for acceptance, but – much like Liberace – made bad choices in attaining a sense of family connection and acceptance.  Damon has worked with Soderbergh many times in the past, but there is something about their frequent collaboration that just brings out the best in the actor. 

If this is indeed Soderbergh’s final film, then BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is a triumphant curtain call for the acclaimed director, and HBO deserves kudos for allowing him to make a project like this that Hollywood shied away from.  The film does plunge audiences into the Liberace’s compartmentalized homosexual world, and it’s frank and raw in this regard in ways that mainstream films are not.  It should, though, be noted that this is not a mean-spirited and spiteful Liberace biopic.  It showcases the star at his very best and worst and unavoidably shows a fragile and broken man – ravaged by AIDS – that was but a shell of the performer he was when death was knocking at his door.  There are so very film films that display a level of hero-worshiping adulation and contempt for their subjects, but BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is just one of those efforts, and Soderbergh is shrewd enough to pull it all off.


CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:


RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2


TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj




YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj




CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj




THE GIRL  (2012) jj


PHIL SPECTOR  (2013) jjj


CLEAR HISTORY  (2013) jjj



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