BEYOND THE CANDELABRA
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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