Behind the Candelabra Movie Review - -

Behind the Candelabra
Reviewed by Damien Straker on July 24th, 2013
presents a film directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the book 'Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace'  by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson
Michael Douglas, Matt Damon and Rob Lowe
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rating: M
Released: July 25th, 2013


In 1989 Steven Soderbergh made his film debut with Sex, Lies and Videotape. The film was daring, unnervingly original and made on a budget of just over one million dollars. Its domestic gross of nearly twenty-five million dollars in return heralded a new wave of independent films throughout the 1990s. Twenty-four years later, Soderbergh will retire from filmmaking with Behind the Candelabra, a biopic of pianist Liberace, which doesn't showcase his previous uniqueness and influence as an auteur filmmaker.

The film is a love story, based on Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson's book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. Yet it is also a surprisingly straightforward and conventional critique of fame and show business, and like we needed any reminding, how distasteful it is. On that level, it is a disappointment. If nothing else however, the film is testimony to how well Soderbergh can still direct actors because in this relationship between Liberace and the much younger Scott Thorson, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon give layered, complex and often funny performances, elevating the film above its conventional story framework. Their characterisation is also complimented by a formal sophistication that imposes thematic insight into their attraction and inevitable fallout.

The project was originally meant to be a HBO movie, until it was granted a cinema release. It traces how in 1977 Scott Thorson (Damon), a trainee vet on a movie set, caught the eye of pianist Liberace (Douglas), who was playing onstage in swanky nightclubs. They moved in together to start a romantic but rather secretive relationship. Scott is allowed to live in luxury, away from his foster family, and is even employed to do stage work too. The relationship unwinds though when Scott finds himself controlled by the hilariously botoxed Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) and also when he becomes increasingly insecure about Liberace's loyalty to him. Scott eventually cracks under a downward spiral of pills and drugs.

Michael Douglas has throughout the years played men who display great power, wealth and charisma in the public sphere. His work in The American President and Wall Street are among his most renowned feats. As Liberace his work is frank and uncompromised, like a weathered and ageing version of his classic performances. He is note-perfect, playing him as charismatic and flamboyant but also self-absorbed and untrusting of people who he thinks will steal his wealth. This is a reflection of his inner hubris as he believes that his talents are derived from a higher order: "God looks upon me with special favour," he says. High angle shots peer down over the stage, asserting his belief in his appointment from God, as a single figure of attention in the black and gold clubs. Primary colours, including bright glittery red costumes, are judiciously selected, juxtaposed against the darkened theatres and used to imply Liberace's belief in his own personal distinction.

Matt Damon characterises Scott as an increasingly self-conscious and insecure young man, whose relationship with Liberace grows through two kinds of comfort: materialism and emotional cushioning. Liberace's mansion is an intimidating but irresistible prospect compared to the drab and shadowy form of Scott's adopted home. The mansion achieves its own Biblical connotations, stunningly realised through sparkling glassware and high contrast lighting. Liberace also manipulates Scott's loneliness, saying that he could adopt him. "Maybe I'm your real family," he teases. One of the few dramatic peaks in Richard LaGravenese's script is when comfort reveals itself to be personal possession. Liberace seeks to preserve his legacy, not simply by adopting Scott, but by convincing him to undergo surgery so that the two will look more alike.

The changing mood of the relationship is echoed by Soderbergh's camera. Intercuts of Scott's plastic surgery operations are short but violent and shocking. When Scott complains about how suffocating their life is, the frame of the camera binds both men together and then a tracking shot follows them as they walk through the halls of the house to show the constraints of their relationship. Further, rare exterior shots, including brief cuts of the outdoors of a hospital or airport, are grey and empty to suggest the alienating outdoors of celebrity culture.

As rich as the characters are, they are ingrained in a linear, inorganic narrative that lacks exciting detours. Instead, Soderbergh and his screenwriter have used Liberace's affair to retrace much of the same material as the superior Magic Mike, which itself echoed large portions of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. All three films are about the way that young men are drawn into the gloss and the allure of show business, only to find that it's an ugly world of competition, old heads that won't move on and drug abuse. These are Faustian stories and perhaps personal ones too. Retiring at fifty, Soderbergh is expressing his dissatisfaction with Hollywood and being famous. But it would be more fascinating to learn why an older man, who has overcome the difficult early period of show business with skill and experience, is now deterring himself from the industry.


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