May 26, 2013

THE SKED REVIEW: “Behind the Candelabra”


We’re gradually discovering that Steven Soderbergh’s definition of “retirement” from filmmaking is a fairly narrow one.  It was recently announced that he plans to direct a new series for Cinemax, and he has another cable/online series in development.  It appears that the one thing he won’t be doing for the foreseeable future is directing a conventional feature film.  He considers BEHIND THE CANDELABRA to be his last of those, although in the US it airs on HBO beginning tonight, because it’s being distributed overseas as a theatrical movie (and as such premiered at last week’s Cannes Film Festival).

If Candelabra is indeed the last “movie” we see directed by Soderbergh for a while, it’s a fitting exit in several ways, even if it isn’t one of his best.  Like so many of Soderbergh’s works, Candelabra is fascinated by the dichotomy between an artifice expressed to the world at large (especially showbiz artifice) and the relative tawdriness of reality.  And if you’re gonna go out with artifice, there’s no more extravagant example of it in American popular culture than the late Liberace.

Although he’s a not particularly well-remembered footnote today, for decades Liberace (played here by Michael Douglas) was a very oddball kind of star, a pianist who combined real talent for light classical music with massive amounts of on-stage and off-stage excess that included mink coats with trains a dozen feet long over outfits glittery with rhinestones, fingers bejeweled with heavy rings, an assortment of the world’s fanciest cars, and a house furnished with murals and actual Roman columns.  Although he was widely popular, the ground zero of his fame was, naturally enough, Las Vegas (there’s an entire museum there devoted to his clothes, pianos and possessions).  Without Liberace, there may never have been an Elton John, or for that matter a Madonna or Lady Gaga, not to mention large swaths of the hip-hop world.  He was also, in the culturally conservative years of the mid-20th century, the most famous unacknowledged gay entertainer in the world, a man whose supposed heterosexuality (he claimed to have been engaged to the ice-skater Sonja Henie) gave his fans (semi-) plausible deniability.  In fact, a succession of young men had places in his life, and when he was in his late 50s in 1977, he met Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), whose relationship with Liberace is the main substance of the film.  (Richard LaGravenese’s script is based on Thorson’s memoir.)  Thorson had a rocky childhood and a daddy complex (he was raised by foster parents, separated from his siblings), and his neuroses, for a while at least, fit with Liberace’s.

There were bizarre aspects to their relationship, particularly Liberace’s insistence, after having plastic surgery himself, that Thorson undergo some as well–specifically designed to make him look like the young Liberace.  (Second place would be Liberace’s plan at one point to adopt his lover as his son, although in real life Thorson’s age of 17 when they met made that a tiny bit more comprehensible than it is in the film, where Damon is clearly well past his teens.)  In many ways, though, their romance as depicted in Candelabra was a fairly predictable saga of glamorous passion that became dull and then ugly, as Thorson developed an addiction to drugs after his surgery and ultimately sued Liberace for palimony after he’d been dumped, just a few years before the entertainer’s death from AIDS.  Once the impact of Douglas and Damon playing whole-heartedly gay fades, the movie becomes a little dull as it takes us through the slow decline of their love, especially because Soderbergh and LaGravenese emphasize the closeted nature of their relationship by having long stretches of the action take place within Liberace’s home, with very few other characters of any importance.

Candelabra is always watchable, though.  Soderbergh has a ball recreating the glitz of Liberace’s Vegas stage show and the excesses of his residence and outfits (the star was famous for saying “Too much of a good thing is… wonderful“).  As usual, Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer (as “Peter Andrews”) and editor (as “Mary Ann Bernard”), and he does a splendid job in the former capacity, although in the latter he might have reminded himself that sometimes too much of a good thing really is too much.  Credit must also go to production designer Howard Cummings and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick for their sumptuous work.  Marvin Hamlisch, in his final film, adapted Liberace’s fulsome musical selections.

Douglas gives a remarkably serious, thoughtful performance as Liberace, not just relying on mimicry of the campy persona (although he does that well), but making the man a fleshed-out human being.  Damon has more trouble with Thorson, because as presented here the man was fairly passive and limited, but he draws out the pathos of the situation, especially late in the story.  There’s a fine supporting cast that includes Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s lawyer, Rob Lowe as a nightmarish example of a plastic surgeon who’s overindulged in his own trade, and Debbie Reynolds (a real-life friend of Liberace’s, as was the film’s producer Jerry Weintraub) as the pianist’s mother.

Liberace didn’t bow out of his sequined spotlight until his health absolutely forced him to, and he might not have approved of Soderbergh’s voluntary exit from the movie scene.  But at least his life gives the filmmaker subject matter for one more exploration of the false fronts people present, and both the appeal of and the damage caused by those facades.  Soderbergh’s own artifice may be the idea that we’ve seen the last of him–that, however, would be a happy falsehood.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."