Culture: Film

Review: Behind The Candelabra

Behind The Candelabra

“I made my greatest contribution to motion pictures years ago. I stopped making them.” Liberace at the 1982 Academy Awards.

Forget the condescending headline makers spouting “how wonderful” and “what a revelation” Michael Douglas is. The guy won the Best Actor Oscar for Wall Street and Best Picture for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. His Dad is Spartacus and Bonnie Tyler went to his wedding! Are we still in an era of “how brave of you to play gay”? Or is a straight actor only allowed to be “a revelation” because he plays a screaming icon post-cancer?

Yes, Douglas is perfectly matched for Władziu Valentino Liberace. A showbiz queen should be played by Hollywood royalty. Besides, it had been his gig for years. But only now – with the tail end of Douglas’s health woes sort of perfectly placed to portray someone in total denial about his – has Steven Soderbergh’s final directorial flourish seen one of the best works all involved have ever produced. Ostensibly a kitchen sink domestic drama (or “kitsch and sink” as Liberace should well have said), Behind The Candelabra recounts the fascinating saga of world famous entertainer Liberace’s eventful relationship with closeted drifter Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). This is the everyday story of boy meets older man, boy falls in love with older man, boy has plastic surgery to look like older man, older man legally adopts boy and boy eventually bites the bling-covered hand that feeds him.

The real revelation in Candelabra is that Douglas – like Richard LaGravenese’s fine script – takes his time. This is not a quick freak show, ghost train of a biopic revelling in how cool it is because it has found genuine 1970s food cartons or billboards. For Douglas the danger is that this is a role whose lamé waistcoats and glittery hair pieces enter the room before he does. And the fox-pelt coat hangs on many a scene after Douglas has already exited stage left (a fantastic visual sees both characters clambering out of a hedonistic limo in their fox furs to check out a sex shop backroom). But just as Channing Tatum’s acting chops more than matched his own abs in Soderbergh’s recent Magic Mike (2012), Douglas more than matches the extreme costume work. Less Romancing The Stone more romancing whilst stoned, Douglas slowly peels back the wigs and façade to show the Catholic guilt, the Hollywood hypocrisy, the post-1970s hangover affecting a character who is still trying to maintain his 1950s glory days and the hollow lot of an entertainer. The original television movie confines of this piece are obviously at play here. Yet the whole film [and it is easily a piece of great cinema first and foremost] – feels like a glorious chamber piece, a focused two-hander about two unfocused characters on a par with Peter Quilter’s The End of The Rainbow. It briefly toys with Angels In America’s dramatic responsibility when it comes to AIDS (and a Rock Hudson newspaper headline is hardly done subtly), but ultimately – and rightly – Candelabra is about two men who have never had a family to belong to and are unable to judge character and when just to say no.

However, Behind The Candelabra is indeed Matt Damon’s film. Richard LaGravenese’s script is adapted from Thorson’s own memoir published only a year after Liberace died in 1987. Whilst the movie doesn’t scratch its talons that deep, it goes far enough. This is the final act of Liberace’s mirror-balled life. This is a sleazy-listening last album of twice-nightly shows, “nephews”, “assistants”, back rooms, drugs, silicone penis implants, pretty boy dancers and the confused opening salvo of HIV/AIDS. As Thorson and Liberace struggle in a champagne-hazed impasse of one telling the other what they should really be telling themselves, Soderbergh and LaGravenese adroitly weave a story of Liberace’s final act alongside Scott’s first.

Whilst the script is possibly unclear about Thorson’s real proclivities (to be honest, so is he), Damon works with that uncertainty without martyring or mocking a character who for three decades has essentially been a National Enquirer staple or at best a financially needy self-publicist. There is no harsh judgment made against either Thorson or Liberace beyond their own behaviour. And there is easily another film in the wings about What Scottie Did Next – involvement with LA’s infamous Wonderland killings, shot five times, more plastic surgery, heterosexuality, homosexuality, prison, cancer, fraud, allegations of a relationship with Michael Jackson and that is just the opening titles! A heavy-duty stalwart from the Soderbergh repertory company, Matt Damon is made for swanning through Vegas tracking shots. And for climbing out a pool in beautifully paltry undercrackers. This is Liberace’s world through Scott’s eyes. An early encounter at a Vegas blue-rinse matinee, a backstage introduction replete with a hissy Cheyenne Jackson, the first time Scott catches Lee without his wig on and the first and only time he sees him dying – these are all moments kept for us too. When Scott finally breaks from Liberace, so does the film – with Douglas suddenly kept at bay in a possibly rushed sequence of last act events. As Liberace’s look had apparently been on freeze frame since Christmas Day 1952 (what a gay Christmas that must have been), Thorson’s ever-changing looks (from a Skywalker mop top of 1977 to a sort of 1981 Linda McCartney mullet) mark the film’s only visual progression in an otherwise sequinned Vegas bubble.

Of course this is a biopic so we are gradually presented those “why the hell did you say ‘yes’?” moments – where our rationale jostles with that of worlds and circumstances we cannot possibly fathom. Yet, Soderbergh is not judging. There is plenty of backstage back-stabbing, but Candelabra leaves its own daggers at home. It is only when Scott’s eyes are lifted by unnecessary plastic surgery and sunken by drug abuse that the audience is asked to step aside and watch – like Thorson himself always did – from the wings.

There is nothing pre-watershed about Candelabra. This is not The Birdcage or To Wong Foo  – something the kids can accidentally watch on the plane. Never mind Behind the candelabra. Gordon Gekko and Jason Bourne sit on top of it, go down on it and are often just off-frame no doubt French polishing it. Scott may not like folk to go near his back-end but Soderbergh’s camera does. A lot. And that audaciousness is elsewhere too – with acutely graphic plastic surgery scenes only just offset by a ludicrously hammy turn from Rob Lowe. Both funny and sinister, Lowe’s reckless plastic surgeon is a jaw-dropping, jaw-cracking delight. Pitched as a sort of plastic-pinched Bee Gee, his involvement ends Liberace and Scott’s honeymoon period with prescription drugs and some very bad attempts at reassurance, “you won’t ever be able to close your eyes, but just think – you’ll be able to spend longer looking at folk seeing how wonderful you look!”. And then amidst all of this Debbie Reynolds turns up as Liberace’s rather traditional mother, uneasy with her charmed lot.

Aside from the opening pulses of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summers I Feel Love and an HBO graphic deliberately dipped in early 1980s video company kitsch, this a disco era biopic without the disco. Soderbergh ditches all the I Heart The 1970s tracks that you can buy at your local garage for the late Marvin Hamlisch’s own renditions of Liberace’s classics. Particular mention should go to the sound department too with the recurring motif of important conversations barely heard over the bubbles in Liberace’s Jacuzzi and a lush end motif Liberace himself would have been proud of.

With a final score by Marvin Hamlisch, a potential final film from director Soderbergh (how apt the film is set in Vegas, the home of the constant final tour), Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in career-topping form, real-life Liberace friend Debbie Reynolds, Dan Aykroyd playing Elliot Gould from Ocean’s Eleven and a screenplay that bucks the biopic trend to abridge to the point of caricature – Behind The Candelabra’s own star power will only grow. Like Liberace himself, it is a crushing shame this film could not make the break from television and enjoy a bigger life on the American big screen. But as Liberace himself would remark, “too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

Behind The Candelabra opens in cinemas on Friday 7 June.

Words: Mark O’Connell, the author of Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan.

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