Movie Review: Behind the Candelabra

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When young animal trainer Scott Thorson meets Liberace at a concert, his life is turned upside down as he gets caught up in the whirlwind of his new lover’s lifestyle.

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Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Michael Douglas plays notoriously fabulous pianist Liberace, whose flamboyant lifestyle was well-known and yet he staunchly denied his homosexuality during his lifetime. His penchant for much younger men led to a relationship with Scott Thorson, who was only 17 when they met and who became lover, personal assistant, and “family” to Liberace (known as “Lee” to his friends). This film follows them through their six years as a couple and then up to Liberace’s death. Foster child Scott almost can’t help from being swept up in Liberace’s life of opulent excess, becoming completely dependant upon the older man, who drags him along in his destructive wake.

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Behind the Candelabra got a cinematic release here in Australia, a luxury it was not afforded in its native United States – it went to financing channel HBO there, and is considered a TV movie. I think the film deserves better treatment than that, but it wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. The performances are good, but they sit uncomfortably on the shoulders where they rest; there’s a moment when Liberace talks about how it was his dream to go to the Oscars, and I couldn’t help feeling as though Michael Douglas felt the same way. It feels like he’s trying to give a brave performance, rather than a good one. Matt Damon can’t quite escape his own Matt Damon-ness, but he gives the film heart as Scott, who goes from youthfully innocent (with the help of a lot of make-up and vaseline on the camera – Damon’s 40 years aren’t kind to trying to play a 17-year-old) to jaded and bitter through the course of the movie. Supporting characters are better, from Rob Lowe’s hilarious plastic surgeon to Scott Bakula’s understanding friend. The relationship between Scott and Lee is shown as a love story, for all its faults – Liberace’s ability to woo and groom new lovers is disturbing, with Scott even undergoing surgery to look more like the older man and Liberace offering to “adopt” Scott, and they become more and more destructive to one another as time passes and Lee’s eye wanders. Once they get into the realtionship’s dynamic the film starts to move – no longer awkward and ridiculous, Liberace’s excess becomes like a disease, eating away at them.

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Michael Douglas’ Liberace and his piano sparkle.

Soderbergh wastes no time in delving into the world of homosexuality in the late 70s and early 80s, and this is a fascinating study of a period that isn’t particularly well represented. The bars, the men, and society’s expectations are the backdrops of this affair, and it’s heart-breaking to hear Scott cry out that they were married while his lawyer (Paul Reiser!) points out that by law, he’s entitled to nothing. Liberace was litigious and manipulative, taking any media outlet who questioned his sexuality to court and winning, despite the fact that he was the most flamboyant man that has perhaps ever existed. The film dazzles when he’s on stage, literally and figuratively as his rhinestone-encrusted suits sparkle and his fingers fly across the piano keys. The sumptuous directing take every delightful and ugly detail, from tiny pianos to enormous mansions. It’s a good movie, but not a romantic one.

Behind the Candelabra on IMDb

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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Behind the Candelabra

  1. The homosexual stuff may bother some viewers, but didn’t get in my way one bit of enjoying or being compelled by this flick. I honestly have no idea why Soderbergh cared so much about this story to make it his “last movie”, but good for both him and us, because it’s a very well-done flick. Good review Katie.

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