I ordinarily wouldn’t call a movie “fabulous,” but it certainly applies here. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the performances to the title is just delicious, just divine, just… you know, other words Liberace himself would have used to describe such a thing.
They say that “behind every great man is a great woman,” but of course, that’s only true of the straight ones. Liberace’s hubby-for-hire Scott Thorson was hardly a great man, or even a good one. Behind The Candelabra chronicles the rise and fall of their relationship, without a lot of exploration of either man as an individual. We learn little about Liberace’s artistry on the piano and even less about what, if anything, Scott could have been good at if he hadn’t been scooped up by a world-famous, rich-as-God musician in his teen years. In part I suppose the story (based on Thorson’s book) is meant to be an expose of the real Liberace, but the movie plays more like an expose on what happens when shallow, superficial people with lots of disposable income get together and decide to call it love. In many ways, it needn’t be the story of Liberace at all, because it could just as easily take place today. I don’t know if you’ve met couples like this in real life, but I sure have. And Behind The Candelabra confirms that what may look enviable at first glance actually isn’t a fate you’d wish on your worst enemy.
Knowing almost nothing about Liberace going into this, I was in for a ton of surprises in viewing HBO’s latest star vehicle. What I knew about Liberace was essentially only what the world at large didn’t — that he was gay. So gay that it should have been obvious, yet celebrities could get away with such things back then. I knew he was a musician, but not a pianist. I did not know that he died of AIDS. Maybe someone who knew more about Liberace going in would have liked a deeper exploration of the man, but Behind The Candelabra isn’t really about Liberace or Scott, exactly. If I had to guess what Steven Soderbergh is getting at, it might be a subtle endorsement for gay marriage, because if we don’t legitimize gay relationships, then this is the kind of horror show that happens.
I won’t spend much time recapping the plot, because the film premiered a week ago to HBO’s highest TV movie numbers in years. And like I said, it’s not really about the story. Behind The Candelabra has some of the best costume design and art direction in recent memory, filmed in Liberace’s old house and painstakingly recreated, decor-wise. (And man, is it tacky.) It’s great fun to see reasonably macho Hollywood players like Douglas and Damon camp it up in tight and/or sparkly outfits, and frequently very little apparel, but if that were all there is to this movie, it’d just be condescending. Both actors (and the rest) take the material seriously and never wink at the camera to let us know they’re just “playing.” Though they’re playing over-the-top, ridiculous men, they’re never in on the joke. Matt Damon convincingly portrays a man several decades his junior — he may not look 17 exactly, but he conveys youth surprisingly well. (How often have we seen actors play teenagers that seem nothing like teenagers?) The real marvel is Douglas, of course, in a role unlike any he’s ever played — and one of his best performances ever. I’d be pretty shocked not to see him take an Emmy for it, especially considering recent health problems (for better or worse, that always gives actors a leg up).
Many critics have complained that Behind The Candelabra is a lot more surface than substance, and while I suppose that’s true, it didn’t bother me because, in a way, that’s the point. These people were all about surface, allowing it to replace whatever substance they once had, and what many viewers may not realize is that it’s a frighteningly accurate portrayal of a certain segment of the gay population, especially at this time. Soderbergh is a smart filmmaker, and rarely if ever makes a movie that isn’t getting at something larger. He’s claimed this is his last film for the foreseeable future because he’s grown frustrated with the way Hollywood works, and in a way, this gives a voice to his frustration with those who favor shiny nothings over meaning. Behind The Candelabra is Scott’s version of this story, and considering he’s been in and out of trouble with the law ever since, who can say how fair it is? (Scott comes off looking better than Liberace, at least.) But I found it a satisfying depiction of a toxic relationship, and it was especially fun to bask in the tacky luxury of Liberace’s lifestyle. Only a master like Soderbergh could get that right.