Behind the Candelabra

Genre: Drama

Director: Steven Soderberg

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson

Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Before Elvis, before Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga, there was Liberace: virtuoso pianist, outrageous entertainer and flamboyant star of stage and television. A name synonymous with showmanship, extravagance and candelabras, he was a world-renowned performer with a flair that endeared him to his audiences and created a loyal fan base spanning his 40-year career. Liberace (Michael Douglas) lived lavishly and embraced a lifestyle of excess both on and off stage. In summer 1977, handsome young stranger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) walked into his dressing room and, despite their age difference and seemingly different worlds, the two embarked on a secretive five-year love affair. Behind the Candelabra takes a behind-the-scenes look at their tempestuous relationship – from their first meeting backstage at the Las Vegas Hilton to their bitter and public break-up.

Review: It is interesting to see Soderberg take on Liberace as his final movie project (at least for now), albeit a TV movie made for HBO (here in Singapore we will get to experience the movie on the big screen), since he isn’t necessarily the first director one would think of when it comes to someone as showy as Liberace. However, Behind the Candelabra is very much a success on many counts – it is a briskly paced biopic with two very strong lead performances, and though poignant at times, remains entertaining from start to end.

It’s easy to turn any movie about Liberace into a parody, since it would not take much effort (if at all) to focus on the camp factor of his life and loves. Yet, despite the amount of sequins, rhinestones and other manner of bling and kitsch in the movie, the one thing that it isn’t is campy. It’s a triumph that despite the larger-than-life character that was Liberace, Soderberg’s rendition of Liberace’s life with Scott Thorson is measured and even-handed. Soderberg treats the material with a great amount of respect (and to a certain extent, sympathy) and never plays any scene for laughs, much as there are mirthful moments in the film.

Michael Douglas may seem to be an odd choice to be Liberace on paper, but his performance is certainly the strongest in the movie. He nails the character completely from the word go, and essentially disappears into the role. For two hours, the firmly heterosexual Michael Douglas IS the showy, flashy and very homosexual Liberace. Matt Damon is almost able to stand toe to toe with Michael Douglas in his turn as Scott, and it’s commendable that for someone who’s almost double the actual age of Scott can bring out the naïveté and guile that underscores the character. Damon isn’t as convincing, however, in the later parts of the movie when he has to portray Scott as an increasingly desperate drug addict. One other surprise is Rob Lowe, who is truly memorable as a plastic surgeon who has obviously gone too far in the remaking of his own face, although it can be argued that his makeup plays an equally important part as his thespian skills.

Being made for TV, the experience of watching it on the big screen does make the smaller, more intimate moments in the film feel a little out of place. However, there are also moments that transcend the TV movie confines, almost all of them involving Michael Douglas. Though this is a movie made from viewpoint of Scott Thorson, this is very much a showcase of Michael Douglas at his most impressive. He is also augmented by fine directing from Soderberg, and strong production values all around, from the music to the art direction and set designs.

The movie ends off with Liberace uttering the phrase “Too much of a good thing… is wonderful!” and that essentially is what we have here: a wonderful movie that isn’t too much, despite it being about Liberace, and that really is a very good thing.   

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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