Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Richard LaGravenese based on the book by Alex Thorleifson & Scott Thorson.
Starring: Michael Douglas (Liberace), Matt Damon (Scott Thorson), Scott Bakula (Bob Black), Dan Aykroyd (Seymour Heller), Nicky Katt (Mr. Y), Rob Lowe (Dr. Jack Startz), Debbie Reynolds (Frances), Tom Papa (Ray Arnett), Paul Reiser (Mr. Felder), Bruce Ramsay (Carlucci), Jane Morris (Rose Carracappa), Garrett M. Brown (Joe Carracappa), David Koechner (Adoption Attorney).
Throughout his directing career, which is now apparently over, Steven Soderbergh has dabbled in many different genres. He’s made heist films, thrillers, action movies, legal dramas, comedies, crime movies, science fiction, etc. and his budgets has ranged from huge to miniscule. For his apparent final film, he sets his sets on the celebrity biopic – and picks an unlikely subject – Liberace. Liberace was well before my time – by the time I heard of him, he was already dead, and people were already making fun of him as being the least closeted gay celebrity ever who still denied he was gay. My knowledge of the man is limited – but I still found Behind the Candelabra to be a fascinating film. What’s more, I think it also represented a slight step forward for “gay” movies. For most of cinema history, of course, gays weren’t portrayed at all, or else were merely hinted at. When filmmakers were finally “allowed” to have gay characters, they were often mocked or else portrayed as perverts. When that stopped, Hollywood felt the need to put gay characters either in genres where audiences would be comfortable – like the courtroom drama of Philadelphia (1993) or else as the non-sexualized best friend of the hero – like My Best Friend’s Wedding or As Good As It Gets (both 1997). We then moved into the phase of the “gay martyr” movie – like Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) – two excellent films in their own right, but two films that definitely show their characters as victims – because they were. What is refreshing about Behind the Candelabra is that it is a film with two movie stars – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – who are both playing gay characters, who are not fully defined by their being gay. The movie is a love story, yes, but an extremely creepy one – one where neither character is a villain, but both are cleared flawed, and each uses the other to get what they want. In short, both characters are as flawed as real people – both gay and straight – are.
While it is possible to make an all-encompassing biopic – which follows some from birth to death – Behind the Candelabra takes the smarter tactic of focusing on just a short period of time. By the time we meet Liberace, his greatest days of fame are behind him – he is aging, and in less than 10 years, he’ll be dead. But that hasn’t slowed him down any – he still performs nightly to adoring crowds in Las Vegas – and he’s still Mr. Showmanship. We first see him on stage through the eyes of Scott Thorson, a young, animal loving hunk who comes to Vegas with his “new friend” Bob, and is amazed that such an old crowd would embrace a show “this gay”. “They don’t know he’s gay” Bob tells him. By this point, Liberace has become a gay icon, but he’s still pretending to be straight – pretending he’s “never found the right woman”. His agent Seymour takes goes to great lengths to cover up for Liberace – who will still sue anyone who calls him gay (he even won a libel case in England against a British tabloid). How many people actually believed Liberace was straight is questionable – he seems like so outwardly, stereotypically gay – yet this was perhaps a more “innocent” time.
Bob is friends with “Lee” and so he introduces Scott to him after the show. Scott is star struck by Liberace – and Liberace is immediately attracted to Scott. It doesn’t take long for Liberace to convince Scott to move in with him – as an “employee”, although we don’t actually see anything that would classify as work. They both know the reason he’s there – but along the way, Scott forgets. At first, the two are inseparable – Liberace showers him with money and gifts – fires employees when Scott feels they have “disrespected” him, and gotten rid of his other boy toys. This should all be a sign to Scott that this isn’t going to last – that eventually Liberace will set his sights on a newer model – but he doesn’t. He even allows himself to undergo plastic surgery to make him look more like Liberace – which is even creepier than what James Stewart does to Kim Novak in Vertigo.
The movie is a triumph on many levels – from the perfectly over-the-top art direction in Liberace’s mansions, to his even more flamboyant costumes, to Richard LaGravenese’s smart, funny, insightful screenplay and Soderbergh’s excellent direction – this may be a TV movie, but it’s more cinematic than most other TV movies I have ever seen – even other HBO films directed by the likes of Barry Levinson and David Mamet. Soderbergh’s camera glides effortlessly through the opulent halls of Liberace’s mansions, captures what made him a star on stage, and doesn’t flinch away from the sex scenes. No, there is nothing overtly graphic here, but Soderbergh doesn’t shy away from showing both sex and intimacy between these characters.
But the biggest triumph has to be the acting. If this were a theatrical release, Michael Douglas may well have received an Oscar nomination for his pitch-perfect performance as Liberace (as it stands, I suspect he’ll have to settle for every TV award there is). He nails the voice and mannerisms of Liberace – but that’s just the surface of his performance. He gets deeper into the deep seeded insecurities, the vanity and the selfishness of the character – but somehow still makes Liberace somewhat likable. Yes, he is a creep in many ways – a “dirty old man” who uses his money and celebrity to pretty do whatever he wants – but when he finally does turn on Scott, can you really blame him? Damon perhaps has the even more difficult role, and even though he is perhaps two decades too old for the role (the real Thornson was in his teens and early 20s during his time with Liberace), he is so good in the role, I really didn’t care. He makes Thorson into an initially sweet, naïve young hunk, who slowly turns into a diva – you can be a diva when you’re Liberace and have the money, fame and talent to back it up – but when you’re Liberace’s lover, that’s dangerous. Damon nails it. The supporting cast is filled with wonderful notes – none of the rest of the cast really stands out as a full developed character, but they all have good moments – Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother playing with the slot machines, Dan Ackroyd as his agent doing all the dirty work, Nicky Katt as a slimy drug dealer, Scott Bakula as the seemingly wiser older man who gives Scott horrible advice, and especially Rob Lowe – made up ridiculously as a plastic surgeon, who has had far too much work done. They add flavor to the background – and the movie is improved greatly as a result.
Soderbergh has said this is his last film as a director – and now he’s going to retire (although that obviously means something different to him than it does to the rest of us since he’s already working on a TV miniseries). He recently held court and told the world what he thought of the “State of Film” – and it wasn’t pretty. But Behind the Candelabra is a triumph for Soderbergh – one of his best films, and perhaps could serve as a model for what he can do in the future if he decides to “un-retire”. No studio wanted to make this film because they considered it “too gay”. Yet, Soderbergh still got it made, still got two movie stars to be in it, still got it into the Official Competition in Cannes, still received a lot of attention in the media and praise by critics, and will almost certainly still win a slew of awards. It’s hard to imagine Behind the Candelabra turning out any better had it been financed by a studio and released theatrically. What was Soderbergh complaining about?