Liberace | Matt Damon | Michael Douglas | Nathaniel Rogers

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Weekend Movies: Behind the Candelabra

  Behind-bedroom
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon share a bed and the story of Liberace and Scott Thorson

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS 

"Too much of a good thing is wonderful"

That was a signature catchphrase of Liberace, the classical pianist who became a household name as a flamboyant nightclub entertainer. Liberace was born Vladziu Valentino Liberace but known by "Walter" or "Lee" to his intimates -- even the names were too many… too much! He didn't just popularize the catchphrase but lived it maintaining his most unlikely monster career for roughly four decades -- which is, what, a century in showbiz years?

The new biopic BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, premiering Sunday on HBO, is smart enough to adopt it as tagline. But is it too much? Is it wonderful? Hollywood studios thought so, at least in regards to the first question. Director Steven Soderbergh hasn't been shy about telling the press that the story was too gay for the movie studios and while we can't know the ins and outs of how true this is or to what extent he tried to make it happen as a theatrical feature before going to television, it sounds trueish. Hollywood has been curiously reluctant to relive the mainstream success of Brokeback Mountain (a major hit grossing nearly $100 million in domestic release) even though they're usually downright shameless about cashing in on any success with quick imitation.

But bless Soderbergh for pushing it forward, even if he's a weird fit for the material. As a director he's never been exactly "flamboyant" visually, preferring subtle formal experimentation to Liberace's rhinestone-slathered "look at me" effort.

CONTINUE, AFTER THE JUMP....

Behind-piano

But come to think of it Liberace's sparkle must have been the draw. Soderbergh is, rather famously, a superb director of movie stars, often guiding them to their best work. You don't need to zazz anything up behind the camera when Julia Roberts is crusading with all her movie star wiles  ("they're called Boobs, Ed") and if you know to stay out of Channing Tatum's way in the editing room when he's humping the stage in a g-string you get pure Magic. But with lesser subjects Soderbergh's films can, to me, feel a teensy bit flat.

Not that Soderbergh isn't smart behind the camera when the right subject comes along. In fact, I love the build-up to The Star entrance here. It's just about perfect. The first five minutes of Behind the Candelabra are Liberace free but they're subtly funny and warm. The movie is based on the autobiography of Liberace's former chauffeur (read: lover) Scott Thorson played by Matt Damon. We first meet him in fairly anonymous long shot, he could be any blond 70s stud. Soderbergh watches a man pick him up with a funny empty-headed exchange of names as "I Feel Love" plays tinnily in the background, bless.

Liberace-scottthe real life couple

One smart establishing scene with Scott's foster parents later, and the two new friends (fuckbuddies?) are racing off together for a concert already in progress. Just as the piano tickling begins on the soundtrack, the offscreen host announces "Mr Showmanship… Liberace!", Soderbergh shifts the camera and the editing tempo to the music. Damon's blond feathered hair bounces with casual excitement as he struts into the concert hall and the movie has already won me over. I Feel Love, yes.

The arrival of the star changes everything for Scott -- who Liberace will immediately flirt with as his current protege (read: lover), played in hilariously bitchy complete silence by Cheyenne Jackson, ignores them. Soderbergh's reliably superb intuition with Movie Stars pays off again with Michael Douglas's work as the infamous showman. Soderbergh can always zero right in on what makes a particular star special and in this case it's Douglas's gleeful inner bad boy; if he feels like he's getting away with something (that "Greed is good" speech in Wall Street being the definitive Oscar-winning example) he's always riveting. Douglas's excessively queeny (what, there's no other word) take on the perpetually horny and mincing Liberace would be downright offensive if it weren't, you know,  accurate. But my favorite beat in Douglas' future Emmy winning performance is the way he robotically shuts off if he doesn't enjoy something, the charm replaced by an equally self-serving impenetrable wall of nothing.

MattasscottMatt Damon has the more difficult acting challenge of making us care about a less flashy less familiar character about whom we learn precious little. At first I wasn't sure that Damon was up to the task -- was he playing Scott as an empty-headed colorless hunk because he had no ideas about the character? -- but his performance sneaks up on you and you realize with horror, right along with the character -- just how much of himself he's lost by not cultivating his own identity and letting someone else fill him. His key light-switch moment comes roughly halfway through the film with dual plastic surgery appointments. Liberace is getting a face lift to look younger but he wants Scott to get one to look more like Liberace.

I have to admit that I wanted an out unknown actor to play Scott but there's a benefit to having a star like Damon in this one. It might sound terrible to say but the tragedy of losing your own face plays a lot better for the audience when they already have deep-affection for the face they're looking at -- who would want to change Matt Damon's perfectly boyish good looks? He's not too movie-star pretty, not too generically handsome, but just right and very specifically himself. And then he's gone… he never looks quite like Matt Damon again. Behind the Candelabra's morbid sense of humor is its saving grace in the creepier second half once the relationship sours (Spoiler Alert if you've never seen a biopic about the rich and famous before: there will be drug use, infidelity, squandering of money, legal battles, et. all) Rob Lowe is just great as Liberace's waxy smooth-talking pill-pushing plastic surgeon, sending up his own eternal youth in the process. And Debbie Reynolds, unrecognizable at first, is a treasure as Liberace's greedy mom.

Behind-rob-matt

Just as the movie starts losing steam in the familiar downward spirals, the AIDS crisis hits, and you know the end is near. Most of the showbiz references are great fun here, especially if you're an Oscar buff (Liberace loved the Oscars), but one pan to a Rock Hudson headline was tasteless and obvious and I can't imagine what possessed Soderbergh to keep it. But despite the missteps, the final scene, an unexpected bit of fantasy, returns us to the initial pleasures of Liberace's love of performance and Scott's own complicated love for Liberace... which is exactly where we need to end.

In the end I would not say that Behind The Candelabra is ever "too much". In fact, I think it practically squeals like a greedy magpie piggy for more gaudy big screen glitz (now why didn't Baz Luhrmann want do direct this in 3D instead of The Great Gatsby for FScott's sake). Since Candelabra did go to television I think it's actually not enough. A lengthier miniseries was arguably called for since Michael Douglas is so game and our peeks into his colorful career and even his contentious embattled place in gay history (he does reference the gay community's hatred of him) surely have much more of worth to offer. But for what it is, and especially as a swan song for Steven Soderbergh (who is now on indefinite hiatus from filmmaking) it's a moving must-see curiousity. Even when it's not quite enough, it's still pretty "wonderful".

Douglas-liberace

Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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Comments

  1. For what it's worth, the film probably isn't a miniseries because they knew they could sell rights to the film for (more expensive) theatrical release internationally. I know it's getting a cinema release in many countries and I wish we'd get it here.

    Posted by: Glenn | May 25, 2013 12:35:39 AM


  2. It strikes me as very sad that they could only make it work as a "marital" relationship for a mere 4 years. So very many "disincentives" worked against closeted gay folks back then to build a lifelong, or at least a long-term life affirming commitment to one another. There were no parents, both in-laws and out-laws, to urge the lovers to work it out, to hold on to that which first brought them together, and no community support for either of them to draw upon to get a clear view of just how life affirming a lifelong, true marriage can be as we all age and see our futures as sole souls seem so very lonely. Too much about my own life seeped in there, I realize, but I would have hoped for more for every LGBT couple I've ever met who were once truly in love. The hard work that follows to see what a couple's future really pays back in aces, is a missing element of many LGBT love stories. I wish that it were otherwise. Life is at the same time too short and painfully, at times, too long, and especially when alone. As a 60-year-old single man, I’ve realized where I made egotistical mistakes, taken up in the drama of a moment, not realizing just how much more loving and reassuring certain of my passionate loves could have become with greater expertise and care on my part.

    Posted by: Tom Cardellino | May 25, 2013 12:52:59 AM


  3. with all respect @Tom Cardellino maybe your insight is the basis for a movie about the expression, revolution and evolution of love.
    same building/apartment/tenant, different time periods.
    we walk these streets without little awareness of those who have walked before us. or those who follow.

    Posted by: my2cents | May 25, 2013 1:26:33 AM


  4. The reality of today is that we have committed couples like David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris as role models who continue to grow their relationship year after year and remain in love with each other. That is not an easy feat by any means. Keeping a marriage together takes a hell of a lot of work, especially for men, who think about sex more often then we think about anything else.

    Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi have a wonderful new British series called Vicious centering around an aging but "with it" gay married couple who bicker, swipe, laugh and truly love each other. You know a series is good when the writing is so well done and clever you immediately break out laughing. Here you have two amazing openly gay older actors really bringing it home in a modern and exceptionally well done way.

    Those of us who never had the privilege of seeing Liberace live or even on television can only imagine what a gay celebrity had to endure and live through to retain his fame and fortune during those years. It seems almost unheard of that Liberace and Scott were not married but back then even the hint of same sex relationships could easily destroy one's career, in or out of show business. I look forward to seeing "Behind the Candelabra" very much.

    Posted by: Mike Ryan | May 25, 2013 2:30:08 AM


  5. Read the transcript (available on line) of the 2002 Larry King interview with Scott Thorston...he claims that he is and always was straight. Doesn't mean he didn't love Lee but he was never marriage material.

    Posted by: Jim Kelly-Evans | May 25, 2013 8:37:10 AM


  6. My man/partner/possible-soon-to-be-husband-in-CA-if-SCOTUS-does-right have been together since 1979. We originally met amidst the sun, beach volleyball, drugs and parties of Laguna Beach 2 years before. Neither of us was ever in the closet by the mid-Seventies, but I do recall instances of introducing each other as brothers while visiting certain states and foreign countries. Relationships are always work and in ours as in most that have lasted 34+ years, there have been the requisite periods of drug use (never real abuse thankfully) and infidelity (though not in quite a while). There have been many points at which we might have separated; it probably would have made more than a couple of monthlong periods easier. But here we are, about to watch a film about a personality who made us each uncomfortable to see as we were growing up on opposite sides of the continent. I could never understand why my mother loved watching Liberace on TV. But maybe it was a clue as to why she ended up being perhaps the best PFLAG Mom/mother-in-law around.

    Posted by: DrMikey | May 25, 2013 10:13:15 AM


  7. Scott Thorson is in jail at the moment. I read an interview with him a few days ago. He is kind of a mess. While he told Larry King he was str8, he lived with a woman for more than ten years (the Lord told her to reach out to him) and they only had sex once.

    I tended to hate everything my mom liked, music-wise. So while she loved to watch Steve and Edie and Andy Williams on TV I couldn't stand them. I didn't care for Liberace either.

    Of course, I couldn't stand Wayne Newton either and he is supposed to be the hottest thing in Las Vegas.

    Posted by: Charlie | May 25, 2013 10:45:55 AM


  8. To me Liberace is fascinating. Not so much the man himself but how he was embraced by his audience who, lets face it, were anti-gay. (Nearly everyone was at that time.) It's like there's was an agreed-upon lie, that Liberace wasn't gay, he was just COLORFUL, then they could just shut up and enjoy it for what it was.

    My aunt and uncle might have been the two tackiest people alive. They called each other Twee-pie (Tweety Pie) and Hound Dog, and together they edged into John Waters territory. He wore powder blue leisure suits with contrast stitching and she wore GIANT sunglasses and carried a GIANT purse with a "Hawaiian Island Sunset" motif. (In their way, they were every bit as much a stereotype as Liberace.) They went to Vegas (this was during the Thorson years) and my uncle came back RAVING about Liberace! He loved the show! LOVED it! There was this weird, defensive attitude about it though, as if he might be called upon to defend his position. "I don't care if he IS gay, the man can put on a show!" He was almost pugnacious about it, willing to fight for his belief that Liberace, that big homo, put on a good show. It was weird and obviously it stuck in my mind.

    As an out gay man I don't care much for Liberace, a gay man who lived in a glass closet but pretended to be straight. (As if!) But I think he actually WAS influential in the way America views gay people. (Not always to our benefit, IMO.) Everybody knew he was gay but they loved him anyway. And as Liberace himself said, he cried all the way to the bank.

    He gave himself JUST enough plausible deniability (pretty implausible IMO though it seems to have worked) to be acceptable. There were several 60s/70s "personalities" who were like that. Paul Lynde for instance. Rip Taylor. So "gay" it bordered on parody, yet accepted despite that. It's like the audiences subconsciously decided to pretend not to know what they knew and just enjoy it.

    OK, I didn't mean to go ON and ON about it, but these were things that informed my identity as a gay man.

    Posted by: Caliban | May 25, 2013 11:43:19 AM


  9. In some ways Liberace was the gay StepNFetchit, I think. He "knew his place" and never demanded anything of his audience. But it was a gilded cage. But he was born (I just looked it up) in 1919. A very different time. Think of the progress we've made in just the last few years. He didn't have that, so it's unfair to judge him by our standards.

    Posted by: Caliban | May 25, 2013 12:25:28 PM


  10. I saw this movie last week, if you get a chance to see it, do so. Michael Douglas is fantastic, so is Matt Damon, so is the supporting cast.

    Posted by: Henry Holland | May 25, 2013 12:43:29 PM


  11. I've never understood the attractions of Liberace to a huge audience any better than the ability of Billy Graham to provide entertainment for the same people. Bishop Fulton Sheen was as much a fixture of my childhood television viewing and (though taught to disdain Catholics, especially my numerous cousins) I thought he was more tastefully costumed and painted up. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde's dictum, "Whatever is popular is wrong".
    Maybe I'll see this eventually, though my interest is more in a buff Matt Damon than in the real people.
    The reference to Stepin Fetchit interests me. Lincoln Perry, who was best known by that screen name, subverted the implications of the role by becoming the first Black actor to enter the ranks of millionaires, and I believe he was the first to negotiate a good studio contract. After years of being disparaged as an Uncle Tom, he received recognition from the NAACP. Read the 2005 book by Mel Watkins STEPIN FETCHIT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF LINCOLN PERRY.
    Hetero/racist America is just weird.


    Posted by: gregorybrown | May 25, 2013 4:42:57 PM


  12. I can't wait to see 'Behind the Candelabra' for many reasons. But unfortunately, I will have to wait till it comes out on DVD as we most probably won't see it in Australia on TV.

    Growing up in the 50s I enjoyed Liberace's TV shows, although then, most everyone 'down under' thought he was a bit 'queenie' - but that didn't blight his popularity, especially with the housewives of that era.

    Back in 1957 when I was 20, I went to Hollywood to work in film publicity and I met Liberace's mother, Frances, at their home in Sherman Oaks. Liberace was in Las Vegas at that time, so she signed my autograph book saying, "I'll sign it at the top of the page, so when you meet Liberace he can sign it below my name."

    Fast forward to 1984 when Liberace was visiting Sydney, and I produced and directed a TV special with him (including highlights of his career). I asked him to sign my autograph book and when he saw his late mother's name his eyes filled with tears. So 27 years later I had come full-circle with my long awaited signature of the famous showman.

    For my show he wore a bright canary yellow suit and matching shoes. He looked a little like Tweety-Pie, but despite the bright color, he still looked ill. But being a true showbiz trouper he got through the show without any problems.

    My program in 1984 would have been the last appearance on television in Australia by Liberace. He died 3 years later. Wonderful memories of working with Liberace whom I found to be very respectful and kind.

    Posted by: John A | May 25, 2013 8:43:35 PM


  13. Liberace and Scott Thorson, Pope Benedict and Georg Ganswein: six of one, half a dozen of the other.

    Posted by: woody | May 26, 2013 8:18:19 AM


  14. That Liberace managed to pull the whole thing off, in that era, is pretty amazing. That said, he didn't seem like he led a particularly happy and fulfilling private life, more like a stereotypical caricature of a rich gay man's life. I just feel a strong sense of sadness and emptiness when I think about the lives of guys like Liberace or even Rock Hudson. I'd need a few stiff drinks to get through watching any movie about their real 'behind the candelabra' lives.

    Posted by: ratbastard | May 26, 2013 10:04:22 AM


  15. I found the Liberace saga somewhat boring - the actors were all convincing and smart with their choices but the material simply felt dated, almost a period piece. Liberace's life was sad, sordid, and silly - huge success combined with ridiculous superficiality equals tragedy.

    Posted by: bryand | May 27, 2013 9:54:46 AM


  16. i have an increased sense and appreciation of Matt Damon's skills; he really was very good. i would also bet that Michael Douglas had one hell of a time; i'm sure it would have been very easy for him to go 'over the top' but he nuanced a lot very well.

    that being said, Liberace was not a very nice person if this portrayal is accurate. his response to hearing his mother's death was chilling, though when she said, "Write me a check....."

    Posted by: mike/ | May 27, 2013 10:10:13 AM


  17. Caliban, you are a very wise person with great analytical skills. :) And Mike, you're right on with the detail about the check: you can totally see how her son wound up as materialist and, on a certain level, a very cold man who reduced a lot of his relationships to transactions. (The question was which was the "real" Lee: the cold, materialistic man who used people and threw them away, or the warm, loving, generous, kind man who seemed to want to bring nothing but happiness to so many, especially those he cared about?)

    Posted by: Dback | May 27, 2013 1:41:12 PM


  18. I saw Liberace live at a theater in the round on the SF Peninsula in the late 60's. He came down to the stage (which only had his piano and a candelabra) and circled it to the adoring cheers of the blue haired audience. Motioning to what he was wearing (a jewel encrusted cape) he said to the audience "Do you like it?". The crowd roared. He responded, "Good, cause you bought it".

    Posted by: stevenj | May 27, 2013 4:31:04 PM


  19. After watching, my first thought was this will become a highly quotable, cult classic. It's visually over the top (as it should be) and kudos to the make-up for stunning work. Special effects deserves praise for the scenes with Michael Douglas playing the piano... it's flawless and convincing. Dialog, at times, is hilarious. Again... my opinion... instant cult classic.

    Posted by: Jonathan | May 28, 2013 6:28:48 AM


  20. Fascinating film. Douglas was brilliant, but, in the end, Matt Damon delivered a towering performance.

    Posted by: Ricardo | May 28, 2013 10:42:03 AM


  21. Fascinating film. Douglas was brilliant, but, in the end, Matt Damon delivered a towering performance.

    Posted by: Ricardo | May 28, 2013 10:42:03 AM


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