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Behind the Candleabra (2013)

| May 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

If you believe the persona that Liberace displayed to the public, then you might well believe that the man never had a dull moment in his life. “Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” he told his audience and he didn’t just speak it, he lived it. His stage shows were a garish over-the-top monument to the joys of wretched excess and over-indulgence, a garish display dripping with diamonds and glitter and color and music. It was an image that went with him when he left the stage. He brought his work home with him; his gaudy and lavishly over-decorated Hollywood Hills mansion was a monument to his image. The Tsar of Russia never had it so good.

Liberace didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘subtle’ and it could be suspected that his flash and glitter were a snowjob, a way of battling those who tried to bring his homosexuality out in the open during a dark time when such a headline could ruin a performer’s career. When the tabloids tried to expose him, he sued and won. The audience, made up mostly of middle-aged housewives, adored him so much that they were either blind or pretended not to notice. All of his professional life, Liberace fought a never-ending battle to keep it in the closet, even going so far as to plant rumors about his love affair with Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” does a good job of showing us the side of Liberace that the great musician spent his entire life trying to hide. This is a movie about a gay man who, feeling the approach of age, tried to keep time in check, not only through plastic surgery, but also through the presence of a rotating series of young and hansom lovers, one of whom (the movie has us believe) became the great love of his life.

“Behind the Candelabra” is not so much a biography of Liberace as a story of the five year relationship between the musician and aspiring veterinarian Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Thorson becomes our eyes to this story. We see this young and handsome Adonis who comes to Liberace’s service and is quickly seduced, not by the lifestyle but by the man himself. Liberace is an old rascal, a lusty old queen with the slithery voice of a child molester. Their lust turns to love and eventually we partake of their romance that eventually becomes a marriage. As you might expect, there is no subtlety here. This is a film dripping with the lifestyle of a gay man. How much you like the film may depend on how much of a flamboyantly gay man’s lifestyle you’re willing to sit through. It’s strictly up to you..

Michael Douglas might not seem the first choice to play the famed musician, he’s always been the symbol of masculinity, but playing Liberace offers him the challenge of stepping into the mink of a man who was so well known that occupying his skin might come off as mere imitation. Liberace’s sweet nasal voice is hard to capture but Douglas takes it off the shelf of impression and makes it organic. It takes some getting used to, and so does the persona. As the movie begins, his approach to Thorson feels more like a pedophile than a man looking for a potential lover, but we quickly get use to him. After a while we begin to feel for him, a man who is feeling his age, who must hold on to a much younger man – much as a straight man might hold on to a beautiful young blonde – in order to feel young.

Matt Damon finds a saintly note in which to play Thorson, a man who takes an uneasy approach to Liberace before dedicating himself to a commitment that he knew that the man was possibly incapable of sticking to. We aren’t surprised by the development of their relationship, but what is surprising is the bond that they form, which lends emotional weight to the disappointment in Thorson’s eyes when questions of infidelity begin to surface. This is a film very much about a gay partnership, but it could easily have been about a heterosexual marriage. What we come to understand is that, gay or straight, relationships are fraught with difficulties and struggles.

Their romance is sort of touching. It’s not all sex and sweat (although those things do surface), but a tender bond between two men that becomes so tight that eventually Liberace decides to adopt him. This is Liberace’s way of getting around the fact that he can’t marry another man. As we might expect, things don’t go well. As with any married couple, they fight, they develop trust issues. Yet, there is a sense that they do love one another despite all of their problems. “Behind the Candelabra” presents us with one of the tenderest, but also the most bizarre marriages we’ve ever seen. That’s especially true when it comes to Liberace obsession with plastic surgery, and for the bizarre suggestion that his young lover had surgery to make himself look, well, like Liberace himself.

What is most interesting is that as the relationship wears on – and wears out – Thorson is the one who looks haggard and aged while Liberace looks to be the younger. Its as if Dorian Grey had an intimate relationship with that painting. This is a movie that could stand for a lot of marriages, gay or straight.

Yet, while Soderbergh gets the details right, he overlooks the most astute aspect of Liberace: his music.  The movie is bookended by his stage performances, but there’s very little music or stage bravado in this movie.  The director is happy to close the doors of Liberace’s mansion and watch the man soak in a hot tub or lounge on the couch, but we miss the music, the garish and gaudy glitter-and-rhinestone stage show that made the man such a legend.  We are looking behind the candelabra but there’s something missing and it might have been present in a longer film.  The movie is wonderful at portraying Liberace’s love affairs and his wandering eye, but you can’t help feeling that it should be mixed with his love for his music and his audience.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Drama