Release date: 25th July 2013
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd
Review by Peter Gray
“Nobody would make it. We went to everybody in town. They all said it was too gay. And this is after ‘Brokeback Mountain’, by the way, which is not as funny as this movie. I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us” – Steven Soderbergh
Shopping around the script for a biopic about famed pianist Liberace was always going to be a tough sell, but as director Steven Soderbergh discovered it became near impossible to get a look in. With an original intention to be released theatrically in the United States, ‘Behind the Candelabra’, a film “too gay” for Hollywood studios, ultimately had its fate sealed on television network HBO, a company more than willing to back projects that flirt with controversy. Whilst it’s a shame that the film has been given such a non-release treatment in the US, it hasn’t suffered the same fate in Australia.
With such high-profile talent involved, the film has a gloss and an atmosphere that rivals other cinema releases so, despite its ‘made-for-TV’ stocks, it looks every bit the part of a bonafide theatrical release – exactly what you’d expect for a character like Liberace. To the masses he was the epitome of a showman, his camp personality merely an entertaining quirk, an unmatched talent who sold out venues for the majority of his piano playing career. To those that knew him, they essentially saw what they wanted to but to young Scott Thorson, he was wide awake and witnessed every facet of Liberace’s persona. Thorson, an aspiring veterinarian, quickly became Liberace’s lover but their unique relationship meant that not only was it of a sexual nature, but a nurturing one as Liberace saw Thorson as family and wanted to adopt him so he could take care of him.
As passionate as their relationship was it eventually declined due to their individual drug addictions, intense plastic surgery obsession, and the mistrust each had towards the other. Soderbergh and writer Richard LaGravenese aren’t afraid to explore these depths and it’s this focus that gives the film its most relatable asset. Scenes between the two range from the most romantic and human to the raw and heartbreaking as we witness their highest highs and lowest lows, all the while observing the undeniable love there was between them. It’s a relationship handled with respect and honesty, and a testament to that are the lead performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
Whilst it would’ve been easy for the two to slip into flamboyant theatricality, particularly Douglas, both performers present their counterparts in a natural manner. As Liberace, Douglas is restrained, measured and deliberate; he straddles both sides of the male persona as he goes from being a tender lover and father figure to the more excessive, power-hungry tyrant driven by his addiction for acquisition. Then there’s Damon as long-standing lover Thorson who delivers a performance just as conflicted and complex, throwing himself head first into a role that requires a complete stripping of vanity, despite the irony of Damon appearing younger and more masculine than he ever has before, as a young man who is so incredibly torn over his feelings for someone who clearly loves him but wants to manipulate him all the same.
With the film touching on narcissism, repression, denial, sexual identity concerns and serious health issues, ‘Behind the Candelabra’ will clearly strike a chord more prominently with a homosexual audience, but the film makes sure not to alienate its viewers as a whole as these are subjects that can affect anyone and the beautiful thing is that its presentation here is authentic without being gratuitous. It’s such a shame this film hasn’t been able to experience the same kind of distribution success as the aforementioned ‘Brokeback Mountain’ or ‘Milk’, but we can consider ourselves fortunate as we are at least experiencing in the format Soderbergh intended.
My rating 4/5 (A bold and beautiful biopic)