Movie Reviews

‘Behind the Candelabra’: Liberace under all the glitter

By Travis WongMovies - 16 August 2013 1:30 PM

‘Behind the Candelabra’: Liberace under all the glitter

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Rating: 3 stars

This biopic about flamboyant American pianist Liberace and his relationship with his lover Scott Thorson might be the swan song of director Steven Soderbergh (‘Magic Mike’, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’).

It is not his strongest work, and the bizarre love affair between the two men, despite the kitsch and camp, plays to a too-familiar tune.

Behind The Candelabra

The movie, based on a book by Thorson himself, boasts great performances from Michael Douglas, who takes on role of the gay entertainer, while Matt Damon, who plays his lover, turns in a mediocre stint. 

‘Behind the Candelabra’ kicks off in 1977, when Liberace meets Thorson after a Las Vegas performance. Liberace, bored of his last toy boy, channels his affections towards the teenager almost 40 years his junior. 

The aging Liberace attempts to remake the teen in his own image with plastic surgery, and Thorson goes along. Liberace is so enamoured of Thorson that he wants to adopt him, becoming both lover and father figure to Thorson.

The relationship then rolls towards its inevitable collapse as drugs and jealousy filter in, and a jilted Thorson tries to sue Liberace.

Through his career, Liberace continues to lie about his sexuality, feigning romances with women and suing newspapers that linked him to being gay.

Douglas's performance will undoubtedly earn him at least an Emmy nomination, since this is an HBO special, but Damon's character is more of a foil, not helped by how hard it is to be convinced that he is a teenager. 

This hotly anticipated film is at its best when Douglas takes the stage. From the towering hair to the outrageous costumes, the normally straight-shooting Douglas gave his all to capture the essence of the extravagant performer.

A sequence where Douglas reacts to the death of US president John F Kennedy gave a quietly moving insight into the personality of the remarkable showman.

Thorson constantly seems in awe of his older lover, mostly willing to go along with Liberace's whims. Unfortunately, there isn't much chemistry between the two, and when they're together on screen, the cinematic illusion of the two prime Hollywood characters is shattered. Perhaps Thorson's character could have been played by someone less famous.

Behind The Candelabra

The movie stalls in the final hour as the movie chronicles the long, slow breakdown between the two. A little more of Soderbergh's flamboyance might have helped and the film recovers after Thorson is kicked out of Liberace's home.

Towards the end, Soderbergh devises an appropriate magical moment that saves the film from being downright depressing. 

Soderbergh captures much of Liberace's showmanship, but the his love affair with Thorson does little to illuminate the man. Liberace said that he played classical music with the boring bits thrown out, and Soderbergh should have taken some lessons from the master entertainer and cut out some of the less entertaining bits of this biopic. 

‘Behind the Candelabra’ opens in cinemas 15 August 2013