And Michael Douglas! And Matt Damon! And Stephen Soderberg! And LGBT History! All! At! Once!
What am I talking about? Click the jump to see…
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
Directed by Stephen Soderberg
Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese
(Based on the book Behind The Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson with Alex Thorliefson)
Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, and Debbie Reynolds
Originally Broadcast – May 26, 2013 – HBO
Let’s get a few things straight (pun intended) about the man born as Władziu Valentino Liberace; also known as Walter (to family) or Lee (to friends). His is a career that by all rights should not have happend the way it did; after all, a bejeweled campy man swaddled in furs known for playing the piano should not have been the highest paid entertainer on the scene. But there he was and he most definitely was (for over two decades in fact, he was the highest paid entertainer working – period). It was his natural talent (which critics could scoff at but not deny), devoted fan base, relentless drive (often doing more than 2 shows a day), and, most importantly, his unwavering and obsessive control of his image – including keeping the rumors of his obvious homosexuality at bay – that kept him so popular for so long in the face of so much ridicule.
Like the man it is portraying, Behind The Candelabra is a film that shouldn’t be happening the way it is, yet here it is. Television biopics are supposed to be cast off affairs (see Lifetime’s Liz & Dick from November of last year), not prestige films loaded with Oscar-winners in front of and behind the camera. And they certainly don’t get entered into competition at the Cannes Film Festival. But it did. And now here we are at what will easily be remembered as one of the best television events of the year. (For more on the convoluted history of this film, which in itself would make a brilliant picture, check out this article in the Los Angeles Times.)
If you don’t know the story, here it is in a nutshell: It’s 1977 and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) a young 17-year old working in animal husbandry in LA is taken to Las Vegas by his new acquaintance Bob Black (Scott Bakula) to see Liberace (Michael Douglas)’s new act. From their first meeting on, it’s love / lust at first sight. As their whirlwind courtship continues their relationship dissolves due to paranoia, drugs, betrayal, and more, until their separation in 1983 and Liberace’s eventual death from AIDS complications in1987.
While the premise may sound tawdry, and it is especially in a more enlightened era of LGBT issues, Behind The Candelabra has a lot more going for it than mere titillation. Working from Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Thorson’s memoir, director Stephen Soderberg manages to elevate the story by mixing in genuine pathos for Scott and Lee’s relationship – there are times when we see that they actually do care for each other, even through the times that they treat each other poorly – with some wonderfully black humor, playing against the sad realities of a gay “marriage” at the time and against the cruel light of celebrity, where the closet was kept out of sheer necessity. (The quotation marks were used because there were no legal protections for gay couples at the time, which later becomes a major plot point.) While there are a few too-litteral directorial touches, especially in the scenes of Scott’s coke-fueled hysteria, the film is beautifully shot deftly managing to make Liberace’s legendary homes feel real and of a piece with the man and his entourage; so much so that when an outsider enters the picture, they stick out like Scott does in the beginning of the film.
It also helps that Soderberg has two fantastic lead performances at the center of the film which ground the proceedings. Matt Damon is superb as Scott Thorson; equal parts wide eyed and shrewd in his relationship to Lee. As the film goes on we see the lengths Scott will go to stay with Lee; up to and including getting plastic surgery to look like a young Lee. As the relationship dissolves we see Scott turn from a young, detached man to a jealous lover more than capable of breaking Lee’s heart. While this is Scott’s story, both Damon and Soderberg go out of their way to make sure that Scott is just as culpable for their relationship falling apart as Lee is, thanks to his growing drug addictions.
And speaking of Lee, Michael Douglas’s performance as Liberace is some of the best work he has ever done on film. What’s surprising about this performance is not that it’s brilliantly acted; Douglas deftly manages to embrace Lee’s dark demons and rapacious wit and desperate need for adoration along with his genuine affection for Scott. The astonishing part is the physicality Douglas brings to the role: Douglas shows us the weight of being “Liberace” and the isolation that it brings, and can easily toss it off when he is supposed to be “on” for his audience, be it his fans or the various hangers-on. This physical grounding helps to balance the charismatic Lee against the not only his show biz persona, but also against the darker, controlling parts as they emerge to protect his name.
While Douglas and Damon are the main draw of the fim, Soderberg stacks the deck with vivid portrayals from the supporting cast. While the media has been abuzz over Rob Lowe’s transformation for Dr. Startz, his performance embraces the plasticine elements of the unscrupulous plastic surgeon. Scott Bakula is unrecognizable and utterly hilarious as the mercenary Bob Black, the legendary Debbie Reynolds turns the cameo role of Lee’s mother Frances into a vivid portrayal of a quietly domineering mother, Paul Reiser and Nicky Katt are virtually unrecognizable as Mr. Felder and Mr. Y respectively, and Broadway veteran Cheyenne Jackson is hilarious as Lee’s “protégée” Billy (and serves as an ominously wordless warning to Scott). Among these equals though, Dan Aykroyd stands apart as Lee’s long-suffering manager Seymour Heller turning in a sharp performance that is full of weary loyalty to his client.
HBO has received some of its highest ratings in over a decade for Behind The Candelabra. Thankfully, like the subject of the film itself, this is one time where the hype is utterly justified.