Review: Behind The Candelabra

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula
Released: July 25, 2013
Grade: B

Behind The Candelabra
For decades, Lee Liberace was one of the world’s most well-known entertainers. He would play to sold-out shows every night in Vegas. He would pop up on television and in mainstream films. He even performed for President Truman at the White House in 1950.

Liberace spoke elegantly and was a brilliant pianist but he was just as well known for his flamboyant attire and lavish lifestyle. On Youtube, I was able to find Liberace’s appearance on a 1974 British talk show where the interviewer was told to “ask him for his autograph because knowing him, he might sign it in gold.”

I’ve always found it a curious part of human nature that we can so much about how we are perceived. We have the ability to create a public persona that can differ wildly from our private one. I can’t help but reflect on the recent death of 31-year-old Glee star Cory Monteith who most knew was as a fun, relaxed, happy-go-lucky guy. He was a role model. What we didn’t know was that behind closed doors, Monteith was battling a serious substance abuse problem.

It’s a theme explored by Academy award winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) in Behind The Candelabra. Liberace loved attention and loved the spotlight… but the version of himself that he chose to share with the world lacked one notable detail – the fact that he was gay.

Liberace’s sexuality was known to his close friends and colleagues but he worked strenuously to keep this information from the public. He would feed the media with stories about his girlfriends and the time he lost his virginity. When the Britain’s Daily Mirror published an article in 1956 implying that Liberace was a homosexual, he sued and the newspaper and received a record amount in damages.

There was much to the life of Lee Liberace but Behind The Candelabra focuses largely on Scott Thorson – Liberace’s teenage boyfriend who he first met in 1976. They shared a peculiar relationship to say the least. Was Liberace just after a dumb, fresh-faced toy boy to satisfy him in the bedroom? Was Thorson just after money and a chance to break into the entertainment industry? Or were these two actually in love, despite the head-turning age difference between them?

Michael Douglas (Wall Street) turns in a charming performance as Liberace. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t spend more time exploring the way in which he and his staff, some loyal and some not-so-loyal, kept his secret hidden for so long. Instead, the screenplay of Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) spends too much time on Thorson (which I guess is because it's based on his own novel). It’s a nice performance from Matt Damon but it’s hard to be interested in a character that comes across as a dull nobody.

Don’t expect any Oscar nomination for Michael Douglas’s performance. While it is getting a small cinematic release in Australia, the film was released as a telemovie in the United States back in May. Steven Soderbergh couldn’t convince a Hollywood studio to invest in a “gay love story” and so it was the cable network HBO would took the chance and put up the cash.

It turned out to be a good move. The film recorded the network’s highest ratings for a telemovie since 2005 and earned 15 Emmy nominations including acting nods for both Douglas and Damon. The awards are handed out in mid-September and I suspect Behind The Candelabra will win many of them.