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HBO has become the safe haven for passion project biopics that are largely unmarketable for cinema release and Behind the Candelabra is HBO’s most ambitious offering to date. A film about Liberace and one of his lovers, perhaps his most important or perhaps not, would scream gaudy, silly, exuberant fun. However, once the lights go down and the rhinestoned fur capes come off, Behind the Candelabra ends up being just another story about falling into and out of love, which is both the film’s strength and weakness.
Behind the Candelabra is the story of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young gay man who has been in and out of foster homes his whole life, who ends up finding love in Liberace (Michael Douglas). The film spans around ten years of their relationship from their first meeting to Liberace’s death in 1987 and all the trials and tribulations along the way. Damon and Douglas both reteam with director Steven Soderbergh (Douglas was in Traffic and Damon has been in multiple movies including the Ocean’s Trilogy and Contagion). Soderbergh decided to play it straight by not overdramatizing events, which is quite a feat considering Liberace’s flamboyance.
Soderbergh, Damon, and Douglas all deserve the utmost credit for pushing through the initial garishness of Liberace and his life. The movie soon becomes less about the garish persona of the Liberace from everyone’s memories and more about the mundane minutiae of your everyday relationship. The movie puts so little significance on Liberace having to hide from his homosexuality, which was much more taboo in the late 1970s and 1980s, that it is easily forgotten how big of a deal it would have been had their relationship been outed. By not going for the “cheap” drama of always having to hide from the public, or someone trying to get proof of Liberace’s homosexuality, the movie firmly rests on the performances of its stars and their connection to each other.
Unfortunately, the movie hits a snag in its most important aspect. Douglas’s Liberace is good but not great. Douglas is doing a very good cosmetic imitation of Liberace, it is not a complete transformation ala Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. This is not to detract from Douglas’s performance, the tonal inflection in his voice is spot on and he looks incredibly similar to the man he plays, but his performance is missing Liberace’s magnetism and exuberance.
This lack of Liberace’s inherent characteristics could have been swept under the rug had the actors had more chemistry between each other but, again, that was lacking just enough to where the audience couldn’t fully commit. Their relationship, again, felt more initiation than actuality, never seeming as natural as a relationship that close should feel – never reaching the heights of James Franco and Sean Penn in Milk. Because the chemistry wasn’t quite right, the relationship between Liberace and Scott was called into question. Instead of Liberace having a magnetic, almost sooth-saying, quality to his personality, the viewer had to figure out why Scott was so madly in love with him in the first place. And with Soderbergh not shining the spotlight too heavily on one particular aspect of Scott or their relationship in the movie, it shows that Soderbergh was very reliant on the chemistry between Scott and Liberace.
Where the film really hit its heights were in the few moments in which Liberace’s ego was revealed. The scene where Liberace’s mom is playing slots at his home and wins the jackpot, except nary a coin comes spilling from the machine into the tray, typified Liberace’s true self and the movie at its high point. The empty feeling of winning a jackpot that doesn’t come and instead is totally reliant on Liberace, exactly the way he wants his money to be, revealed Liberace’s need to be the center of attention (if his costumes didn’t tip anyone off) as well as his belief that money – and his subsequent giving it out – was what really was the most important to those he loved. In the moments when the movie allowed itself to be humorous, it hit its heights, making the audience almost feel a part of an inside joke between themselves and Liberace and Scott.
Behind the Candelabra is a solid movie that will be remembered for the spectacle of Damon and Douglas pretending to be in a homosexual relationship more than for anything actually meaningful and deep happening on screen. Soderbergh’s decision to depict the relationship as truthful as possible, even eschewing his trademark style of heavily tinted images through the use of colored camera filters and gels, ended up being both the strength and downfall of the film. Despite getting good performances out of his leads, their lack of chemistry ultimately hindered the film, not allowing it to reach the heights originally envisioned.