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Behind the Candelabra

2013 | 118 min | 1.78:1

Behind the Candelabra


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TV release date

 May 26, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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Behind the Candelabra

 (TV) (2013)

Screenshots from Behind the Candelabra Blu-ray

Behind the Candelabra Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, May 30, 2013

As repeatedly reported in pre-release press, “Behind the Candelabra” represents the last feature film Steven Soderbergh plans to direct before entering a period of retirement nobody believes will last for long. On the off chance he actually follows through on this threat, “Behind the Candelabra” is an apt farewell for the frustrated moviemaker, who tackles a controversial script teeming with sordid details and cruel behavior, out to strangle the legacy of gaudy showman Liberace, viewed here a monster-in-the-making. Although a glacial pace ultimately undermines the passions of the characters, the picture does supply tangy performances from stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, who sink their teeth into the unsavory business of love gone wrong, captured by Soderbergh in a distracted manner that hints more at auteur fatigue rather than industry frustration.

A scattered young man looking for direction, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) turns to sexual experimentation, exploring his gay appetites in San Francisco. Brought to a Liberace (Michael Douglas) show in Las Vegas with lover Bob (Scott Bakula), Scott is overwhelmed with the pageantry and personality of the master showman, drawn to his rehearsed charms and lavish lifestyle. When Liberace sparks to Scott’s puppy dog ways, the lost boy moves into the pianist’s mansion, with the pair soon kicking off a sexual and paternal relationship that nearly culminates with adoption papers. As the years pass, Scott settles into a routine of pleasure and luxury, while Liberace orders plastic surgery to turn his lover into a younger version of himself, making them twins until the inevitable moment where the stage star grows tired of his boy toy, especially one with a severe drug problem that exacerbates his paranoia.

Based on Thorson’s 1988 memoir, “Behind the Candelabra” seems like prime fodder for high camp, yet screenwriter Richard LaGravenese approaches this twisted tale with only a mild sense of mischief. Under Soderbergh’s stern command, the picture is more a portrait of manipulation than a true bio-pic, focused intently on the particulars of Scott’s seduction at the hands of one of the world’s most popular entertainers, a man known more for his outrageous style than his virtuoso skills with a piano. Depicted as dim with a background of displacement, Scott is a man searching for identity and a home, finding Liberace’s advances most welcome, despite disturbing evidence of their end game when a chewed-up lover (Cheyenne Jackson) is pushed out of the mansion to make room for the new distraction. It’s evident right away that “Behind the Candelabra” isn’t going to laboriously track the union of Scott and Liberace. Instead, it merely cherry picks the highlights and lowlights of the coupling, with Soderbergh playing bluntly when it comes to the pair’s sexual relationship.

Reflecting Scott’s vindictive attitude that drove the creation of the book, “Behind the Candelabra” is consumed with the lurid details of their domestic life. Trying to cover Scott’s residence as employment, Liberace brings his lover into the hotel show, tasked with driving a Rolls Royce onstage to introduce the pianist to his adoring fans, primarily made up of older women who weren’t aware of their idol’s homosexuality -- exactly how Liberace wanted to keep it. The screenplay characterizes the artist as a bejeweled parasite, working through young men until boredom sets in, pushing Scott to receive plastic surgery at the hands of ghoulishly tight-faced Dr. Startz (a scene-stealing Rob Lowe) to turn the young man into a mirror, with drug abuse the inevitable outcome. It’s a quest for validation and submission that drives this version of Liberace, who’s seen as an aging, bald, controlling man fearful of exposure, using boys to settle his insecurity, a problem aggravated by the presence of his no-nonsense mother, Frances (Debbie Reynolds). There’s little depth to the couple beyond stale explanations of emotional damage, and it remains unclear exactly what Scott was thinking during his time with Liberace, as Soderbergh elects his customary route of ambiguity when a more defined psychological profile was necessary. The thin slices of behavioral investigation merely reinforce the abortive cartoonishness of the project, resulting in a persistent airless quality as the production figures out what morsel of humiliation to snack on next.

Those coming to “Behind the Candelabra” on the hunt for Liberace illumination will be sorely disappointed. Outside of a few performance sequences (utilizing careful CGI to turn Douglas into a fast-fingered musician) and flashes of wheezy stage wit, the Liberace displayed here is barely human, existing as a bizarre one-note figure of neediness and perversity. While it’s undeniably compelling to watch the production stain the rhinestones, “Behind the Candelabra” has the aftertaste of character assassination from a bitter man, a fact reinforced by the movie’s treatment of Scott, who’s made into a passive dim-wit at the mercy of a control freak. Even his descent into drug abuse and crime is handed all the severity of a P.S.A.

“Behind the Candelabra” doesn’t add up to much, but it does feature two meaty performances from Douglas and Damon, who give their all to Soderbergh as Scott and Liberace’s lust reaches a few compromising positions. Douglas has the flashier role, but it’s an act of mimicry that works beautifully within the confines of the film, capturing the faux sensitivity of Liberace and his steamrolling behavior. It’s vibrant work from the actor, playing superbly off Damon’s thick-skulled innocent routine as Scott, making the tension between the predator and prey the highlight of the effort. As the movie shuffles into its aimless second act, it becomes apparent that Soderbergh is equally in love with his actors, often stopping the picture to watch them exist in these challenging roles. I can’t fault the helmer for his hypnosis, I only wish there was a stronger, more enriching story to tell about these self-destructive men and their magnetic attraction.

Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Debbie Reynolds
Director: Steven Soderbergh

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Behind The Candelabra (2013) 7 Jun 20, 2013

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