Behind the Candelabra
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Behind the Candelabra (DVD)
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and executive produced by Jerry Weintraub, this HBO Films drama recreates the glittering private world of Liberace (Michael Douglas), the flamboyant, phenomenally successful entertainer whose extravagant costumes, trademark candelabra, and elaborate stage shows made him the most bankable entertainer of his time. The story focuses on Liberace’s tempestuous relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) in Las Vegas from 1977 to 1982 – a time when Liberace was at the peak of his popularity but remained closeted as a homosexual. Featuring a pair of electrifying performances by Douglas and Damon (the first time either has starred in an HBO production), Behind the Candelabra captures the essence of Liberace’s appeal while reminding viewers how different attitudes were at the time, as few high-profile entertainers (including Liberace) could admit they were gay, at least in front of the public which made them stars.]]>
Now that Behind the Candelabra, the HBO movie about the secret relationship between pianist/entertainer Liberace and former animal trainer Scott Thorson, has won three Emmys (including statues for best movie or miniseries, lead actor Michael Douglas, and director Steven Soderbergh), it's hard to imagine that this was once a film that no one wanted to make. "Too gay," they said. But after languishing in development for several years, and with Soderbergh, Douglas, and Matt Damon attached, the film finally premiered in 2013--and it is a triumph. Damon is thoroughly convincing as Thorson (whose book supplied the source material), the callow, not-especially-bright young man so susceptible to Liberace's charming, unctuous persuasions (things get nutty when Scott agrees to undergo extensive plastic surgery designed to turn him into a younger version of "Lee," as the pianist's friends call him). Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's dialogue is hilarious ("In gay years," one character tells Scott, "you're Judy during the Sid Luft obese period"), while Soderbergh's directorial choices are also amusing. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is clearly having a field day: Rob Lowe (as the cosmetic surgeon) and Debbie Reynolds (as Liberace's mother) gleefully chew the scenery, while Scott Bakula and Dan Aykroyd are entertaining as well. But this is Douglas's show, and he steals it. His performance isn't a caricature. Nor is it a parody, or an impersonation; the real Liberace, a guy whose name was seemingly always preceded by "flamboyant," was such an over-the-top character that Douglas merely has to play it straight, so to speak. In the process, he sheds light not only on Liberace's manipulative tendencies ("Scott, why don't you let me decide what's important?") but also his vulnerabilities--especially at the end, when he and Thorson have one last poignant meeting following a bitter falling out. The filmmakers also have something valuable to say about gay culture during a period when celebrities like Liberace and Rock Hudson tried desperately to stay in the closet, especially after contracting AIDS. --Sam Graham
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It doesn't matter--the acting is so good. Of course, Michael Douglas is such a master of costume and mannerism that he practically channels the flamboyant Vegas star, and you think you're looking at the real Liberace. Matt Damon plays the maybe-not-so-innocent ingenu well and he steals the screen whenever he's on it. Dan Ackroyd is wonderful as Liberace's agent and patient caretaker.
There is sex though not a lot of nudity (bare bums, mostly) . If you are skeeved off by gay guys kissing and more--you'll be a bit uncomfortable. The subject is handled well--it's part of the story line, to be sure. I think the director was able to portray what he had to, without going overboard. This makes the film more mainstream than I expected. The one criticism I have is that Liberace's demise from AIDS, and the subsequent brouhaha with the county coroner was not handled as sharply as I thought it ought to be. If you lived during that era, the epidemic was frightening to everyone. The obituaries weekly in major urban newspapers were filled with the deaths of young and middle-aged men, many prominent. There was absolutely no treatment for it, and the spread was like wildfire. The fear was everywhere. This was not really dealt with--so you might not understand why the coroner refused the cause of death listed by Liberace's personal physician ("cardiac arrest") and why he went to the trouble of tracking down the actual cause. This was played down too much, in my opinion. The times were scary.
This was available in Amazon Prime, so I though, what the hey, wonder how this would work out. Surprisingly fine film that got good critical reviews.