Director Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, chronicles the personal life of iconic performer Liberace, and is one which practices a remarkable level of restraint. While this does seem to strip the film of some psychological depth, it also gradually becomes a boon to the story.
Moving throughout the only slightly heightened reality of the film’s canvas, stars Matt Damon and Michael Douglas (who play Scott Thorson and Liberace respectively) are able to construct characters whose self-created identities pop powerfully off the screen. Their work is unequivocally the film’s main highlight. Despite the strong directorial hand of Soderbergh, the script by scribe Richard LaGravenese ultimately fails to fully articulate Liberace’s fabulously complex inner-life and contradictions. This tale may indeed go behind the candelabra, but as it turns out there isn’t much to see.
Following a traditional bio-pic format, Behind the Candelabra begins in 1977, where Damon (who is hilariously supposed to be playing an 18-year-old Thorson), first encounters Douglas’s Liberace behind the stage of one of his performances. The film moves forward from this moment in a linear format, charting the next ten years in the lives of these two men.
Enamored by the boyish and somewhat feckless Thorson, Liberace almost immediately begins courting him, offering him a job and setting him up to be his live-in boy toy (or, as the star occasionally croons, his “adonis”). Behind the Candelabra follows the ebbs and flows of this relationship, which inevitably and unsurprisingly moves from passionate and committed to bitter and rancorous.
In structuring his film, Soderbergh keeps the thematic focus on the notion of family, of which both Liberace and Thorson seem acutely preoccupied. In the interactions between the two men, this notion rises quickly to the surface, with Liberace cooing to Thorson during a break from lovemaking that he wants to be everything to him, including, “father, brother, lover, best friend.” This peculiar and eyebrow-raising statement lingers throughout the remainder of the film, pointing to Liberace’s almost unthinkable level of self-absorption. This feels especially true once Thorson starts modifying his appearance through plastic surgery to more closely match Liberace, which is done at the star’s nearly constant urging.
Michael Douglas – who has almost always exuded a masculine aura – creates a startling depiction of the famous piano player, suggesting a well of turbulence masked by a glittery veneer. His chemistry with Matt Damon is credible and occasionally affecting, yet it’s unclear how much of an emotional investment the audience is supposed to have. LaGravenese’s script feels far more inclined to depict scenes of acrimony than romantic bliss, and very infrequently is Liberace actually humanized by the piece. Additionally, despite a clear commitment to the role, Scott Thorson is far from the most complicated or compelling characters Matt Damon has ever tackled. The script’s initially interesting exploration of the character’s wayward vulnerability, and his gravitation towards the role of a caregiver (Thorson apparently harbored aspirations to become a veterinarian), eventually gives way to a jittery, drug-fueled descent into jealousy and self destruction – which feels more than a little familiar.
Supporting work from the male-centric cast is strong all around, despite a lack of roles that transcend cameo-level screentime. Undoubtedly, the most successful supporting part belongs to Rob Lowe, who seems hellbent on continuing to subvert his past identity as Hollywood’s resident piece of man meat. In Behind the Candelabra he plays Dr. Jack Startz, a plastic surgeon who, by all appearances, seems to be kept on retainer by Liberace. His scenes in the film are few but they are funny. This can be credited to his outrageous costumes and hairstyle, but also to his character’s insane facial expressions, which make him look as if he has just been tranquilized or that he has soiled himself.
Soderbergh expertly utilizes these various players to once again explore the ins and outs of human duplicity and delusion. In the initial stages of the Thorson/Liberace relationship, the director utilizes key compositions and color schemes in order to foster a sense of connection. This can be seen in the beautifully composed shot of the two men talking above the performer’s marble whirlpool, or in some of the early scenes of sexuality, which are lit with the directors favorite hue of golden yellow. Perhaps the greatest aspect of the proceedings, though, are the moments where the identities of Thorson and Liberace are both constructed and dissolved. This is where the director’s relatively restrained methods feel beneficial, as they allow the various bodily fluctuations of the two men to have a more noticeable and disturbing surrealism.
For example, Thorson’s eventual transformation into a Liberace lookalike is eerie, with the makeup utilized to elongate Damon’s nose and chin looking distressingly inhuman. Douglas’s appearance in the film is similarly amorphous and unrealistic, oscillating from trim and tight, to one so saggy and engorged that it looks like he is wearing a comical fat-suit. It’s a quality of the film which may prove abrasive and distracting for some, but also one that highlights its subject’s psychological obsession with identity and appearance.
Overall, this particular look into Liberace’s inner-life is nice, but Behind the Candelabra doesn’t go far enough, only partially broaching the star’s endless assertions that he was heterosexual, or his voracious appetite for pleasure. This is a frustrating attribute, which prevents Behind the Candelabra from entering the upper echelon of biopics.