★★★★ | Behind The Candelabra
According to director, Steven Soderbergh, the Hollywood studios refused to finance “Behind the Candelabra”, so it ended up being made as a TV movie by HBO.
t seems the movie was deemed too gay (post Brokeback Mountain, really?) and so, though it is getting a cinema release here in the UK (out on June 7), in the USA, it will only be seen on television.
If I’m honest, the movie does rather betray its origins as a TV movie, albeit a very enjoyable one with high production values and excellent performances.
Production designer Howard Cummings, and set designer Barbara Munch-Cameron went to great pains to ensure the movie looks authentic, and many of the props, the pianos and the cars, are actually ones that Liberace himself owned, found on extensive scavenging trips to various antique dealers and prop buyers; some on loan from the Liberace museum. Liberace’s Las Vegas mansion and Los Angeles penthouse are revealed in all their lavishly over the top, glitzy, rococo splendour and the costumes, by Ellen Mirojnick, are detailed reproductions of ones worn by Liberace and Scott Thorson.
Not wanting to make a traditional biopic, Soderbergh has concentrated on the period spanning the relationship of Liberace and Thorson, adding a short coda that takes in Liberace’s death from AIDS and his funeral, and is mostly based on Thorson’s book “Behind the Candelabra”. During this period, Thorson gained a lot of weight, then lost it again, and both Liberace and Thorson underwent plastic surgery.
Even if one knows little about Liberace, the story is a familiar one, basically a celebrity marriage that goes wrong. The end of Liberace’s relationship with Thorson is already there in the beginning. When Thorson first meets Liberace, we also meet Liberace’s current lover, a relationship that has obviously soured, so it is no surprise when the scene is replicated later in the film, this time with a young dancer taking the Thorson role, and Thorson taking the role of the disgruntled lover. There is no doubt about the love and affection the two men have for each other at the beginning of the relationship, but things take a bizarre turn when Liberace decides he would like to adopt Thorson, and asks Thorson to undergo plastic surgery to make him look more like Liberace’s younger self.
Having settled into domestic bliss, they have both gained weight, and the idea comes to him after Liberace sees himself on TV on the Jonny Carson show, declaring he looks like his father in drag. He enlists the help of Dr Jack Startz, a plastic surgeon and dietician (brilliantly played by Rob Lowe, with a completely immobile face). Quite how the make-up department achieved the amazing before and after transformations I am not sure, but they have done so brilliantly.
Soderbegh’s direction is not always sure footed, and the film drags a little in the middle, which might be less noticeable in the context of a TV movie. He does however get wonderful performances out of his all star cast. Aside from the aforementioned Rob Lowe, there are some great cameos from Dan Ackroyd, Scott Bakula and Debbie Reynolds (remember her?), but the movie succeeds or fails on the work of its two stars, and both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon give faultless performances. Damon is thoroughly believable as the star struck young innocent who gradually descends into drug addiction, and Michael Douglas quite simply gives one of the best performances of his career.
It would have been so easy, and so tempting, to overplay the role and come up with a clownish caricature, but Douglas completely avoids that trap, and comes up with a performance of great subtlety. If the movie had a cinema release in America, he would no doubt be in line for an Oscar. As it is, surely he’ll walk away with the Emmy.