TV Review - Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh's film follows the final decade of Liberace's life, 1977 to 1987, a time period that focuses mostly on the secret, gay relationship that the super star, piano player had with young, aspiring veternarian Scott Thorson. The story is based on the book by Thorson. The movie doesn't always favor Thorson, portraying him as a saint, but we're clearly supposed to be more on Thorson's side and against Liberace. The film is not a hit piece against the piano star. In fact, it ends on a very loving note of Liberace, but there is a negative space that distances us from Liberace that never allows us to get into his head. Richard LaGravenese's screenplay doesn't provide much of what's going on in Liberace's head. We can assume certain things, but those assumptions do not paint gay men in the greatest of lights. It might be true, the things that Liberace does, but it amounts to all the worst gay stereotypes from within and without the gay community.

The introduction of Liberace is great because it shows him doing what he did best, which is play the piano. Michael Douglas stars as Liberace and Matt Damon co-stars as Scott Thorson. Thorson attends one of Liberace's Las Vegas shows and sees Liberace doing the Boogie Woogie at 8 beats per bar and then increase his fingering to 16 beats per bar. Soderbergh emphasizes the hands gliding across the keys. I'm not sure if Douglas actually learned the piano, but it looked believable and made me appreciate Liberace's talent.

At the time that we meet Liberace, the musician is in his late fifties. There are no flashbacks. Everything moves forward in a straight, chronological fashion. We see Liberace's mom, played by Debbie Reynolds, but, there are no real conversations with her, so we get no sense of Liberace's upbringing or if she even knew that he was gay. We certainly get no sense of how he became such a great musician or why.

It takes the tact of other recent biopics like My Week With Marilyn (2011). It's less about the star or the big celebrity. It's instead more about this incidental person who comes to fall in love with the celebrity, ultimately to become disillusioned by either the star or the world in which the star inhabits.

The difference is that in My Week With Marilyn, we at least get a sense of the star's vulnerabilities, her pain. We don't get that sense with Liberace. Douglas is given some lines that hint at what his psychology might be, what he's afraid of, but because the movie is so insular and like a stage play that takes place in one setting, that being Liberace's King Ludwig II-inspired, palatial home, there isn't much context.

The real-life Thorson claims to have been very young, even teenage, when he was taken into Liberace's house, but, as portrayed by Damon, Thorson is a fully conscious adult who had a good job as a dog wrangler and who went to gay bars, which takes away the possible perception of Liberace being a pedophile.

Regardless, Liberace plays into the youth-obsessed, beauty-obsessed, sex-obsessed, and glitz-and-glamor-obsessed, predatory, gay stereotype. The fact that Thorson is easily pulled into that world or so easily goes along, despite apparent skepticism, equalizes the situation, but the overall impression of this closeted gay world isn't a good one.

Again, like a stage play, the real draw to this film is the performances. The acting here is why it could or could not be considered great. Despite this movie's dramatic intentions, I found much of it to be comedic. It doesn't help that Douglas and Damon refer to their characters as the gay Lucy and Ricky. Douglas and Damon do get compelling scenes where they get to be nude in bed and in hot tubs and argue over issues like monogamy or anal sex, but the rest is rather laughable.

The trajectory of Thorson's relationship is telegraphed right from the very beginning with the brief presence of Billy, played by Cheyenne Jackson. The beautiful and very talented Jackson conveys with absolutely no dialogue his jealousy and resentment. Damon's performance all but mimics that. After which, we didn't need to see Thorson's affair with Liberace at all.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.
Available on HBO on Demand.


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