Director: Steven Soderbergh Writer: Richard LaGravenese, Scott Thorson, Alex Thorleifson Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd Running time: 118 minutes Year: 2013
This review appears courtesy of Derby QUAD Blog
There’s mixed emotions when you head into the cinema knowing the film you’re about to watch is the last ever from a director. Steven Soderbergh has truly run the gamut during his career as a filmmaker. Never opting for one specific genre to make his mark, he’s laid his hand to a diverse range of features. From his breakout indie hit Sex, Lies and Videotape right through to the recent actioner Haywire, he always keeps his audience loyal through a directorial hand that knows when to go bold and when to pull back.
His final feature to ever grace our cinema screens is another example of his keenness to turn his skill at any topic. Behind The Candelabra puts the spotlight on Liberace; the closeted lounge singer and in particular his relationship with a young man, Scott Thorson.
Filmed as a TV movie for HBO, it translates successfully to the big screen thanks to its core of dedicated performances. Michael Douglas in the role of Walter “Lee” Liberace deserves an Oscar nod which sadly he’ll be denied due to the Academy’s rules (nominated titles must have had a theatrical run in the US.) He commands all of your attention. Whether he’s onstage inside a glittering suit, or laid back half naked at home, there’s no doubt that Douglas’s Liberace is the perfect portrayal.
“Whether he’s onstage inside a glittering suit, or laid back half naked at home, there’s no doubt that Douglas’s Liberace is the perfect portrayal.”
Conquering a six-year period of Liberace’s epic career is a big ask, and at times the story skates on thin ice, spreading itself wide. The topic of gay male relationships is handled so impressively it shouldn’t even warrant a mention as it’s not the only voice that needs to be heard here. Co-dependency, drug addiction, promiscuity and fame, all factor into this engaging and surprisingly hilarious tale.
Of course, this is not a one man show. The story follows an animal handler named Scott Thorson, who falls for the charismatic singer after one fateful performance in Las Vegas. This is his story as he gains “employment” as the singer’s personal chauffeur. The flourish in what could have been a one note commentary is the humour, leveraged into every available gap. As Thorson, played by a never-better Matt Damon, treads further into Liberace’s world, the knowing winks at a pompous life are not sneered at but rather gently admired. From the golden slippers and giant gargoyles, right through to houseboys in tight shorts and mouths full of innuendo. There’s no judgement here from Soderbergh, no interference in what he thinks of this iconic figure.
Most of the comedy and lightheartedness comes directly from the man himself, through his dialogue, his nasal tone infusing every line with deadpan wit. The biggest laughs come in no small feat to a genius Rob Lowe, as Liberace’s plastic surgeon, Jack Startz. He generates the most laughs as a plasticised Labyrinth-era David Bowie.
As the relationship develops, so does the film’s tone, shifting from humourous to sometimes bleak and melancholic. The mid-section double act of Douglas and Damon segues from a male version of Ab Fab, as the two visit an adult superstore conked out of their brains, to a sobering final act serving as the dreaded hangover. Damon nails Scott’s descent into his drug addiction, rattling off a few scenes wherein his nice-boy composure falls away revealing shame. Riding the wave between tender and repulsive, the emotional breadth flits from how many ways can you love a person through to its opposite: how can that love trigger so much hate from a person?
From the opening number through to the finale, every sequin on every costume sparkles and glistens beneath an almost-constant golden hue of light. The world of Liberace is one of decadence, his numerous homes decorated in what he calls his “palacial kitsch.” It’s this attention to the detail of his life which propels what could be an average biopic to a mesmerising spectacle. Only through this do we see what it’s truly like behind the candelabra. A life where everything is catered for. A life where you want for nothing. As the man said himself, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” If only Steven Soderbergh would heed this advice and treat us to more films as wonderful as this.
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