What is an autobiographical novel (from which this film is based)? In this case, Scott Thorson, the subject of the film (along with older lover Liberace) tells all, or at least all the unflattering and inflammatory details of Liberace and their five year relationship. I suppose adding the word ‘novel’ keeps him out of court with the Estate of Liberace. Therefore, I take this unflattering rendition of the legendary entertainer with a whole shaker of salt. Of course, it could all be true… Also, it seems Thorson painted himself rather nicely. By the end of the film, I truly believe this guy don’t fart, never picked his nose or even had to clip his toenails. Know what I mean? Admittedly, though through Thorson’s perspective, this film doesn’t hold back on his own addiction, which started when a Dr. Feelgood (mesmerizing eye performance by Rob Lowe) prescribes weight loss pills and medication for his recovery from plastic surgery to make young Thorson look more like Liberace. It then grew to coke and whatever else… Ah, but those scenes just turned into wrenching and award-worthy performances by Damon, ultimately causing the audience to sympathize with poor Thorson.
Too bad this film wasn’t made twenty years ago or more, even a decade before director Soderbergh first tantalized Michael Douglas with the idea of making it. Then the actors would have been closer to the actual ages of the subjects at the time of the film. Thorson was a teenager when he first met Liberace who was a fatherly age at the time, not grandfatherly. Whereas, Damon is 43 and Douglas is 68. Still, though a big stretch in casting, both their acting abilities more than made up for the age differences. Damon’s Thorson’s initial naivety and growing dissatisfaction with is privileged life, and Douglas’ Liberace’s bald slimy bravado drove the film. I’ll take them now playing their juniors rather than not at all.
They were both so engrossing, one playing outrageous bravado while the other internalizes and slowly boils till erupting, that they even dwarfed their surroundings, described as palatial kitch. I felt I was in a nightmare of endless Marriott Hotel lobbies, with marble floors, greek column (ionic), chandeliers, nick nacks, and more Bavarian crystal than there is left in Bavaria itself. Plus a household background soundtrack of several small barking dogs just added to the nervous distraction of the situation (nice touch). The visual overload of Liberace’s home might have been enough to keep the audience misled from the action were it not for the talent of the costars. Kudos to Damon especially for his controlled, explosive and overall riveting performance. And special notice to Douglas for putting it all in the line. In the recent past, Douglas would boast of his fit, young physique for his age, still wearing the same size clothes as he did for ‘Streets of San Francisco,’ still able to perform in a shirtless love scene. He was almost unseemly in his boasting. For ‘Candelabra,’ he bared himself naked, and it was not a pretty site; actually he was scary. That took courage and there should be an award for that alone. And his resemblance to Liberace was eerie.
Don’t want to skip Debbie Reynolds’ small but unforgettable role as the Eastern European immigrant mother of Liberace; a master of complaint and subtle accusation. She has moved onto a new stage of her career and I eagerly look forward to seeing more of her in the future.
One other issue most be addressed. Back before the AIDS epidemic, the press, comedians, the whole entertainment industry kept silent about gay celebrities. It was a subject that was never hinted at in the gossip columns nor joked about in public. Everybody knew who the gay entertainers were, but didn’t deny them work for it. Everybody knew about Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Randolf Scott, Liberace, but left it alone. That’s why Liberace and the other could earn a living being appealing to middle American housewives who still don’t know that Johnny Mathis is gay. I’m just saying, I’m sure living a public life and a private life is a real hardship that no one should have to endure, but Clay Akis not being ridiculed and laughed at because he won’t put the rumors and jokes to rest is just nasty. It shouldn’t be an issue. Ricky Martin should come out if he likes when he likes, and not before. I just miss the old days when press and the entertainment industry left it alone.
Behind the Candelabra
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Richard LaGravenese from the book by Alex Thorleifson
Cast: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Low, Debbie Reynolds, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Paul Reiser
Time: 118 min.
Opening on HBO