Is it possible to have a meaningful relationship with a celebrity and not lose your identity in the process? What happens when you look in the mirror and you no longer recognize the person staring back at you? That’s part of the premise behind the new HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra,” which examined the very secretive Liberace’s private life that provided little insight into the character.
“Behind the Candelabra” followed Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) who arrived in Las Vegas a naive young man with a fondness for animals. His new friend Bob Black (Scott Bakula) introduced him to the legendary Vegas performer Liberace (Michael Douglas) after one of his shows. Scott was starstruck by the performer who seemed to be fascinated with his careful attention to his ailing dog. He charmed his life into Scott’s life and persuaded him to move to Vegas to be his live-in boyfriend. Unfortunately, Liberace’s lawyer Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd) didn’t like Scott and knew that his client would one day dump him, because he had done in before with previous partners. After a few years together, Scott has become immersed in Liberace’s world of fine excess, but he was unprepared to go under the knife to look like a younger version of his partner. After some misgivings, Scott allowed Liberace’s surgeon Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) to radically alter his appearance. Startz also introduced him to some severely addictive diet pills that led to a full blown drug addiction. That’s when the relationship between Liberace and Scott started to really sour. The fighting and tension increased to a point that both of them were left reeling. Can Scott make it on his own once Liberace finally cut ties with him?
In terms of questions, “Behind the Candelabra” provided some insight into Liberace’s secretive private life, but there also seemed to be a lot of plot holes that left viewers scratching their heads periodically. The story would quickly cut from scenes of happier times right to some downright dark ones without blinking an eye or an explanation as to what transpired. Director Steven Soderbergh paid careful attention to the detail behind Liberace’s mansion, his costumes and various other movie aesthetics to get things right for viewers. Unfortunately, some of the attention should’ve been paid to introducing the character of Liberace to viewers who weren’t familiar with the real life entertainer. That way they would become just as invested in Douglas’ version of the entertainer as Damon’s Scott was. It also didn’t help that the tone of the story at times veered into a borderline Lifetime movie wherever Liberace and Scott got into a major argument. The story was based on Thorson’s book, which explained the large emphasis on Thorson’s point of view while Douglas’ Liberace was sometimes more of a shadow figure than a larger than life entertainer. Despite an uneven second half, the movie was a decent enough effort that started on a high note and finished in a fitting tribute to a legendary entertainer. It’s just a shame that viewers didn’t get a clearer understanding of the man behind all the excessive.
In terms of breakout performances, Damon and Douglas clearly led the pack because they were taking huge risks in playing their characters. They also had a believable rapport that made their on-screen relationship credible from start to finish. Damon was willing to go through physical extremes to play the much younger Thorson, even though he was older than the real life Thorson at the time the story took place. He provided some of the movie’s humor, intentional or otherwise, whenever it was necessary. Damon’s most memorable scene came towards the end of the film when he goes to visit a very different Liberace and they talked about old times. Sure, Damon’s Scott had some minor resentment for the way things transpired, but he still had a tender fondness for the man who introduced him to the finer things in life. It might’ve been a minor scene, but it helped to capture some of the genuine sentiment between the characters that might’ve been overlooked earlier in the story. Douglas, on the other hand, had the more difficult task of putting his own spin on the flashy Liberace. He succeeded for the most part, because he gave his portrayal a mixture of charm, flash and ruthlessness. Douglas’ Liberace enchanted viewers into wanting to enter his home, but he also made them want to not stay too long. Sure, Liberace had his fair share of secrets, but his biggest one was that he wanted to be loved for who he was and not for his money. The closest he had to that was with Thorson when things were good. It’s disappointing though that viewers didn’t get to see more of those good times because of the heavy focus on the bad ones.
“Behind the Candelabra” premiered on May 26th at 9:00 PM. Check your local listings for future airings.
Verdict: Despite a rather weak script, Douglas and Damon give lively performances that helped to provide minor insight into the characters’ unique relationship.
Movie Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars (For the Performances)
2.5 out 5 stars (For the Movie itself)
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)