Really, the miracle of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candleabra is that I got to see it as part of being an HBO subscriber. Frankly if you described this movie as a pitch – a well known director, two of the Hollywood’s biggest stars, in a biopic about a musician everybody knows who is a bit of a known caricature (and even controversial if you think gsy sex is icky or titilating or whatever) – it seemed to be an instant greenlight. But here it is instead, a solid portrait of Scott Thorson’s four year relationship with Liberace, the piano maestro who thrilled audiences in the 1970s and was known for his subtlety and admirable personal restraint. (indeed, it is hard to walk through the halls of the Venetian in Vegas today and not think it was not inspired by the man’s ummm … garish style)
Matt Damon and Michael Douglas of course are the leads here as Thorson and Liberace respectively, and their performances have to drive this picture. Douglas’ role of course is an imitation to ham it up, and it is interesting to see Douglas, that purveyor of so many Gordon Gekko authoritative sort of men, playing the most fabulous of fabulous sorts. But that only takes you so far, and Douglas is able to fairly quickly take us past the gimmick – yeah he does not look convincing playing the piano (if you are listening), and give Liberace some dimension. Damon as Thorson has the harder role, as he is the guy who stumbled into an amazing opportunity. He is particularly good as drug problems take hold down the line.
Both of these performances have to be good, because Richard LeGravanese’s screenplay, based on Thorson’s book, is surprisingly conventional. Liberace is basically your typical imperious, spoiled brat star. He lives an opulent, but sheltered existence with handlers to take care of everything else. Thorson enters his orbit via a friend, but their relationship takes some fairly familiar turns. Boy meets boy, sexual chemistry, love, companionship, but then the artist moves on like musicians allegedly often do. The plot was predictable given the outlines and what I was expecting – and the writers did not really do much digging to give the relationship or their time together more than the snapshots you’d expect. The writers did not envision a more multidimensional film than fortunately the actors did.
The supporting performances are fine across the board, with Rob Lowe’s plastic surgeon downright hilarious (and painful looking). The design is first rate, especially having fun with the decoration in Liberace’s hotel, homes and whatnot. The actors here help elevate a fairly conventional movie (that would undoubtedly have made money) into something somewhat better .