bill bodkin reviews the HBO made-for-tv film …
The concept of HBO’s Behind the Candelabra sounded a bit absurd on paper — a biopic about the flashy, closeted Las Vegas showman Liberace with Michael Douglas as the famed pianist, Matt Damon as his lover and Steven Soderbergh as the film’s director.
It sounds completely ridiculous … but it works terrifically.
Okay, let’s qualify this statement, first.
While Behind the Candelabra is a good film, it has some serious flaws.
First and foremost, it’s an underdeveloped adaptation of the 1988 nonfiction book of the same title. The film is the Cliffs Notes version of the book — all the big, important moments are highlighted, but the subtle nuances and emotions are left behind for the sake of brevity and easy viewer consumption.
There’s a lot of plot points that aren’t fully fleshed out. The main one being — why does Scott Thurston (Matt Damon) even fall for the aging Liberace (Michael Douglas)? I feel like this is hinted and poked at, but never fully explained. Is it because the oft-orphaned Thurston is being showered with fatherly attention by the pianist? Or is because he’s actually attracted to him? It’s vague when it shouldn’t be — I mean it’s only the main emotional arc of the entire movie. Instead of finding out the real truth of these character’s relationships we get sweeping scenes of Liberace playing piano, gauzy scenes of Liberace and Thurston having sex and soap opera-esque level bickering. It’s funny that the weaknesses of the film’s plot are reminiscent of its central character — we marvel at the flash and panache, but when you actually take a hard look at it — we never really know the complete truth.
Yet remember, that I mentioned how things worked terrifically in this film? Well that’s all due to the work of Soderbergh, Damon and Douglas.
Steven Soderbergh does what he does best here — making the film visually tantalizing. The best example of this is with the visual distortions he uses to illustrate Thurston’s rampant drug use. It’s vintage Soderbergh and it’s able to keep our eyes off the holes in the story. He also does a fantastic job capturing the blingtastic excess of Liberace’s Las Vegas stage show.
Matt Damon worked the role of Scott Thurston like a patient batter at the plate fouling off pitch after pitch, waiting for that plumb fastball down the middle. Thurston is really poorly written at the onset of the film and Damon just hangs with it. Then once he’s given the right opportunity he swings for the fences and just owns every word, look and gesture with that classic Matt Damon style of acting.
Then there’s Michael Douglas. Wow. He’s absolutely electric in his performance as Liberace. It seemed like an unusual choice to have the characteristically virile and macho Douglas as the effeminate entertainer. But hot damn, Douglas nailed everything perfectly. From tickling the ivories to his insatiable sexual appetite to his creepy need to become his lover’s father, Douglas is able to portray every shade of Liberace’s emotional palate. By doing so, Douglas is able to convincingly make him a sympathetic character and villain at the same time.
When you put Damon and Douglas onscreen together, especially when they’re both hitting their stride in their respective roles, you get magic. These two have a dynamic chemistry that makes them convincing as a romantic item as well as a damaged and fracturing couple. And it’s this dynamic that takes Behind the Candelabra from being an okay film to a very good film.
Like its central character, Behind the Candelabra is flawed and enigmatic but in the end we will remember it for its pageantry and showmanship, much like the famed showman himself.