Sydney Film Festival – Behind the Candelabra review

Behind the Candelabra

By Simon Miraudo
June 13, 2013

Crossing the Rubicon of wealth and fame must be a hell of a thing. Michael Jackson arguably lived the strangest life in human history. Tom Cruise enjoys the dual pleasure of being Hollywood’s most bankable star, and perhaps the one famous person everyone is really unsettled by. Kanye West’s album is literally titled Yeezus, for Kanye’s sake. Back in the 1970s, Liberace’s icon status was of that same magnitude. His name relegated to a punch-line today, it would have been easy for a biopic to mock the outlandish existence of the closeted piano prodigy. And sure, Steven Soderbergh‘s Behind the Candelabra (supposedly the director’s final film, originally produced for broadcast on HBO in the U.S.) never pulls its punches. It’s also compassionate towards those odd, insanely affluent types who have long been detached from reality, but are still, undeniably, human. It’s the best skewering and celebration of celebrity I’ve seen in some time. Televisual origins be damned: this is one of the year’s best movies.

We witness the final years of Liberace (Michael Douglas) through the wide eyes of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), the 17-year-old orphan who was hired as his assistant and live-in lover in 1977. More than 40 years his senior, Liberace relishes the opportunity to be a father to Scott, almost legally adopting him, despite the inherent ickiness of that concept. While Liberace (call him ‘Lee’) earns millions with his finely honed Vegas showcase, Scott lounges around their gaudy palace, gaining weight. But he’s no leech. For five years, Scott indulges every whim of his keeper, even getting a face-lift to more closely resemble him. Rob Lowe plays California’s finest plastic surgery, Dr. Jack Startz, a character whose frozen smile and unblinking eyes make him seem as if he’s been transplanted here from the set of Creepshow.

Behind the Candelabra

Inevitably, their love fades. It happens, particularly when it’s the love shared between a man and his boyfriend-dad. The once-affectionate Liberace becomes remarkably cruel to Scott, and ten years after their first meeting, Thorson is left a physically deformed drug-addict denied millions in palimony.  Yet, there is still deep affection between both parties. Richard LaGravenese‘s wickedly funny screenplay still manages to find the humanity in celebrity, treating its subjects with respect if not absolving them of their sins.

His performance as Liberace is close to the best work Michael Douglas has ever done, and he’ll receive plenty of plaudits for it. To make likeable someone whose lavish lifestyle feels so foreign, and whose actions are occasionally so detestable, is a miracle. He also must make someone so entrenched in our minds as something of a caricature feel real once again. He succeeds. It’s Damon, however, who gives the most startling turn, and not simply because the 42-year-old actor looks like a more convincing and fresh-faced teenager than I ever did. Scott’s coming of age, corruption, and eventual downfall over the course of the flick is a harrowing arc, especially in the face of his lover’s unchanging, cyclical routine (as immovable as his plastered face).

Behind the Candelabra

Soderbergh, not exactly known as a particularly warm director, is a perfect fit for this material, which requires a critical eye as much as a sympathetic one. This is a love story, at heart. A romance though? I’m not so sure. He draws from his actors rich performances, and doesn’t fall into the trap that undoes other biopics. LaGravenese’s script smartly contains us within Liberace’s final decade, offering us a better glimpse of the man – and the men around him – than any lifetime spanning feature could have. Very funny, oddly sweet, occasionally scathing, and consistently brilliant, Behind the Candelabra is a dazzling depiction of an exceptional subject.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Behind the Candelabra plays the Sydney Film Festival June 14. It arrives in Australian cinemas July 25.

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