BEHIND THE CANDELABRA Review

by     Posted 1 year, 97 days ago

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Passion.  Possession.  Infatuation.  Betrayal.  These are the hallmarks of any unhealthy and dramatic relationship.  And despite the glitz and glam of Steven Soderbergh‘s Behind the Candelabra, none of these emotions feels fresh or surprising despite the talent of the lead actors and the colorful figure of Liberace.  The strange relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is rendered inert by a dramatic trajectory that’s been laid out within the first ten minutes.  The love affair isn’t doomed; it’s predictable.  At best, Behind the Candelabra makes out love to be as shiny, entrancing, and as fake as Liberace’s public persona.

The story runs from 1977 to 1986.  Liberace has been famous for decades, and “Mr. Showmanship” is one of the stars of Vegas as his skills as an entertainer, with his rhinestone-encrusted costumes and piano, dazzles audiences.  Scott attends one of Liberace’s shows, is absolutely entranced by the performer, and is brought backstage by one of Liberace’s friends, Bob Black (Scott Bakula).  Liberace quickly takes a shine to Scott, who has worked with animals on movies, and is able to restore sight to Liberace’s poodle.  We then follow the intimacy and destruction of the couple’s relationship as Scott becomes jealous and turns to drug abuse while Liberace grows distant and begins looking for a younger model.

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The relationship would hold some dramatic weight if its path wasn’t neatly laid out by Liberace’s relationship with Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), a handsome backup pianist who angrily sits in a corner when Scott meets Liberace.  As he angrily chomps in the foreground, we know Billy has had the kind of relationship with Mr. Showmanship that Scott is about to have.  And if it wasn’t clear enough, Liberace’s houseboy Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay) tells Scott point blank that he isn’t the first and won’t be the last.  Scott is simply the latest plaything, and Soderbergh hopes that we’ll find something fascinating in Thorson’s relationship with Liberace.

To be sure, Liberace is an odd duck.  Aside from the usual trappings of fame that can make one paranoid, insecure, and create a feeling of victimization, Liberace wants to be Scott’s entire world.  The young animal trainer easily gives himself over to the Vegas entertainer because Scott is too naïve to realize that he’s become Liberace’s human pet.  The relationship is made abundantly clear as he gives Scott the same nickname as the poodle, “Baby Boy.”  This isn’t love.  It’s ownership, and makes Scott a possession that’s destined to be discarded because he isn’t a “dumb animal.”

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If there’s anything captivating in between (aside from Soderbergh’s playful direction like using Liberace’s jaunty music during gruesome plastic surgery), it’s that Thorson and Liberace have convinced themselves they’re in a romantic relationship to the point of basically being married, but there’s no equality between them.  Liberace holds all the power, and he only wants more.  He wants to be Scott’s “father, brother, lover” and suggests literally adopting Scott at one point.  This framework deprives any Douglas and Damon of creating any serious chemistry.  We’re watching a relationship that has already played off screen, and we’re left to wonder why this one is special.  The relationship between Liberace and Scott is just as phony as the horrific face of Liberace’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe).

Nevertheless, we’ve seen this kind of hollow relationship before.  The only twist is that this relationship involves Liberace.  Despite his lack of chemistry with Damon, Douglas brings the pianist to life, and we do feel a great amount of sympathy for him despite his many personal failings.  Douglas makes us believe that Liberace isn’t a careless monster; he’s just become too trapped to realize he’s being careless with other people’s feelings.  It’s a charming performance, but like the chemistry with Damon, it’s undermined by the well-trod territory of the story.  We know famous people behave this way.

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The familiarity of the characters and their dysfunctional relationship drains the color from the gaudy trapping of their lives and the movie.  Liberace is an ostentatious and colorful figure, but what humanizes him feels mundane rather than insightful.  It’s a disappointing swan song for Soderbergh if this is truly his final feature.  It says nothing personal and nothing new.  What’s behind the candelabra may be curious, but it’s rarely compelling.

Rating: C-

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  • matt420

    Goldberg you’re so full of yourself it’s disgusting.

  • JK1193

    Wow, even a well-received TV film gets a negative review. Surprise, surprise.

  • Kale

    When are you guys doing another collusion podcast?

  • scottish_punk

    Goldberg is the Dave Hester of film criticism (…it’s a Storage Wars reference).

    • ScaredForMovies

      Goldberg suffers so all of us don’t have too. Can you imagine the hell of having a job where you watch movies and hate 90% of them. But to his credit he did enjoy Burt Wonderstone. >_<

  • Marlboroliteman

    Michael Douglas was awesome in this, Matt Damon did a great job along with the rest of the cast. Yea, don’t get the negative review. It’s well made if your interested in seeing it you know what your in for and you won’t be disappointed.

  • cnaps

    Liberace was gay???????

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  • David

    If you didn’t like a film, would his negative connotations bother you then? No. It’s conditional. It bothers you when it goes against your affinity for something. A well-received film isn’t an objectively good film. People forget that. You like it? Fine, but stop clouding yourself with too much bias. Bring some objectivity to the table.

    On topic: I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt a complete lack of chemistry. It wasn’t a convincing dynamic. The film is “just there,” because the there’s extremely little there to differentiate itself from all of the genre trademarks. That makes it all feel a
    bit hollow and frankly a bit unnecessary, especially given the obvious foreshadowing at the beginning (like Goldberg mentioned). Not to mention how utterly predictable the narrative is. The road to the end is paved with obvious plot devices.

    • Don

      While I don’t quite agree with the lack of chemistry, I can understand how it can be viewed as a predictable narrative. However I feel that it is sort of the point that the events are foreshadowed. The fact that we see Billy Leatherwood angry in the corner is meant to show Liberace’s relationship with men of a certain age. While it was apparent that Lee and Scott loved each other there was always that lingering feeling that eventually Thorson would be cut loose, just like all the rest. Scott even mentions that “his eyes are open” he is aware that this relationship won’t be eternal, and he seems to just enjoy being swept up into the lavish lifestyle of his older lover.

      It similar in a way [albeit to a much lesser quality] to Boogie Nights and the arc of Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler. Both films feature main characters who go down a path of luxury and excess only to see that life collapse around them as they are become drug addicted shells as their hopes and dreams are shattered by reality.

      As a side note- was I the only one who loved the use of the old HBO logo at the beginning?

      • David

        Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand such a mindset, but I just don’t agree that it was admirably laid-out, even if that was Soderbergh’s intention. Although the Boogie Nights reference was commendable. One of my favorites.

  • mike_thoms

    I think the film does quite a good job of showing the audience the fact that while Scott wasn’t the first or the last there was something different about their particular relationship. I have no idea what kind of men Liberace was with in his life, relationship-wise, but if I’m just going by the movie then Scott was different because he was an orphan who bounced around foster homes. Liberace said he wanted children, that he would be a good father. I don’t know if he tried to be a father/brother/lover/friend to every man he had a relationship with, the film never really goes into that. But if I’m just basing it on the narrative then Scott was different from the rest. The adoption, the death bed phone call and gift of the ring.

  • Bo

    Gotta agree with Matt here. I found the movie so trite and boring it was very difficult to watch the whole thing. Lot of gay guys around me were excited and seemingly loved it. Can one get beyond one’s personal/sexual perference and see how awful this movie was? I’m not sure about that. Even Dan A. who played the lawyer was terrible; of course that’s not saying much. And Debbie Rynolds playing the mother? Embarrassing! It really was a badly done movie about stupid, shallow, self-centered people. Ugh!
    And no, I am not homophobic! Christ, can one have an opinion without being branded or labeled by morons who disagree?
    On that topic…have read and heard excellent things about the french film with explicit (oh my) lesbian love scenes titled Blue Is The Warmest Color. Really looking forward to an intelligent film…and oh…it too deals with gay characters….oh oh….

  • Bella

    The best part of this movie was Rob Lowe. Every time he came on screen I laughed so hard I cried. It was impossible to hear anything he said.

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