Here’s the bottom line: The only emotion that the HBO film “Behind the Candelabra” provoked in me was annoyance. There was no character I cared about and not a scrap of nuance to tickle my mind. A bio of Liberace – Liberace! – that doesn’t squeeze even a single tear from my usually responsive eyes has problems.
I just don’t get it. I don’t get the casting and I don’t get the acting and I don’t get the resulting adulation. I haven’t read the reviews, but I certainly have heard the hype. “Behind the Candelabra” focuses on the relationship of young “chauffeur” Scott Thorson and Liberace, the over-the-top glittery piano player who headlined in Las Vegas for many years and who had his own TV show. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s he was the world’s highest-paid entertainer – and he liked to spend his money in very visible ways – from a piano-shaped swimming pool to mink capes.
If you have to settle on one word to describe Liberace, it won’t be eccentric, imperious, or excessive: it would be “fabulous!” He was a fabulous queen who established the template for Elvis, Elton, Madonna, and Lady Gaga. However strong Michael Douglas’ acting chops are, and no matter how many kilo of sequins and bling the wardrobe department gives him, Michael Douglas is not fabulous. Not the way I mean it when I’m talking about Liberace. Not the way that Freddy Mercury was fabulous (now, HE could’ve played Liberace). Not the way k d lang is fabulous (SHE probably could have as well).
And Matt Damon? He plays Scott Thorson, Liberace’s young partner, like a startled deer in the headlights. Not just the first night. Not just the first month. Not just the first year. He’s supposed to be an innocent, manipulated pudgy blond who is bewildered by the furs and the cars and the jewels that he is sucking up like a voracious vacuum cleaner. He’s foolish and bland. His delivery is flat – very, very flat. His sudden outbursts are out of character and out of tune, but he quickly subsides back into mush. Does he give a crap about Liberace or not during the five years they were together? It’s never clear. His sexuality is subsumed into his parasitism. And strangely enough, the movie is based on a book by Scott Thorson, that is, from Thorson’s point of view.
And don’t get me started about Rob Lowe, camping it up with peculiar discomfort as the plastic surgeon Jack Startz. The sleazy surgeon’s job it is to make Liberace look young and make Scott look like Liberace, but he only succeeds in making Scott look like he has perpetually bruised cheekbones. If I were Liberace, I’d ask for my money back.
These straight actors (Douglas, Damon, Lowe, etc) seem to be thrilled to play queers. Nowadays, playing gay is utterly safe and adds some additional street cred points to their resumes. However, I found them incapable of providing anything beyond the most superficially one-dimensional stereotypes, punctuated with occasional bursts of hysteria.
One actor is to be thoroughly congratulated. Debbie Reynolds, as Liberace’s mother Frances, is funny, appealing, and believable. She was given very little to do, unfortunately, and she was the only woman in the film.
There are a ton of big names involved in the making of this film. Steven Soderbergh directed to a script by Richard LaGravenese, and Marvin Hamlisch did the music. The actors are all big guns. The relationship at the heart of this story was truly bizarre and intense. But because the main actors fail to realistically inhabit their characters, we are left with a lot of promise and very little delivery.
Here's the trailer: