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Review: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Premise: A dramatization of the relationship between legendary piano player Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his assistant Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

What Works: Movies that explore the fickle nature of fame and love tend to hit a shallow bottom, generally because this subject has been so thoroughly explored. Behind the Candelabra is more successful at that than many similar films and it manages to be an entertaining movie that also provides some insight into the life of an entertainer and a public figure. One of the reasons Behind the Candelabra is successful is its look. The motion pictures of director Steven Sodebergh, which include Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic, and Magic Mike, have a distinct visual style with muted colors and gritty imagery. That style ends up working for Behind the Candelabra because it is so counterintuitive. As depicted in the film, Liberace was a flamboyant performer who used outrageous costumes and lavish set pieces and he demonstrated similar showmanship in his private life. Sodebergh’s style is fitting here because it highlights the artificiality of the entertainment business. In that way, the visual style of Behind the Candelabra prepares the viewer for other themes and ideas in the film. At every turn the filmmakers emphasize the plastic nature of Liberace’s llifestyle and more broadly of the entertainment business. Liberace’s life and public image are mostly a fabrication of the musician and his handlers and he goes through great efforts to maintain that illusion. Plastic surgery becomes one of the recurrent motifs in this film and the makeup effects on lead actors Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are very good. The actors and makeup artists achieve the artificial look that plastic surgery often results in and by placing the actors in this make up and then setting them in sets that look like the exhibits of a wax museum Behind the Candelabra takes on a surreal look. The filmmakers juxtapose all of this fakery with attempts by the characters, especially Scott Thorson as played by Matt Damon, to live an authentic life. But as quickly becomes clear, that is impossible. Part of that impossibility is tied to the main characters’ homosexuality. Taking place in the 1970s and 80s, when public outing could still be a career-killer, these characters are forced to conceal their life and love. And yet, as a movie about gay men Behind the Candelabra is unique. Unlike the characters of movies such as Brokeback Mountain, Liberace of Behind the Candelabra is apparently quite happy to live in public denial because he’s built a comfortable life for himself. That image of privilege and the lengths to which he goes to maintain it make this film a thoughtful dramatization of living life in the spotlight and the struggle to maintain authenticity and dignity while under it.

What Doesn’t: The story of Behind the Candelabra follows the format of a show business drama like All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. It does that story well and the performances of Douglas and Damon elevate it but the movie does not hold many surprises and it is generally predictable. If the film leaves the viewer wanting in any regard, it is the lack of emphasis on Liberace’s musical skills. Liberace is frequently shown playing the piano but the film does not highlight how his musical talent was exceptional. The way he is presented here suggests that Liberace’s success was less about his skill as a pianist and more about his stage presence and ability to work a room. For that matter the film could have used a little more of the stagecraft and panache of its subject. The final scene of the movie demonstrates some creativity but Steven Soderbergh’s filmmaking style generally locks the movie into a straightforward storytelling format.  

DVD extras: Featurette.

Bottom Line: Behind the Candelabra is a well-made film with some terrific performances. This is a thoughtful story about living in the spotlight and the cost of fame.

Episode: #458 (September 28. 2013)