Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

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I debated whether or not even to review HBO’s latest event biopic Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a film since 2010’s goth-ballet-thriller-mess Black Swan…and, to this day, I still don’t know how I feel about that one.

I will admit that I was transfixed by this peek into the gilded cage in which Liberace lived, loved, and controlled all those around him. Michael Douglas is a marvel. I forgot I was watching him, though I don’t know that I ever truly believed I was watching Liberace.

At times, I was transfixed the way one might be driving past a car accident on the highway.

As a kid, Liberace gave me the heebie jeebies. Not because of his mincing, sequined, over-baked stage persona (who cares!) but because he seemed so inauthentic and full of campy self-loathing. Well, the film nails that vibe, and offers a portrait (much like HBO’s recent Phil Spector) of a celebrity who created a carnival about himself to escape the reality of his own personal demons.

Most of the supporting players are great – Rob Lowe as a plastic-faced Faustian cosmetic surgeon, Scott Bakula as a sad-sack Liberace-groupie of some sort, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s oily manager/love life hit man, and even Matt Damon as Farrah-haired paramour Scott Thorson.

As the film careens to its sloppy final act, Damon struggles to find his footing in those jilted years that prompted Thorson to write the book upon which this movie is based; however, Damon does create a compelling, sad, and appropriately skeezy portrait of Thorson’s early years with “Lee” (Liberace’s nickname).

The weak link in the cast is Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Like most of Reynolds’ recent performances, she seems to be phoning it in from 60s-era Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with her cartoon-y Slav-esque accent and Mrs. Doubtfire/Jimmy Durante fake proboscis.

What bothered me about the film? That part is tricky. I may be over-thinking, but why make this film? If we needed a film about Liberace (and I’m still not sure we did), why base it on a dubious tell-all (now out-of-print) written by a drug-addled, oft-jailed ex-lover? Are the filmmakers giving us the inside view of a talented man (Liberace) who, due to the circumstances of his era/audience/success, was chronically incapable of living an authentic, open, loving life? Or are they inadvertently inciting a bit of a “gay panic” playing winky/wink/nudge/nudge “dress-up” in the sweaty, paranoid era when Studio 54, Mr. Roper, Reaganomics, and the AIDS crisis collided?

Not sure. Is this film worth seeing? I think so. But, as I am prone to do, I worry about its interpretation out-of-context.

And, yes, I had a similar worry about the interpretation of the satirically violent Hunger Games with its atonally giddy Harry Potter-esque marketing campaign. So maybe I am just a worrier. As Liberace espouses late in the film, “Too much of a good thing…is wonderful.”

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…

12 thoughts on “Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

  1. This was a potentially great story told from the wrong point of view via a truly poor script. Scott Thorson wasn’t the interesting person in this story: Liberace was. Instead of having Lee launch monologue after flat monologue to provide his biography to the audience, we could have seen it. We could have enjoyed his ascent from dinner jackets to virgin fox fur. We could have sweated through his double life as his star rose – his glee that the blue-haired fans have no earthly idea what he does on a Saturday night in his hot tub. We could have captured the terror of the AIDS crisis, which didn’t spare him just because he was rich. There was so much to work with.

    Instead, the glittering star of the show takes a back seat to a guy whose life story isn’t all that stellar. Matt Damon’s characterization made Scott Thorson seem reasonable, level-headed and, until he was overcome by drug use, the voice of reason in the relationship. History is told by the survivors, and with this story as the basis of the movie there just wasn’t much there there.

    I was just as mystified as you, Roy, about why they made this movie now, other than to show that MIchael Douglas has made a remarkable recovery and that Matt Damon can still play a convincing seventeen year-old. At least the makeup was astoundingly good, as were the costumes. I wonder how many drag queens will dress as Rob Lowe this Halloween.

    • A fine assessment, Lisa, of what was wrong with this enterprise from the outset. Structurally it was flawed from its design, and as you have accurately observed, the point of view was totally skewed. With such talent assembled, this is such a disappointment.

    • Well said, Lisa! That is a fine and perfect assessment of what was wrong with his production from the outset. It’s a shame given they had assembled a pretty great team of talent. The outcome was certainly disappointing.

  2. do you realize that a tv bio-movie was produced several years ago with an absolute look-alike (a soap opera veteran) as liberace? when i was growing up and my mother loved him so and we ran into him at a department store, i thought his name was LIVER ARCHIE…was there a brother george depicted? liberace himself made a couple of movies one of which co-starred dorothy malone and was titled SINCERELY YOURS! i, too, wondered why in the world this movie is necessary?

    • Liver Archie would have been a vast improvement! And no Brother George alas. The more I think about this film, the more mean-spirited it seems to me that it was. Someone observed that it was a hack job. I think it was probably uglier than that. And I am no fan. Totally unnecessary for this film to have been made.

  3. i truly believe talents like cher’s and liver archie’s and michael jackson’s and debbie reynold’s and (add to the list) get las vegased (even celine’s and sarah brightman’s) and glitzed up by con folks and the money keeps rolling in but the reverence for what was once true talent gets diminished and trashed and all gypsied up! then we laugh and make fun of those folks by the time they croak! human nature with a dose of an influx of mystery by drugged up promoters. maybe that is what is happening to michael douglas whose much younger but beleagured wife is in rehab…now there’s a story for you! possibly brenda vaccaro get help us out with our research?

    • Absolutely! I think you are 100% correct with that assessment. We build people up, paint them into a corner, and then tear them down. Over and over. I will never understand that dynamic. And I always seem to be opposite of whatever humanity is doing. When one of these people is becoming a big deal, I don’t have much interest. And then when they reach that point when everyone else hates them, I seem to really dig them. Weird

  4. Pingback: “Oh, what a night!” Reel Roy Reviews book launch event at Ann Arbor’s Common Language « Reel Roy Reviews

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