Behind the Candelabra

bctIt’s tempting to read a lot (too much?) into the failure of BEHIND THE CANDELABRA to secure funding from a Hollywood studio. “Too gay” apparently. Well, it is fabulously gay, darling! For about the first half, anyway. And then it turns into a slightly dreary tale of human weakness and failure.

… a number of Baldwin pianos were harmed during the making of this picture …

Friday’s Greenwich audience were cackling with glee through the first act, quietened down during the second and left after the third in a very subdued mood. CANDELABRA is almost pro-gay-marriage propaganda: Thorson (Matt Damon, on a boyish-to-raddled arc) and Liberace (Michael Douglas, in a breathtaking performance that should win someone an Oscar, but it might not be him) had a relationship very much like a marriage, and when it broke down they needed something very much like a divorce; but the law of the day didn’t recognise these possibilities. It makes one sad to see that. Did the suburban LA family focus groups upon which Hollywood apparently bases too many of its decisions these days not recognise that thread of shared human experience running through the film? They’d relate better to yet another superhero reboot? Ok then, I guess. This is why HBO, a cable channel established to distribute movies to the masses, turns out to be a braver film-maker than the studios are. Is this a tipping point? Is Soderbergh right to move to TV? Whatever “TV” means these days: long-form dramas aimed at box-set rentals, first releases to internet audiences, whatever comes next.


Several Rolls-Royce Phantoms and a number of Baldwin pianos were harmed during the making of this picture, to re-create the eye-assaulting sparkling kitsch of Liberace’s stage and domestic performances. The visuals applied to the principal actors are also eye-catching; distractingly good. CANDELABRA was photographed (by Soderbergh) with miraculously smooth Red cameras. On that foundation, some really remarkable work has been done to make Damon look almost convincing as a teenager, although the character is still significantly older than Thorsten was when he met Liberace. Even HBO have their limits, it seems. And the depiction of Liberace’s reptilian decay is truly astonishing. Douglas is today older than Liberace survived to be, but despite his own rather different taste for excess (which may or may not have been a cause of his recent throat cancer) he is as well-preserved as any Hollywood star. In contrast, his Liberace is worn out by equally heavy rotations of piano extravaganzas and youthful boyfriends. That Oscar may very well go to Todd Kleitsch or another member of the extensive makeup department; or maybe to Shade FX.

He’s not a monster, he’s a lonely old man with the money to get what he wants.

Douglas and Damon are supported by a varied ensemble, more than cameos but less than a supporting cast: an almost unrecognisable Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager; Scott Bakula as Liberace’s talent scout in the gay bars; a wittily cast Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother; and a disturbing and hilarious turn by Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon. Everything in the film revolves around Liberace, his loneliness, his desperate need to give and receive love and adoration, his unbounded appetites. And don’t we all have that within us from time to time?


But that’s the very problem with the core of the film: it could have been fascinating to compare the Liberace of the nightclub stage with Liberace at home, if Liberace at home had anything new or interesting to teach us about the human condition, but he doesn’t. He’s not a monster, he’s a lonely old man with the money to get what he wants. But what he wants is nothing very special. Thorson is as much a victim of his own rootlessness as he is of Liberace’s greedy need for him, and again there’s just not that much to him as a person. Maybe that could have been the point: maybe the film could have shown us that our own failings, the clay of which our own feet are made is that same stuff as that of a star like Liberace. But it doesn’t quite manage that. It might have shown us that the love these two characters share for a while, even amongst the unrelenting glitter, is of the usual, quotidian kind; but it somehow doesn’t quite manage that either. And as we see the Liberace machine take another circuit around its inevitable course, as Thorson is expelled and the next pretty young man engulfed, in the end the viewer is perhaps left thinking— “well, I knew that already”.