A review of Behind the Candelabra

Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

My wife, inspired by childhood memories of seeing Liberace on the TV, insisted on our seeing this film. I wasn’t keen, I knew very little about Liberace, my lingering impression being of a kind of Benny Hill without the gags, an Edna Everage without the wit. Plus a bit of ivory tinkling.

The cinema was quite full, entirely of hetero couples like ourselves old enough to remember Liberace, or at least to recall his fame. I suspect that most of them were there out of nostalgia for long ago television shows and were hoping for more detail about Liberace’s music and career, and less about his private life. I don’t think anyone walked out, though my wife says she nearly did in the early part, when most of the sex happens.

I must commend the scriptwriter for drawing a coherent and mostly engaging story out of lives that were lived from moment to moment with little consideration for the future, dramatic adaptations or otherwise. Like many successful artists, Liberace seems to have lived mainly for his art, if you will pardon the expression, sex, and conspicuous consumption.

This is not promising material, and if it were not for the Scott Thorson story element the film would have been little more than a documentary. As it is, much use is made of anecdotal events to pad out the rather thin drama. Watching these short grabs from Liberace’s professional career, and the recreations of his performances, one has glimpses of the other film, the one that the audience came for. It might have made for a more interesting film, but it would not have been the creative imagining of Liberace’s world that director Steven Soderbergh has given us.

Michael Douglas brings depth to a character who tended to appear two dimensional in the actual filmed performances that I have seen. It is a performance to be proud of, and deserving of an Oscar. Matt Damon is impressively convincing as Scott Thorson, a young man utterly swept away in a tide of glitz, away from the life he had hoped for as a veterinarian. These two actors do manage to let us care what happens to their characters, when it would have been so easy to slide into cliché. Or perhaps I should say even further into cliché, as Liberace comes across as something of a parody of himself, and his glamorous lifestyle as essentially derivative and unoriginal.

The direction is good, unostentatious craftsmanship, the atmosphere becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the tensions rise, and the wonky plot lines are neatly traversed. To me the end feels tacked on, but I don’t think there was much option if the story was to remain within bow-shot of fact.

The constant close-ups of men you wouldn’t buy a used car from gets a bit wearing, especially in the latter half, but this, I presume, is what Mr Soderbergh intended. As the film drew on I began to thirst for a female face, and towards the end when some girl dancers appeared, out of focus, behind Liberace, I drank them in like a camel after a week in the desert.

The net impression this film makes is of lives and talents squandered. The audiences in the recreated nightclub performances are next to invisible, and only now and then audible. Liberace was, maybe, his own audience.

Not a film I would have chosen to see, but not time entirely wasted.

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