Review: Behind The Candelabra

How could you pass up the opportunity to prominently display this picture of Rob Lowe from "Behind the Candelabra."

How could you pass up the opportunity to prominently display this picture of Rob Lowe from Behind the Candelabra?

Steven Soderbergh has been running victory laps around Hollywood since announcing his retirement a few years ago. From the surprise box office hit Magic Mike to proclaiming the state of cinema as “bleak,” Soderbergh’s been on fire. And part of that victory lap now includes a quick detour into made-for-TV movies, or as HBO would probably prefer, made-for-not-TV movies.

Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh’s latest, is another HBO musical anti-biopic, looking at the life of a 20th century icon from new, and occasionally, brilliant perspectives. And like Phil SpectorCandelabra is a look at the many faces of celebrity, proclaiming its worth by not only matching the excesses of Liberace, but also turning him and his drug addicted protegé and boyfriend, Scott Thorson,  into sympathetic and complicated characters. This is Soderbergh firing on all cylinders, making beautiful images through natural light and unnatural, so-to-speak, performances.

But let’s back up for a moment and break Behind the Candelabra down a bit, because it’s a pretty familiar story. Like other showbiz tragedies, from Sunset Boulevard to Boogie Nights to Mulholland Drive, and maybe a touch of All That JazzBehind the Candelabra is about the pitfalls, temptation, and desire of fame. Our young babe in the wood, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), an aspiring veterinarian, meets his wolf in, of all people, famed and flamboyant pianist Liberace or “Lee”. Quickly taken by the boy’s youthful selflessness, the glamorous pianist offers Scott a job as his righthand man. Scott accepts and dives head first into Liberace’s indulgent lifestyle, struggling to balance his role as Lee’s lover and onstage driver.

Soderbergh’s simple plotting frees the actors. Everyone has seen this story play out a thousand times, usually by a young actor tempted by fame before being crushed by the pressures of being famous. But because the viewer can instantly understand the story, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon can dress it up a bit. As Liberace, Douglas gets a chance to be dramatic in a way the generally dramatic Michael Douglas has never shown. He’s powerful and exuberant, sensitive and manipulative, and sometimes, all in the same scene. The actor wears the complexities of Liberace on his face as if it were makeup, literally and figuratively.

Opposite him, Matt Damon plays Scott with far more introspection. Carefully walking the tightrope between angering and pleasing his sugar daddy, Damon realizes the overlapping nature of Scott and Liberace’s relationship. What started as sexual relationship became more familial as the bandleader began expressing more interest in having a son than a lover. Finally, it becomes more like an old married couple, loveless and explosive. Damon adapts to all modes. Conversely, Douglas uses Liberace’s obsession with freezing youth through plastic surgery to his advantage and prevents his character from changing, making the transformation of his protegé all the more apparent.

Character arcs here require a bit more attention, as they don’t necessarily reveal themselves until somewhere in the middle of a scene. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese takes Liberace’s desire to never change to heart and keeps the character locked in his own obsessions. Douglas’ Liberace’s face might get higher, but his personality is roughly the same throughout the film. However, the actor’s ability to withhold pieces of the character’s psyche until  necessary is where the real surprises come from. Damon’s Scott changes and grows in reaction to Douglas’ stubbornness rather than his own accomplishments.

Soderbergh successfully pulls back on the characters, allowing them to reveal themselves. Scenes run with a looseness, which Soderbergh uses to make Lee and Scott’s relationship realistic. They riff back and forth on topics that deepen their personal relationship and their business one. This serparation becomes murkier the longer and older Scott gets. Soderbergh also allows the characters the space to show their ugly sides, gratuitously showing off their plastic surgeries as they are happening and the characters’ reactions to them after the surgery is complete.

Behind the Candelabra shows the director’s abilities as both a storyteller and an actor’s director. It is compelling and repelling as it shows flawed characters trying to cover up those flaws and unsuccessfully attempting to save face – that’s the last plastic surgery pun, I swear. It all adds up, though. By the time he leads us to the film’s thoroughly upsetting finale, we’re shown the real Liberace, despite the pianist’s insistence on showing us otherwise.

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