BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
The year is 1977 and in a gay bar in Los Angeles, a young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) makes the acquaintance of handsome ex-choreographer Bob Black (Scott Bakula). The two develop a close friendship and on a weekend get-away to Las Vegas, Bob takes Scott to the Hilton, where his friend Lee, known to the world as Liberace (Michael Douglas), is playing a sold-out show. Scott is awed by Liberace's flamboyant showmanship and piano virtuosity and when the two meet backstage, there is an instant attraction and mutual appreciation, which continues the next day over brunch at Lee's house. And in secret as lovers for another five years, until the turbulent break-up. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
Taking us through a gamut of emotions, Steven Soderbergh's film about the relationship between pianist Liberace and his younger lover dazzles as surely as the glittering sequins on the showy entertainer's costumes but it is its bitter sweet feeling of melancholy that provides the biggest surprise. As for the casting, who would have thought that rampantly heterosexual Michael Douglas could play gay so convincingly, while sometimes action hero Matt Damon's vulnerable transformation as he is lured into Liberace's world of palatial kitsch, is pitch perfect. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this is a project that might have gone terribly wrong, but ranking high on the entertainment meter, it smacks of authenticity, has pizzazz, humour, poignancy and above all, heart.
It is with great economy in a couple of establishment scenes that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of Scott Thorson's tell-all book sets the scene. It all begins in 1977, when Scott (Damon) meets Bob (Scott Bakula with a 70s handlebar moustache) in a gay bar. The brilliance of Soderbergh is that he makes us feel as though we have been transported back in time, the era truthfully represented. For those who remember the 70s - well, it's a trip. By the time Bob takes Scott to Las Vegas to see Liberace in his extravagant stage show, decked from top to toe in silver sequins, a candelabra on the grand piano and his nimble fingers weighted by statement jewellery, we know that Scott is an animal trainer who lives on a ranch with his foster parents.
Scott's entrée into Liberace's world is highly memorable - from the first backstage encounter to his opulent home replete with Roman columns, statues, candelabras and regularly used spa, where drinking Champagne is a matter of course. Within these extravagant surroundings, it is the overtly gay employees that provide the most amusement. Who could forget the way the house boy wearing tight white trousers offers Pigs in Blanket on a plate? We also notice Billy (sultry Cheyenne Jackson), Liberace's current protégé who is no longer the flavour of the month and spends most of his time eating, scowling and slamming doors. Dreams for the future are canvassed on satin pillows and Scott's future is decided, his benefactor wanting to be his father, brother, lover and best friend.
Sex is a big part of the relationship and there's an intimacy about the sex scenes, making them feel voyeuristic. Wearing skimpy sequined bathers, tailor made clothes, gaudy gold jewellery and driving elegant cars, Scott fits right in - until his love of eating makes him fat. That's where Rob Lowe comes in.
Lowe is hilarious as the plastic surgeon to whom Liberace entrusts the promise of youth, providing laugh out loud moments, although the graphic nature of the surgery may not be for everyone. The clanger comes when Liberace puts Scott forward to be next on the surgeon's list. (True stories are amazing because you could never make up this kind of thing!) Debbie Reynolds, unrecognizable with white hair, glasses and a Polish accent is terrific as Liberace's mother.
Then comes the down part of the relationship rollercoaster ride, which plays out with drama, humour and pathos.
Soderbergh has surrounded himself with talent and everything works from the production design, the music, his own camera work and the amazing digital trickery that superimposes Michael Douglas' animated head on the body of the pianist tickling the ivories. The way Soderbergh changes the tone as the story elements evolves brilliantly, encapsulating the richness of the film's emotional heart. I had tears in my eyes during Liberace and Scott's final meeting and the final song over the closing credits allows us to recognise exactly what is behind the glitz and the candelabra.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It was the evening before the world premiere of sex, lies and videotape in Competition at the Cannes film festival in 1989 and Steve Soderbergh was about to make his debut on the world stage. I was to interview him for next day's trade daily and the meeting was set up in the foyer of the Hotel Grand, an old fashioned place between the Carlton and the Majestic, the two jewels on the Croisette. Soderbergh was dressed in the casual gear of a working filmmaker, and there was no entourage. Hell, even the publicist wasn't there. Within 24 hours he would be a hot film property and famous and celebrated and he couldn't walk around without being mobbed. But for those 40 minutes or so, it was a subdued and reflective young man just hoping his film would not be booed.
Fame can be such a surprise visitor in life, the difference in time between unknown and famous can be minimal, the contrast between the glamour and glitz of a showbiz parade (like Cannes red carpet) and the banality off camera or off stage can be huge. And all these things are themes that Soderbergh canvasses in this love story gone wrong about Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
Keen to make a Liberace film for years, it wasn't until Soderbergh read Thorson's account of his five years with the great showman that he found a way to approach the story. It had a time frame and it had the complexities of a relationship, all bound up with the glittering success of Liberace's career.
The trap was that the novelty of Liberace's excesses - from the candelabra on the grand piano and the enormous Rolls Royce in which he would arrive on stage to the white virgin fox fur to the greatest haul of Austrian crystals in the world - would soon run out of cinematic juice. But Soderbergh didn't win the Palme d'Or that year at Cannes (and several others) for being lucky; he turned his characters inside out in sex, lies and videotape - so well that James Spader won the Best Actor award, as well.
Not surprisingly, since it's based on Thorson's book, the film is as much about him and his relationship with Liberace as it is about the most successful (and intriguing) Las Vegas entertainer of his era. We get enough of the shows though ... Thorson is like a fly caught in a spider's web, but he's a willing fly and he becomes more of a pet than a meal. On the other hand, spiders like to collect their catches ... and Liberace, while clearly devoted to Thorson, was not a one-man man.
The film tickles our fancy as we meet the key players - including Bob Black (Scott Bakula), who introduces them, the young houseboy before Thorson takes his place, Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson) and Liberace's manager, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd). Soon we meet the notorious plastic surgeon, Dr Jack Startz, wickedly played by Rob Lowe, and Liberace's mother, Frances, an unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds (who was a friend of the pianist in real life, as was executive producer Jerry Weintraub).
The cast is superb: Michael Douglas creates the persona of Liberace without attempting to mimic or impersonate him, constantly giving us his feelings and his complexity, freewheeling in the love scenes, remarkable in his discipline. (The seamless digital work that puts his head on the excellent piano double's [Philip Fortenberry] body is award winning stuff.)
Matt Damon makes Thorson (a less well recognised face) a sympathetic figure whose journey is both sad and yet triumphant; after a life of difficult foster homes, this one is really hard to handle, for all kinds of reasons.
As the story grows more emotionally layered with the relationship deepening, we are drawn into the loneliness of both men, for different reasons. It's the screenplay's ability to keep us engaged and involved that the opulence loses its lustre and the things that matter in life rise to the top. It's entertaining, of course, and for those who have seen Liberace work (live or on TV) while he was still alive, the film pushes some nostalgic buttons. But it's not the only buttons and the others are not the one we expected it to, when the lights first went down.
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BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (M)
CAST: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Cheyenne Jackson
PRODUCER: Susan Ekins, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Polaire
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
SCRIPT: Richard LaGravenese (autobiography by Scott Thorson)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Peter Andrews
EDITOR: Mary-Ann Bernard
MUSIC: Marvyn Hamlisch
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Howard Cummings
OTHER: Philip Fortenberry (Liberace piano double)
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 11, 2013
RIVERSIDE SCREEN PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 6 consecutive Tuesdays, starts February 17, 2015 at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.