Review: Behind The Candelabra (2013)

Behind the Candelabra is not kitsch it is openly enjoyable, a glittering, camp and respectful celebration of an American icon and his whirlwind romance that is staggeringly performed.

This is a film is based on true events and adapted from Scott Thornson’s 1988 memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace and is another that shows how real life can be more fabulous than fiction. Behind the Candelabra looks at how a young aspiring veterinarian Scott (Matt Damon), meets the glamorous entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas) and the two are immediately drawn to each other on a tumultuous romance that is kept secret from the outside world. The film, much like 2009’s I Love You Phillip Morris is intimate and heartfelt and showcases an extraordinary true story but what this film does better is strike a grand balance all round. Behind the Candelabra is a HBO film that, despite competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, was shown on TV in the US and has only received cinema releases internationally. To that end this is a TV movie that defies the unwritten rule of TV films being unworthy of the big screen. To put it bluntly, it is criminal that Steven Soderbergh’s final feature (so he asserts) was not released in US Cinemas.

This is a story that is not kitsch but openly lovable. Soderbergh has respectfully and entertainingly adapted this material to create a moving story of romanticising, glamour and consumerism. The garnish is exuberant but the main course is memorable, meaningful and tasteful. Behind the Candelabra is an unconventional love story that in many ways could not be more normal. This film is camper than a poodle made of sequins and that is at times the point. It takes the larger than life star at its core and shows him in all his glittering glory, leaving the audience with a question. How could people not see the camp? As Scott says “Its amazing how these people can like something so gay”, “oh they don’t know he’s gay” responds his mate Bob Black (Scott Bakula). That is one of the issues here; this film paints a picture of the sexual politics of the era and plays on the exuberance of Liberace and the bewildering unawareness of society at the time.

The film in many ways plays out like a black comedy and offers an early insight into the cosmetic obsessed society that was growing in popular culture. A scene where Liberace asks and pays for Scott’s plastic surgery is a perfect mix of funny, creepy and meaningful. This film takes aim at the roots of an aesthetic celebrity culture, which Liberace in many ways optimised in the day. Still it is not this brilliant meaning that makes Candelabra a must see but it is the heart beneath the spangling shirts. This romance is at times bizarre, at others tragic but at no point does either star not click with the other. This is an affectionate and tasteful presentation of homosexuality and a genuine relationship that gives the film its warmth and its angst.

Credit to Soderbergh not only for his elegant direction, which initially seems to be rushing us in (which is in fact done for purpose) but for his trust in his actors. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are not immediate choices as a couple but both deliver flawless performances here. Damon as Scott is an excellent display of love and anger, showing how you can fall for someone but see their faults as well. Douglas though may be the showstealer and as Liberace is simply wonderful. He captures the inner vibrancy of this legendary performer and delivers one of his finest performances since the likes of Wall Street. The supporting cast have their moments as well, none more so than Rob Lowe as the pill pushing, expressionless plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz.

This is drama with looks and personality. The score beautifully blends some of Liberace’s work, as well as featuring Marvin Hamlisch’s final work as a composer, as he died in 2012. You could not have asked for a better send off than this towering intimate musical biopic and whether its poodles, ornaments or surgery, this film showcases excess, with honesty and highlights the best of this scintillating true story. Ending with a genuinely affecting series of sequences showcasing what a performer this man was to the end and in spite of his tragic circumstances, the final dream-like scene gives the film a smile inducing send off. Behind the Candelabra is indeed constantly showy, constantly entertaining and constantly romantic. Soderbergh takes what works and provides it in droves and, as Liberace said, “too much of a good thing, is wonderful”. A certain highlight of 2013.

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