Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes Review of Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh’s study of Liberace does not go easy on the late pianist.

Tue, May 21, 2013, 10:59




Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds

In competition, 118 min

Steven Soderbergh’s most recent movie, Side Effects, was billed as his last ever for theatrical release. But the good people at Cannes (and his European distributors) weren’t going to let him off that easily. So we get to see his study of the older Liberace – made for cable TV – unveiled in big-screen splendour. Even if you didn’t know its origins, you may still have identified Behind the Candelabra as superior television. The performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are wonderful. The fug of jealousy and drug-fuelled paranoia is very well maintained. But it does feel somewhat constrained within its bejewelled paddock.

Douglas is canny casting for a particular angle on Liberace. The news that the former Gordon Gekko was taking on the role should have dispelled any suspicions that Soderbergh was flirting with hagiography. Though the director allows us to feel sorry for the pianist in his final days, this is an almost entirely unsympathetic portrait of a man who somehow managed to be cosmically camp and publically closeted. He is manipulative, selfish and self-deluded. Nobody does those things better than Mr Douglas.

Damon is first naïve, then desperate, as Scott Thorson, the animal trainer who became Liberace’s live-in lover, chauffeur, secretary and (don’t even think about it?) potential adopted son. The film opens with a nice contrast between the rising, celebratory gay scene in the late 1970s and the evasion and sublimation that still dogged the older generation. Scott and his friend move from a disco playing Donna Summer to the flash and bombast of a Liberace concert. “They have no idea he’s gay!” Scott’s pal whispers while gesturing towards his greying audience. It feels like centuries ago.

Scott gets inveigled into the star’s world and soon finds himself being transformed: plastic surgery, flash clothes, diet pills. Some of the decline plays on familiar cinematic techniques – the mobile camera to the coke-stained nose – but whiffs of Bluebeard’s Castle add real menace to a project that could have ended up as empty camp.

Mind you, if camp is what you want, it is certainly to be found here. Fine as Damon and Douglas are, they seem invisible when Rob Lowe is on screen. Absurdly snake-like as a plastic surgeon who’s indulged too much in his own medicine, the actor would be a dead cert for an Oscar nomination if this HBO movie were eligible. Oh well, Emmies all around will do well enough.

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