HBO's Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra smothers sharp acting in a flabby story
On the surface, Behind the Candelabra is the perfect HBO movie.
It has a gleaming creative pedigree, led by superstar director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike) and uber producer Jerry Weintraub.
It has a scandalous story with a new look at an old time, exploring the relationship of closeted, pop-classical pianist Liberace with house husband Scott Thorson in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
And it has bravura performances from film stars Matt Damon as a hunky, often bewildered Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace himself; letting his middle-aged paunch show in an explicit depiction of a sex and drug-laced relationship that puts a new, jarring vision of the easy listening pop culture icon onscreen.
But what this movie doesn’t really have, is the most important element of all: insight.
Like Liberace’s sequin and special-effects filled Las Vegas shows, Behind the Candelabra is a showy, star-filled vehicle with little depth, dazzling with minutely detailed characterizations which ultimately lead nowhere.
In short, after two hours spent with Thorson and Liberace, we don’t know much more about these men than we knew going in. And the most important question – why was Liberace’s relationship with a handsome, limited orphan his longest romance ever? – barely gets scratched.
I mostly blame the source material: Thorson’s 1988 tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. The book tells the story of their relationship from Thorson’s point of view, so too much is automatically excluded from Soderbergh's story, focused on their five-year romance.
How did Liberace handle his rise to showbiz fame as a closeted gay man? How did he stumble on the odd collision of gaudy glamour and old school showmanship that made him such a huge star (inspiring everyone from Elton John to Lady Gaga)? Why don’t his middlebrow fans – as a porn star moustachioed Scott Bakula notes at the film’s start – guess what seems blindingly obvious now; that Liberace was a man who loved men?
Instead, we see a wide-eyed, teenage Thorson picked up by Bakula’s Bob Black in a Los Angeles bar and later bought to meet “Lee” backstage after one of his Las Vegas shows. Later, we learn that Black seems to act as a procurer for the wealthy pianist, bringing young men to the performer for a life where they are lavished with affection, gifts and a job – until the star loses interest and finds someone new.
But, for reasons the film doesn’t quite illuminate, Thorson was different. He manages to get Lee to fire an insulting houseboy who treats him badly, amid talk that he would be included in the star’s will or might be adopted as his son. He undergoes plastic surgery to look more like Liberace while getting hooked on a mix of drugs originally aimed at keeping his weight down.
Magnetic as Damon can be, his Thorson is a maddeningly passive character who mostly finds things happening to him. He is never shown angling to take advantage of his relationship to the star beyond the houseboy incident, and his drug habit gets the blame for most of his bad choices in the story -- the kind of narrative which makes him look best.
A recent New York Times story detailed how Thorson landed in a Reno, Nev. jail in February after pleading guilty to burglary and identity theft charges (he used credit cards found in a wallet for a spending spree). In the piece, even his adopted father and manager says, “his approach to communicating with people is always to play it in a manner that reflects best on him”; his post-Liberace history includes going into witness protection after testifying against a drug dealer in a murder trial who is briefly depicted in Candelabra.
Material like that would go a long way toward explaining how Thorson became the kept man he was during five years with Liberace. But HBO’s movie gives little hint Thorson could be capable of such activities, leaving the feel of a whitewash.
What works here is the quality of supporting performances, from Dan Aykroyd as the gruff, Foster Grant-wearing manager Seymour Heller; Debbie Reynolds, barely recognizable under a load of prosthetics as his Polish mother Frances; Rob Lowe, reptilian and comedically oblivious as ethically-challenged plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz; and Paul Reiser as Thorson’s attorney.
But almost all of these performances are throwaway roles, given bits and pieces of scenes throughout the movie hardly worthy of the talent at hand.
Douglas also offers a fearless, revealing take, exposing Liberace without his prized toupees, flashing his weight clambering out of hot tubs and various palatial bedrooms, and working the piano in ways which make it seem as if the actor is an accomplished musician in his own right. For an actor with little reputation as a mimic, it is an Emmy-worthy performance, echoing enough of the star to embody him without seeming like an empty impression.
Unfortunately, tt’s not enough to salvage a film which mostly plays as a sordid look in the closet of a long dead pop culture icon.
Behind the Candelabra debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.