Monday, 10 June 2013

Behind The Candelabra - Review

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula
Written by: Richard LaGravenese

Rating: 8/10

Douglas' Liberace is the textbook definition of a flamboyant excess.

Toxic optimism and an opulence that could only be matched by fictional characters like Gatsby. This was Liberace's life. The film paints a stark portrait of what on behind, figuratively, closed doors. 

Liberace's turmoil filled world is blown wide open for all to see in this rich and darkly comic film. In his world, Liberace is a man torn with a desperate loneliness and a wanton need to be remembered and be loved. He's a man filled with contradictions - the lonely megastar. The film then teaches a very important lesson from his life; excess is dangerous. Liberace is oft attributed with the quote "too much of a good thing is wonderful" but it is exactly this which lands him in hot water (figuratively and literally with a highly toned Matt Damon) several times. It charts the relationship with his lover/friend/boy-toy/chauffeur/son Scott Thorson, and a very tumultuous decade of their lives together. It is based almost entirely on the book written by Thorson, "Behind the Candelabra: My life with Liberace"(1988). This film was actually a television movie (a highly expensive one with a price tag of $23 million) on HBO's channel in America. It deserves a theatrical release, as proved here - Douglas, Damon and Soderbergh come together to create a spectacular show that spirals ever downward and slowly disintigrates everything in the lives of it's characters. The movie, similarly to 'Gatsby' has a wonderfully empty feel to it - despite the love affair, the heartbreak, the wonder and the high life - much of the emotions feel, somewhat like the plastic surgery that abounds - entirely manufactured. It packs a tainted punch - it really drives home the difficulty of reading and understanding, even trusting, people in the world of superstars.

The film begins with the electric meeting backstage of Thorson (Damon) and a over-the-top, bigger than life, Liberace/"Lee" (Douglas). There is a line by Bob Black (Scott Bakula), who introduces the two, which serves as an early warning when Scott questions why the audience would like something so camp to which Bob replies with "Oh, they don't know he's gay!". Liberace famously sued and pursued any who even hinted at this possibility - and it is partly this zealous push that isolates him in the film. Thorson and Liberace quickly fall in love after Thorson, who works with animals, offers to treat one of Liberace's poodles for an eye condition. In a sense, this type of world usually ends up being almost cyclical - today's entourage will become tomorrow's history, and so and so forth. Soderbergh approaches this topic with humour and an offbeat irony; the amount of eye-rolling, people looking sullen and repeating Liberace's words as he gushes them out behind them is tremendous. It becomes evident from very early on that even those 'closest' to this great entertainer treat him with disdain. Liberace repeatedly shouts in the movie, in a self reaffirming manner, "You only want to see what you can get out of me!"

The film becomes a touching and moving look at not only this toxic relationship between Thorson and Liberace, but at the world of the entertainer. It depicts the lack of trust, love and even respect that those closest to the stars sometimes have - and how those who may actually love the star as Thorson does, get lost somewhere in the excess. Scott becomes a drug addict thanks to Liberace's addiction to plastic surgery in which Liberace forces Scott to look more like him. His initial diet and pain pills become gateway drugs - something which "Lee" often laments. The plastic surgeon, Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) becomes a spectre in the life of the young Thorson - leading him on to get him addicted. Startz was a famous plastic surgeon in the 70s and the 80s, giving rise to the popularity of silicone implants, and he apparently faced a multitude of lawsuits before he committed suicide in 1985.

Quite quickly, the relationship between Scott and Liberace becomes one of a set of terrible shared activities - addiction to drink, self affirmations, and a poisonous dependence on displayed (read: not always real) affection from each other. As Bob, the ever looming voice of reason says to Thorson when he is initially considering surgery - if Liberace doesn't get what he wants, he'll kick Scott to the curb. There are many early warning signs, such as when Thorson tells his adoptive mother that he is going into his relationship with Liberace with his eyes "wide open". This story re-creates the now run of the mill parable - too much of a good thing distorts your expectations, values and takes on reality.

Douglas's Liberace is vivacious and in constant self denial - he struggles with staying afloat in his world, which seems inhabited by radioactive people who constantly threaten to derail him as well as his own physical and mental isolation. Liberace's palace, rather bittersweetly, becomes more of a prison lockdown for him and Thorson, as well as those who inhabit his world. In his palatial home, they're trapped - they become exactly what they fear of each other. In such an environment, one at best can only become paranoid and delusional - which is exactly what happens.

The film ends, in it's third act, with a blow to both Thorson - who is forced to move out of his apartment and is visibly heartbroken by the entire process, and to Liberace - who discovers his own mortality.

The film was the last picture scored by the late and great Marvin Hamlisch - a score that is just as tragic and unsettling as the film itself.

As with many of Soderbergh's other films, he appears as his own director of photography under his father's first two names "Peter Andrews" and he also edited the film while using his classic alias of his mother's maiden name. Soderbergh's versatility echo Douglas' in his many versions of a broken and constantly shifting Liberace. With on-and-off screen legends and stars coming together to make this movie, it's no wonder that the end result is such a treat. However, in saying all this, the pace of the film does get slightly tedious about two thirds of the way in - it feels slow and sluggish compared to the hectic life presented by Liberace before who almost never seems to stay still and silent. The ending, while befitting the movie, may also leave you feeling without a concrete resolution. The set design for Liberace's would be palace is stunning and gargantuan - and the costumes stay faithful to Liberace's true form.

Damon is an adaptive and vulnerable Thorson, while Douglas is almost magically in his ability to shift gears instantly as Liberace. It's hard to find an anchor in the film, which makes it even more unsettling. Soderbergh famously stated that this would be his last movie, at least for awhile - which gives it an even more nostalgic feeling. Other than the sharply on point acting, Soderbergh's direction and structure gives life to one of the most secret-but-not-so-secret lives of one the world's greatest stars, and their eventual downfall.

What lies 'Behind the Candelabra'? Not much that we didn't already suspect - but I suppose, that's somewhat the point. 

What the Mr thought:
I'll keep this short and sweet - if you don't mind watching a torrid and exaggerated gay love affair film, I highly recommend this movie. It's a beautiful biopic, that is steeped in dark humour, foreboding signs of doom and a complete and utter devastation of the inner lives of it's characters. While not all parts of Thorson's book, and subsequently this film, may be true - it leaves a startling impression. Much like Liberace's legacy.

What the Misses thought:
Probably one of the best films I have seen for a while. The acting on the part of both Matt Damon and Michael Douglas was just so genuine and felt natural, rather than them just recounting a script. While it may feel slightly slow or disjointed, it is genuinely such an intriguing film and a must watch!

But remember, you didn't hear that from us,

The Mr and the Misses.

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