Director Steven Soderbergh could not get his biopic about pianist and entertainer Liberace financed by any major film studio: “they said it was too gay. Everybody. This was after Brokeback Mountain. It made no sense to us.” In truth, there is a major difference between Brokeback Mountain and Behind the Candelabra. As far as LGBT representation is concerned, Brokeback Mountain‘s portrayal of gay love is fragile, sweet and intimate – far more acceptable than the unapologetically sexually charged Behind the Candelabra. Yet, such depiction is necessary in order for the film to construct a universe that is “Liberace’s universe.” Though the pianist constantly denied and covered up his homosexuality in the public sphere, he lived in a “glass closet”: he acted gay, dated gay and was unafraid to satisfy his every sexual desire. Furthermore, though the film shows Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) performing on stage, it also shows him in his dressing room and, mostly, at his lavish mansion, especially his bedroom and hot tub. Yet, all these settings are glamorous and glittery – it’s hard to draw the line between each one, just as it is hard to distinguish where Liberace the entertainer and Liberace the man begins and ends. The
The existence of a “Liberace universe” also demarcates an environment that falls under the pianist’s jurisdiction. As his live-in lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) begins to feel alienated from his lover, he becomes paranoid about being exhiled from his universe too. Their relationship is very much at the heart of Soderbergh’s movie. Behind the Candelabra is, in fact, informed by memoirs written by real-life Thorson. The strict focus does not allow for open references to gay right movement of the 1970’s. It also overlooks Liberace’s relationship with his mother (Debbie Reynolds), only briefly and superficially hinted at. Despite the
Despite the aforementioned glittery sets and sexual charge, there is more to the film than meets the eye. This is particularly true of its examinations of Thorson’s motivations for having fallen in love with a much older man. At one point, Liberace tells him that he wants to be his lover, best friend, and father. In Liberace, Thorson believes he has found an antidote to the memories of an unhappy childhood. It is also rather appropriate that Behind the Candelabra ended up being a television production (it was produced by HBO). After all, not only was Liberace a TV-star as much as he was an acclaimed stage entertainer – Soderbergh’s feature follows in the footsteps of a genre, the biopic, that has been a TV-movie stalwart practically since the medium’s beginnings. There are shreds of evidence in the screenplay of the film’s will to adapt to the rigidity of the medium. Despite this, Behind the Candelabra ranks among the best things that scribe Richard LaGravenese (of P.S. I Love You fame) has ever written.
However, it is ultimately the leading performances by Douglas and Damon that elevate the film to a higher standard. The two share great chemistry. Douglas has arguably never been better. While he has showcased his acting abilities a number of times in the past, his depiction of turn as the colourful Liberace far exceeds, showboat, impersonation or caricature. – ★★★★
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA || 2013, USA || Biopic || Directed by – Steven Soderbergh / Produced by – Susan Ekins, Michael Polaire, Gregory Jacobs / Written by – Richard LaGravenese (based on Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson) / Music by – Marvin Hamlisch / Cinematography – Peter Andrews / Edited by – Mary Ann Bernard / Starring – Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds / Running time: 118 mins.
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