Behind The Candelabra: Soderbergh's Liberace Biopic Fails To Reach It's Potential

While not a complete misfire, Soderbergh's portrayal of the flamboyant pianist doesn't reach its potential.
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While not a complete misfire, Soderbergh's portrayal of the flamboyant pianist doesn't reach its potential.

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This is the story of Liberace by one of the urchins the great showman let into his life.  Everybody needs loving, but to have that much wealth, that much fame, that much power and be so unable to choose a quality companion means that the image his handlers protected so fiercely in the pianist's heyday is reduced to a National Enquirer romp on HBO.  And a romp it is as the legacy of Liberace should be all about his showmanship flair and self-deprecating humour; his solid body of work, his television show, the millions of people that he moved with his recordings and live performances, and not the sleazy innuendo of glory holes and blatant sex addiction.  Liberace is to be treated as a true Hollywood star from that bygone era Myra Breckinridge perpetually longs for.  A skilled craftsman, his flaws should be the (albeit obligatory) side-show, not he.

That gals from the Bunny Ranch bailed the real-life Scott Thorson (am challenged to write "author") out of the slammer at the time HBO first aired this tawdry escapade is a parallel farce to the meat of the story in this biopic: the hustler with a raging drug problem and an inability to keep from going totally out of control without a moment's notice.

This is more the Scott Thorson story than it is of Władziu Valentino Liberace.  Born in May of 1919 and deceased February 4, 1987 the film revolves around Liberace in his early 60s.  Thorson sued Liberace in 1982 when he was 22 after five years of a relationship, Liberace being 63 at the time of the suit.  The pianist was around 58 when he got involved with a 17 year old and the lawsuit was settled out of court in 1986, before Liberace's early 1987 passing.  Perhaps the psychology of fame and the distractions this kind of pairing would have made for better drama.  Steven Soderbergh's brilliant Erin Brokovich is nowhere to be found here, Soderbergh's films always a pot luck affair, you never know if you'll find a diamond among the misfires.  Behind The Candelabra isn't exactly a misfire for Soderbergh, it's more like a cheesy made for TV movie, blatantly inauthentic with the best line from the wife of Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones saying to Ellen "If your husband has to kiss someone besides you, you could do a lot worse than Matt Damon."

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Poor Matt Damon, somehow his own flamboyance gets ahead of the fact that he actually has talent. Believe it or not, Damon plays Thorson brilliantly (Matt Damon - the actor you hate to love), and the staggering, the sniffing, the cocaine-fueled rages are all quite believable while Michael Douglas cavorts around, well, like a campy, aging old queen.

The Damon/Douglas pairing lends itself to parody, an essential part of Liberace's performance, but not really tasteful when you are telling the world the man's extraordinary story.  Douglas, like Anthony Hopkins and/or Toby Jones as Hitchcock, sounds like the icon (all three actors do decent voice impersonations of the roles they were hired to play), but - alas - in channelling the popular pianist he leans towards the Toby Jones satirical imitation of the genius director, Hitchcock, than a spot on reincarnation, Julia Roberts as Erin Brokovich the perfect example of that.  So while Roberts gave a focus to Brokovich's mission, this Liberace might sound like the hammy stage performer, but it still ends up looking like some lesbian doing a drag impersonation of Michael Douglas in a fur coat. These thespians probably spent more time on inflection than they did in makeup.

Watching the film a second time I found some parts bringing in a bit of dreaded TCF:  "the cringe factor."  Sure, Liberace is a far cry from this critic's favourite artists - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix...but anyone can appreciate the megastar's contributions, his genius, his discipline. Behind The Candelabra focuses on the lack of discipline and how it could have devastated the career as effectively as AIDS destroyed Liberace's final years. A bit more focus on the important matters and less on the sensational parts of Thorson's book would have shown the respect that I was expecting with the names Soderbergh and Hamlisch. Hamlisch died on August 6, 2012 so this is his last official scoring. Soderbergh claims this is his final film as a director. Let us hope that he stays true to that promise.