HBO Films: BEHIND THE CANDELABRA Review

HBOFilms_logoOverview: Before Elvis, before Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga, there was Liberace: virtuoso pianist, outrageous entertainer and flamboyant star of stage and television. A name synonymous with showmanship, extravagance and candelabras, he was a world renowned performer with a flair that endeared him to his audiences and created a loyal fan base spanning his 40-year career. Liberace lived lavishly and embraced a lifestyle of excess both on and off stage. In summer 1977, handsome young stranger Scott Thorson walked into his dressing room and, despite their age difference and seemingly different worlds, the two embarked on a secretive five-year love affair.  Candelabra_glitzposter

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Liberace was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. His concerts, recordings, motion pictures, TV appearances and endorsements spawned a huge, primarily female, fan base. It was a time when celebrities were gay only in private and a public persona had to be protected. In the 1950s, Liberace sued and won a settlement against a London newspaper for insinuating that he was gay. In the 1980s,

Liberace still maintained the illusion of heterosexuality and his life with Scott Thorson remained behind the scenes. When Thorson sued Liberace for palimony after he was turned aside by the entertainer, Liberace continued to deny that he was gay or that they had been lovers. This movie takes a behind-the-scenes look at their tempestuous relationship – from their first meeting backstage at the Las Vegas Hilton to their bitter and public break-up.

Expectations: Well, with that pedigree behind it you can be sure I expect quite a lot. First there is Steven Soderbergh. His directorial style has been strong in such films as Erin Brockovich the remade Ocean Eleven series and Contagion and has been credited as Editor and/or Executive Producer on dozens of movies as well. He performed all three of those jobs for HBO once before for the 2003 series K STREET.

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Soderbergh and Douglas on set with one of Liberace’s actual pianos.

Also there is a production team extraordinaire who worked on this movie; it clearly shows in every clip and behind-the-scenes footage I’ve seen. Everything from costume, to set decoration seems so perfect. Of course, the actors are top caliber and just not Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. I expect great work from others here as well from Debbie Reynolds, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Backula, Paul Reiser and yes, even Rob Lowe. Of course, a big downfall of movies can be in their writing but this piece has a great writer attached to it as well. Richard LaGravenese has written the screenplays for movies like The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, Beloved, The Horse Whisperer and Water For Elephants all good movies by my standards.On top of all that BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is also on garnering international focus as a juried entrant in the Cannes International Film Festival. Folks, TV movies don’t get that honor but, this movie has and so I am expecting a lot. I am expecting what little I know of Liberace to rush back to me and to get up in not just his career but in his personal life as well. Dim the lights and cue the classical music I am eager to watch HBO Films: BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. Gut Reaction: I was clearly pumped up to watch this story. I have and I enjoyed it greatly but I wondered at its end how many others would do so. First, it is about a entertainer that younger generations know barely a hill of sequins about; it is about a time in history quite different from today and it is a story mainly about one quirky relationship which may not be enough to appeal to most audiences. So, how well is this movie going to be perceived? I’m not sure of that answer; only your comments at the end will give me an indication.

DouglasDamon_CandelabraI am not the kind of writer that rehashes the plot scene by scene. If you watched it then you know what happened. I’m just here to state what I got out of it. And what I saw was an overly detailed story that matched the overly detailed persona that was Liberace. I, as do those my age and older, have an advantage over some for at least knowing who “Mr. Showmanship” was in all his glitzy glory.  The movie doesn’t dwell much on the entertainer’s career so having knowledge of him from the variety shows he appeared on in the day and such is quite helpful. You didn’t have to go to a Las Vegas show to know who Liberace was. But, I wonder if viewers with little or no prior knowledge of him would understand what a huge entertainer he was and just what his persona was onstage and off? Does Michael Douglas truly convey that? Was there enough of a sense of that reflected in the writing? To get the total picture of the story viewers need to understand just who this man was or the story loses meaning.

Also important to the piece is understanding the times in which it takes place. This movie is about a homosexual relationship in the 1970’s. Back then it would hurt an entertainer’s career to be suspected of being ‘gay’ let alone actually be one. Of course, every entertainer has the right to a private life separate from their professional one but that type of lifestyle was less tolerable and Liberace and his agent knew it.

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That is Debbie Reynolds under the makeup. She actually knew Liberace.

Now, you can say we are more tolerant and accepting today but that is not quite the truth, after all, the production staff of BEHIND THE CANDELABRA was told that the project did not have a change as a theatrical film in the States. Note though, it will air in cinemas overseas. So, all this prior knowledge is quite beneficial in understanding the intent of this movie. It is not about the career of Liberace anymore than Mamet’s HBO Film was about Phil Spector. It is about a very public person living a homosexual lifestyle behind closed doors because at a time it was not tolerated – even in liberal Hollywood.Once you are clued in that that is the film’s premise than you can appreciate it more. Douglas, gives a strong performance of the eccentric, and at times scarily odd at least by Thorson’s account, Liberace. He reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock as we saw him in HBO Films: THE GIRL. They both were men of wealth and fame who wanted what they wanted and if they didn’t get it they threw a tantrum and punished the hapless soul caught in the fray (in those two cases it was Tippi Hedren and Scott T.). Michael Douglas did appear fearless in his role. Matt Damon, to me, gave an emotive performance that Candelabra_Posterwas impactful enough for me to ignore the age difference a number of critics have been grumbling about.There were just enough humorous moments in the movie to keep it from going too dark and psychotic. Debbie Reynolds, as Liberace’s mother and Rob Lowe as Dr. Startz are proof of that. The production was splashy, and sparkling and exuberant but not campy and that is clearly a plus. All wrapped up it is a wonderful film and a great one for Soderbergh to “retire” after as he said he was doing.

In Conclusion: The questions I have raised in this article lead up to one ultimate question to be asked. Do viewers get enough of a background about the man, his times and his situation to understand the enormity of what he faced behind closed doors? Because who Liberace was behind closed doors is more of whom he really was than the man seen behind the candelabra. The answer to that question is – Yes, but was it enough? Again, only your comments can help determine that or not.

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