Liberace’s life explored in ‘Behind the Candelabra’

Hollywood Soapbox logoBehind the Candelabra, HBO’s award-winning TV movie, charts the highs and lows of Liberace, the famed pianist who became a household name and changed Las Vegas forever. The movie, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Richard LaGravenese, features a tour-de-force performance from Michael Douglas as the man in the glitzy suit. The actor embodies this musician with a high level of panache and decadence. Liberace was a showman who coupled his quick piano playing with flashy costumes and snazzy theatrics. He had several partners in his life, including Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), but he hid his sexuality from the public spotlight, preferring to keep his music at the forefront of the national conversation.

The movie focuses mostly on the years when Liberace and Thorson had a romantic and professional relationship. They lived together in the pianist’s palatial Vegas estate, and Thorson acted as a sort of buffer between Liberace and his adulating fans. Theirs was apparently a relationship built on love and money, with Liberace spoiling Thorson with gifts and fancy digs.

Dan Aykroyd plays Seymour Heller, Liberace’s cutthroat attorney who refuses to let any personal entanglements mess with the musician’s bottom line. Scott Bakula plays Bob Black, a personal friend of both Liberace and Thorson, while Cheyenne Jackson is Billy Leatherwood, the man Thorson kicks out of the house.

The positives for the biopic begin with Douglas. This may be his finest performance in years, and the same goes for Damon. Both actors decide to humanize these two main characters, to the point where they feel real and not like faraway entertainers. Liberace’s stage presence is captured nicely, with Soderbergh somehow recreating Liberace’s crazed piano playing. But it’s the quieter moments, after the sequins have been put away, that Douglas’s charms come through. He plays the musician as a reclusive entertainer, someone who reaches the top of his industry and yet cannot buy happiness. He moves from one partner to the next, constantly seeking the fountain of youth, but realizing that he’s getting older. He’s accepting of others but constantly wants to be the star in the spotlight. His greatest flaw is perhaps his obsession with decadence at the expense of human emotion.

Damon plays Thorson as a person much more grounded than Liberace. He’s the real man behind the sequins, the person who provides the musician with his calming sense of home and protection. Their relationship is explored in many ways, from sexual to professional, from jealousy to excess. Thorson falls for Liberace and simultaneously realizes the relationship will likely not last. Still, when Liberace faces his unfortunate death, one can tell there’s love hanging in the air, that Thorson could have been the one.

HBO has taken the ultimate showman and created a project where he’s appreciated and approachable. It’s difficult to identify with the extravagance of mansions and money, but Douglas and Damon make the audience focus on the relationship, on the trials and tribulations, on that crazed piano playing beneath the candelabra. He was a flawed man, and Soderbergh and company do not hide from the bumps and bruises that came with his fame.

Soderbergh, one of the finest American directors of his generation, has left a fitting swan song as he now takes his career away from film. Behind the Candelabra is heightened by Soderbergh’s ability to harness the impressive talents of his two lead actors.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Behind the Candelabra

  • 2013

  • Directed by Steven Soderbergh

  • Written by Richard LaGravenese

  • Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser and Cheyenne Jackson

  • Running time: 120 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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