Film review: Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra skirts around gay issues

Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 9:08pm

Behind the Candelabra
Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd
Director Steven Soderbergh
Category: IIB

There's probably a good story behind Behind the Candelabra, which Steven Soderbergh claims will be his last film. Although it finally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year, it had previously been turned down by all the major Hollywood studios. Soderbergh has suggested that Hollywood was afraid of its gay content, but after Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and Milk, that seems a weak argument.

Perhaps the result simply shows that Soderbergh is getting tired of making movies. The story of flamboyant Las Vegas entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his young lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon with a lot of eyeliner) lacks the verve we've come to expect from the maker of Ocean's Eleven and Traffic.

The film is based on a book by Liberace's jilted plaything Thorson, so sympathy is with him. Chronicling his seduction, as a teenager, by the much older and richer celebrity, along with his fabulous "blingy" lifestyle, the high life is followed by the inevitable lows of living in a gilded cage and Thorson's own descent into drug addiction.

The production spares no expense on lavish sets, as well as a suitably tacky rhinestone wardrobe and some flashy jewellery. But the excess and accoutrements aren't accompanied by the cinematic dazzle to make Behind the Candelabra any more than a polite observation of a lurid celebrity lifestyle.

Douglas oozes lechery, but lacks the necessary insecurities to make his Liberace interesting. Damon, as the wide-eyed Thorson who gets in with "these San Francisco fellas", is better, and his character has a more interesting arc. Rob Lowe adds some fun by showing up to vamp as a sleazy 1970s plastic surgeon.

It all feels like a story we've seen before, especially in the classic Sunset Boulevard with its ageing diva and ingenue. It may have been better to have focused on Liberace and his protective Jewish manager Seymour Heller (a delightful Dan Aykroyd).

The film shrinks from exploring Liberace's place in queer culture, and that is a shame. Despite being outlandishly fey, Liberace publicly denied his homosexuality to his death. That denial has far more interest as a character study than a film about another flaming, lustful queen. But whenever the opportunity to discuss this comes up - as in the scene when Thorson complains to Liberace that they never go anywhere outside - it dissolves into another lovers' quarrel.

The film opened the recent Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. But Behind the Candelabra already feels a bit dated as gay cinema, and Douglas' Liberace feels more like a stereotypical leftover from La Cage aux Folles. Maybe it would have been better if Soderbergh had got his original Hollywood budget, maybe not.

Behind the Candelabra is a nice showcase for two heterosexual Hollywood studs to prove they are daring actors. But it's a flat epilogue to a respected director's career.

Behind the Candelabra opens on October 10