Review: Douglas and Damon Shine in Soderbergh's Funny, Poignant Melodrama 'Behind the Candelabra'

by Anne Thompson
May 27, 2013 4:34 PM
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Soderbergh was able to lick the issue of how to tackle bling-inventor Liberace--a role he had long talked with "Traffic" star Douglas about playing--when he was tipped to Thorson's memoir. That gave the biopic a limited 1977-1983 time frame. Both actors masterfully navigate a tricky dance between comedic exterior showmanship and sexually-charged, often painful scenes in the boudoir. You believe that the two men love each other, but the powerful rich performer subjugates and manipulates his younger, needy and more naive partner, by making the initially starstruck dog handler and would-be veterinarian a dependent member of his support staff, as assistant, chauffeur and part of his act. Carlucci the tight-butted houseboy, passing a tray of pigs in a blanket, warns the new recruit that he won't last long.

The besotted Thorson ditches his dull but stable foster parents for a man who calls him his "baby boy." Liberace says to him, "I want to be everything to you, father, brother and lover, best friend, everything. Maybe I'm your real family." (As an indefatigable lover, Liberace confounds the younger man with his staying power. "Implants," he explains.) He eventually offers to adopt Scott, makes him undergo plastic surgery to look just like him, and buys him a home. Thorson hangs in for six years.

His shiny-faced plastic surgeon and Dr. Feelgood (Rob Lowe) gets him hooked on diet stimulants so that Thorson will continue to impress in his mini-speedo. He moves on to stronger stuff, needless to say, which is where the film is hijacked by an inevitable showbiz descent trajectory. But by the end, both Douglas and Damon are heartbreaking, and a dowdy Debbie Reynolds resonates as Liberace's clinging, angry, neglected mother. "Everyone wants a piece of me," Liberace complains. "I give and give and give."

There's an undertow to the film's message, Soderbergh has admitted. In another era, Liberace could have married, like Elton John.  And in another decade, this movie would be up for Oscars, not Emmys.

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  • filmstager | May 28, 2013 6:27 AMReply

    I found it visually perfect and both actors were on par, especially Damon. However it maintained an emotionless stilted quality and the characters were never quite engaged in their emotional reality. The entire performance was rushed and I sensed some discomfort in the actors who went through the motions but never delivered any poignant moments. Even the death bed scene was flatlained. I have to say its the directors job to bring his actors on that journey and that was its shortcoming.

  • Victor B. | May 27, 2013 11:58 PMReply

    By all means, give Michael Douglas an Emmy, but don't make this Movie of the Week out to be more than anything than what it is--a curiosity piece about a celebrity that absolutely no one cares about in 2013. This movie needed to be made, oh, 20 years ago. It went to HBO because no one outside of Vegas or San Francisco would have paid money to see it. IMO.

  • Jane | May 21, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    Great review, but the rhinestone business is in Austria, not Australia.

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