Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Behind the Candelabra Review

In 1989 Steven Soderbergh made his film debut with Sex, Lies and Videotape. The film was daring, unnervingly original and made on a budget of just over one million dollars. Its domestic gross of nearly twenty-five million dollars in return heralded a new wave of independent films throughout the 1990s. Twenty-four years later, Soderbergh will retire from filmmaking with Behind the Candelabra, a biopic of pianist Liberace, which, in ways, is the perfect film to go out on. 

It is, of course, well crafted by Steven Soderbergh, a veteran director who I would expect nothing less from. However, it is Soderbergh who takes a backseat to Ellen Mirojnick, whose flamboyant costumes really add to the film, and Howard Cummings, whose outrageous interiors take that film that much further. 

Two of Hollywood's big-name alpha males – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – play the lead roles delivering strong and convincing performances. Liberace is played by Michael Douglas in one of the bravest roles of his career. It would have been easy to portray the over-the-top flamboyance of Liberace in high camp theatricality. But not here. Douglas is restrained, measured, and deliberate. His Liberace straddles both sides of the male persona. Douglas goes from being tender lover and father-protector to the excessive, power-hungry controlling tyrant driven to an addiction for acquisition: homes, jewelry, dogs, new lovers, and all things Louis Quinze. 

Matt Damon characterises Scott as an increasingly self-conscious and insecure young man, whose relationship with Liberace grows through two kinds of comfort: materialism and emotional cushioning. Liberace's mansion is an intimidating but irresistible prospect compared to the drab and shadowy form of Scott's adopted home. The mansion achieves its own Biblical connotations, stunningly realised through sparkling glassware and high contrast lighting. Liberace also manipulates Scott's loneliness, saying that he could adopt him. "Maybe I'm your real family," he teases. One of the few dramatic peaks in Richard LaGravenese's script is when comfort reveals itself to be personal possession. Liberace seeks to preserve his legacy, not simply by adopting Scott, but by convincing him to undergo surgery so that the two will look more alike.

There are problems, however. The otherwise excellent screenplay by Richard LaGravanese starts a bit rope and loses a little steam around two-thirds of the way through, but recovers to give a genuinely touching conclusion. I was also a little disappointed that Soderbergh decided to leave out most of the musical side of Liberace. The movie is bookended by his stage performances, but there's very little music or stage bravado in this movie. The director is happy to close the doors of Liberace's mansion and watch the man soak in a hot tub or lounge on the couch, but we miss the music, the garish and gaudy glitter-and-rhinestone stage show that made the man such a legend.

On stage – and in front of the candelabra – Liberace lived a life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But behind the glitz and the glamour, we glimpse the flawed, all-too-human and imperfect every man who is uncomfortable in his skin, seeking miracles from plastic surgery and sexual hedonism. He is not a hero or anti-hero; victim or victimizer; predator or prey. He is all and neither. Liberace's life is heroic because he was able to achieve much despite the odds. But his real life was lived in darkness cast by the shadow of the lights behind the candelabra.

A truly outstanding film. It's simply baffling that this film wasn't picked up by a major studio.