Movie review – Behind the Candelabra: Tragic biopic of the man behind the glitz

2013-09-29 14:00

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Inexplicably, there are no gay people in Hollywood (except Ellen Degeneres and Wentworth Miller) so it’s little surprise that this film – despite being directed by the Oscar-winning director of Traffic, Steven Soderbergh, could not find finance because it was perceived as being “too gay”.

Eventually, successful risk takers HBO gave him the money, and this is why, though it should be up for an Oscar, it won’t be. Though Behind the Candelabra competed for the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year, it showed on American TV, which disqualifies it from being in the running for an Oscar, but its TV debut is why it has won three Emmys this week.

The Golden Globes, with nominations set to be announced in December, are likely to shine favourably on this film too.

It is a deeply tragic – and rhinestone festooned – exploration of the last 10 years of piano man Liberace’s life and his secret de facto marriage to Scott Thorson, on whose memoir it is based.

Perhaps the most dazzling thing about this film is the unexpected performances – Michael Douglas is spectacular as the bejewelled entertainer, and after just seeing him shaven-headed and bloodied in Elysium, it’s quite a leap to see Matt Damon in bell-bottoms, wide-collared shirts and sporting a blond wig with extra volume and “flick”.

Scott is 17 when he meets the almost 60-year-old Liberace and he is swept off his feet by the opulence of the lonely, flamboyant musician’s life.

Though a little too reminiscent of Hugh Hefner and a Playboy bunny, given the age difference, they make a life together in private.

In public, though, Scott is a chauffeur, adopted son, or employee – anything but what he really is, a life partner. It is easy to see Liberace as an over-the-top object of fun, and Soderbergh fiercely steers clear of this characterisation.

Rather, he explores what it must have been like to be him – a man who makes his living catering to an audience of middle American homophobes. After all, he started to make it big in 1936 and was still playing in 1986, a year before he died.

The hollowness of having to state publicly how he’s still looking for the right woman, ­while he’s really living with the love of his life, and how a moment of grief that drives a visit to an adult sex shop could be the death of his career, gives a sense of the darker side of fame.

Soderbergh spends some time exploring the gleeful exposé of Liberace’s homosexual life after his death, underlining the way being a celebrity can be dehumanising.

The make-up is incredible – Douglas, who is a year shy of 70, is made to look two decades younger; while Damon, who is 43, is returned to the blush of early manhood by the artistry of this department.

Also, when he begins to have plastic surgery to more resemble his lover, the make-up effects are astounding. As is Rob Lowe as the plastic surgeon and LA doctor selling diet pills. If you ever need a reason to steer clear of the face-lift knife, he’s it.

Starring as Liberace’s mother is 81-year-old Debbie Reynolds. Dan Ackroyd rounds out an extraordinary cast as Liberace’s manager and secret lifestyle coordinator.

As Soderbergh said in an interview about the film’s “gay” issue: “With social issues like this, I always try to think: 50 years from now, what are we going to think of our attitudes right now? Fifty years ago, we didn’t even have the Civil Rights Act in the US.

Now, of course, it’s part of our DNA, so when this issue comes up of equal rights for gays, I am hoping that in 50 years we will look back on this and think: Why was this even a debate, and what took so long?”

Film: Behind the Candelabra (Ster-Kinekor)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Featuring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Dan Ackroyd, Rob Lowe and Debbie Reynolds

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