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DVD Review: ‘Behind the Candelabra’

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Director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking last year. For me, the high points of his prolific career have  been genre pictures like Out of Sight and the Ocean’s Eleven movies. I have been less enamored of his prestige films like the Oscar-winning Traffic and the epic Che. But even his recent genre exercises have come off as flat. The thriller Side Effects was tepid and uninvolving, and the actioner Haywire lacked a flair I have come to expect from the director.

Which leaves Behind the Candelabra as his swansong. Bypassing a theatrical release, the film was picked up by HBO, and we are led to believe this is because of its salacious material. After all, the story of Liberace’s involvement with a younger man, with Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his young lover, is potentially controversial. But the film is not a shocking or convincing portrayal of a sordid relationship. Its worst sin: it’s not even fabulous.

It sounded like a good idea at the time, or at least one you could watch like  a television train wreck. Who wouldn’t be curious to see Douglas playing the dimpled, fur-robed entertainer? But the main casting is one of the film’s problems. Douglas doesn’t give off a Liberace spark or even a Michael Douglas spark. Liberace’s young lover Scott Thorson (whose autobiography was the basis for Richard LaGravenese’s script) is played by Matt Damon, who fares better if only because the real life character he plays has not been burned into our consciousness like Liberace. But love scenes with Douglas and Damon don’t work, perhaps because the stars are too familiar, and the situations too unlikely.

A better pairing is right under the filmmakers’ noses. Scott Bakula plays Bob Black, who shepherds Thorson under Liberace’s predatory wings. Cheyenne Jackson plays the protégé whom Liberace throws over for the younger Thorson. Each of them shines in supporting roles, and if neither of them are the kind of marquee names that would draw financing to the production, they would have been better leads. Debbie Reynolds stands out in a minor role as Liberace’s mother, but the film’s failure lands on the now-retired Soderberg. His best movies show that he knows how to make a stylish, candy-colored bauble, which is what this material calls for, but only in the movie’s final dream sequence is there sign of what might have been.

The movie fails on one other point. The age difference between Damon and Douglas is a whitewash of the true story. Thorson was 16 when the 60-year old Liberace took him in. True-to-life casting would have courted controversy and made for a more disturbing movie, but Behind the Candelabra seems to avoid real controversy, and doesn’t get far enough behind the scenes.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.