Film Reviews

Behind The Candelabra Steven Soderbergh

Rating - 6/10

When Steven Soderbergh first warned of retirement in 2009, he claimed he would finish what he was working on and then make a biopic entitled Liberace, a musical based about Cleopatra starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, and an adaptation of the The Sot-Weed Factor. When word got out again about his retirement, he was finishing up Contagion and it was decided he would complete Liberace and make an adaptation of the TV show “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” starring George Clooney, and that would be it. In addition to the eventual release of Haywire (filmed in 2010), Soderbergh has since been talked into Magic Mike and decided to also direct The Bitter Pill, which became Side Effects, released earlier this year.

Liberace has surfaced now as Behind The Candelabra, and based on the above history, which shows Soderbergh’s tendency to change his mind and be talked into new projects, it is probably more accurate to call it his “latest” film rather than his “last.”

In any case, let’s hope so, because most of Soderbergh’s work in the past five years is stronger than Behind The Candelabra, an enjoyable but somewhat less interesting note to go out on. To pull a few those that stand out most to be, Che is a biopic with twice the length of Candelabra, The Girlfriend Experience is a worthwhile experiment in editing and casting as well as a good portrait of recession-plagued America, Haywire is a smart deconstruction of the action genre, and Magic Mike is an intelligent and humorous look at opportunity in the age of post-American Exceptionalism with some great cinematography to boot. Candelabra has a pair of great performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and his decades-younger lover Scott Thorson, respectively, as well as a handful of expectedly-great costumes, but it’s also much more comfortable in all other respects. It has been purported that the major studios all passed on it because of the homosexuality at its core, but Candelabra is far from explicit and certainly not groundbreaking in its depiction of homosexual sex or sexuality. In fact, the film has more than a little in common with Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On, another somewhat underwritten, one-sided relationship drama based on a memoir.

Where it succeeds is as a character study, not of the ordinary, somewhat money-grubbing Thorson but of the lonely Liberace, who surrounds himself with pets, servants, and lovers in an attempt to make a connection, all while hiding his sexuality from the public. We see his attempts to control Thorson, whose youthful naïveté is the story’s tragic flaw, and we are constrained to Thorson’s point of view to allow us to also side against Liberace, who probably cheats on Thorson through much of their relationship. The technique works, because even though it makes us side against Liberace, the film still effectively conveys his loneliness; everything he does, be it heavy touring and multiple shows a night or surgery and beautiful costuming (both clothing and hair) comes from a desire to be loved by a public who, should they uncover the truth, may stop loving him solely for prejudice. Almost all of this comes from Douglas’ portrayal, perhaps the sole humanizing factor in a story that emphasizes his manipulative tactics, as the script is a bit too intimate to take on Liberace’s external life in a more meaningful way. Thankfully, through Douglas, we can better understand how the external life is important and perhaps even sympathize with Liberace, all without having to condone his abusive actions.

There’s also a heavy supply of black humor throughout the film that lets the mostly predictable, occasionally repetitive story move at a better pace. Aesthetically, Candelabra is exactly what you would expect from Soderbergh. Like many of his more recent films, it has a heavy orange tint and, as in Magic Mike, finds a drug-induced sequence to change things up a bit. While the corresponding scene in Magic Mike was a somewhat forced break that distracted from the music-video aesthetic, it’s much more welcome here, the darker subject matter calling for unhinged moments of risk. It’s a shame that there is only one, as Soderbergh’s cinematography, in its less successful ventures, is more distinctive than it is evocative, and Candelabra treads the line when it should fall quite firmly on the better side.

In its final moments, which stretch out ever-so-slightly, Candelabra makes a rushed plea for the importance of gay marriage, and the final shots, of Thorson watching a show in which Liberace floats onto and off of the stage, are a bit sour, almost counter-productive. When Thorson finally appears to have learned he suddenly seems to be reeled back into Liberace’s perverse game, years later. One could call it a reminder of love and the happy times, but in that case, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a bittersweet cliché in a story that we can already see coming from the beginning. Some forgiveness could be leveraged, as the film is based on Thorson’s own memoir, but regardless, a repetitive cycle enlivened by aesthetics less than it should be makes Candelabra an enjoyable but somewhat lacking look at a rich subject, saved primarily by Michael Douglas’ great performance.