Steven Soderbergh says Behind the Candelabra is his last film for now, but I don’t really believe him, because if you were announcing your last film at the age of fifty, wouldn’t you make something that felt like your last film, by virtue of its extremity or joy or despair or profundity or whatever it might be? Behind the Candelabra, a depiction of Liberace’s six-year late-in-life relationship with his much younger lover, is an entertaining project, but there are a million semi-forgotten stories in the dusty archives of popular culture, and this is merely one of them; you can react to the material and its historical resonance, but as a piece of filmmaking, it’s less stimulating than most of Soderbergh’s recent work.
It may be less notable for itself than as a measure of changing times. Soderbergh has been talking in interviews about how he tried and failed for years to get financing for the project as a theatrical release (“the consensus was that there would be no audience for the movie outside of a gay audience”); eventually it came to the attention of HBO, which immediately said yes (although it’s now on cable in North America, it’s being released as a movie movie elsewhere, and it was even part of the competition at the recent Cannes festival). I don’t think this necessarily marks HBO as being morally or culturally superior – it’s a different business model (driven by customers’ continued interest in subscribing for the channel as a whole, rather than enticing them into buying one experience at a time) in which the “edginess” and “risk-taking” is inherent to the branding. But it’s certainly another indication of how it’s increasingly meaningless to address the mainstream film industry as anything other than a commercial enterprise.
Another evolutionary marker: Michael Douglas and Matt Damon play gay characters with a straightforward commitment that’s remarkable only for no longer being remarkable; even ten years ago, such choices would have been discussion points in themselves, and twenty years ago (the year Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia, although his performance now seems timid by comparison) they would have been commemorated as profiles in courage. On the other hand, every viewer of the film knows that these are two iconic stars, comfortably (in Douglas’ history-of-sex-addiction/glamorous-trophy-wife- adorned case, even strenuously) established as not being gay: the movie is plainly an expedition from the outside into gay history, not a report from within it.
The same story
Also, the truth of this history seems blunted in at least one key respect. The film starts in 1977, when a friend introduces the wide-eyed Scott Thorson, who has vague dreams of becoming a veterinarian, to the famous and glamorous piano player, one of the kings of Las Vegas, who maintains an image of outrageous campiness and yet insists for public consumption that he just hasn’t found the right woman yet, and that ice skater Sonia Henie was the lost love of his life. Behind the candelabras and the spotlights though, it’s all out in the open, and Thorson’s soon installed as the latest in a long line of disposable boyfriends (where he sets a record by lasting four years). The thing I think is blunted is this: Thorson was 18 in 1977, 48 years younger than Liberace; Matt Damon is currently 42, which is 26 years younger than Douglas. No matter how good he looks, this casting decision imposes an undertone of at least relatively greater equality of desire and experience, and although the sex scenes between the two are as frank as you’d usually need them to be, they don’t convey the clashing physicality of a teenager and a man pushing sixty.
On this point, Soderbergh said in an interview: “The dynamic of the relationship that he had with Scott was very volatile, but it’d be the same story no matter what the gender: Older powerful figure, younger beautiful person with no power…” But this seems disingenuous, in that much of the movie’s interest comes from its depiction of a very specific gay culture, intertwined with but largely hidden in the folds of showbiz, where a man like Liberace – through the combined forces of money and willpower - is able to develop and sustain apparently enormous appetites, serviced and protected by circles of enablers. Liberace was also one of the first celebrity victims of AIDS (although his retinue, including his physician, initially lied about it) and so constitutes a complex transitional figure – this is in the movie, but really just as a brief postscript, less central to its overall effect than a fantasy scenario in which Thorson drifts away during the funeral, to imagine one last show-stopping performance. All in all, although the movie may have been too gay for the studios, I think you can easily argue that the movie would have constituted a much more piercing historical investigation if it were gayer.
Soderbergh seems most engaged during the passages dealing with plastic surgery, in which the neurotic star first touches himself up, then decides Thorson would also be enhanced by becoming a Liberace replica; Rob Lowe’s performance as a doctor who provides a walking cautionary billboard for the perils of his trade pushes the film into surreal territory (contrasting sharply with the naturalism of others in the supporting cast, including Dan Aykroyd and Debbie Reynolds). But again, I’m not sure the film really tries to make us feel the reality of what’s happening there, of a teenager manipulated into altering his features to satisfy a much older man’s sexual circuitry. My point isn’t that Soderbergh should have presented this as a stops-out episode of abuse (I don’t know whether it’s that or not) – plainly, plenty of people defend plastic surgery as an exercise in self-expression and self-determination, whereas others argue it’s driven much more by misplaced societal preoccupation with appearances, but as presented here it’s little more than, say, quirky. The point about appearances might seem to have some correlation with Liberace’s emphasis, both personally and professionally, on opulence and spectacle, and more broadly with out of control consumerism, but the movie doesn’t pursue that line of investigation either.
Anyway, it goes down very easily, executed with all the director’s customary skill, and Douglas manages to convey something of Liberace’s inner life, and external charisma, without posturing or falling into caricature. But in an inversion of how (according to one source) Oscar Levant said something to the effect that if you strip the phony tinsel off Hollywood, you just find real tinsel underneath, it feels at times as if Behind the Candelabra, once it goes behind the candelabra, just finds a bunch of other, sadder-looking candelabras, which it then doesn’t bother peering behind.