“Too gay for Hollywood.”
That was the descriptor given to Behind the Candelabra, a film that bounced around from studio to studio trying to find a home. Eventually it landed at HBO, and the channel might have had its first Oscar nominated feature.
If that was allowed.
But old institutions don’t like change, and a movie that comes out first on TV instead of in theaters isn’t allowed to compete for such awards, no matter if Steven Soderbergh, Matt Damon and Michael Douglas are all on board.
And yes, Douglas and Damon’s performances of Liberace and his lover are of the caliber that would indeed draw such nominations, but they’ll have to be content with a job well done and a few Emmys instead.
Michael Douglas is *fabulous* as Liberace, at the height of his fame when the film opens in the late ’70s. His fast fingers catch the eye of Damon’s Scott Thorson, a midwestern animal trainer who in turn catches Liberace’s eye when he’s invited backstage after the show.
Things move quickly and in almost no time at all, Scott is Liberace’s live-in boyfriend slash personal assistant. Emphasis on the “ass.” Originally wary of the much older man, Scott eventually comes to love him, but the result is one of the weirdest, strangest love stories ever put to film.
Liberace is reminiscent of Michael Jackson in many ways, and not just for an apparent fondness for young boys. Rather, he’s a man with so much talent and so much money he’s completely isolated from the rest of the world. He does love Scott, but doesn’t know any better than to treat him like an object, and eventually tries to make his boyfriend an monument to his own ego.
When Liberace wants to get some plastic surgery done, he consults with his surgeon (a show stealing performance by Rob Lowe) in order to try and get Scott to look more like him when he was younger. Later, things get even stranger when Liberace begins to talk about legally adopting Scott as a way to become close to him and make sure he’s taken care of if he dies. Some may view this as “the depravity of the gays,” other may think of it as a somewhat logical legal solution in a world that doesn’t recognize gay marriage.
Liberace is supposed to be the bad guy in all this, and he is about two steps away from insanity at any given time, as anyone who spends $300,000 on a coat tends to be. He is also unfaithful and incredibly addicted to pornography, and when his and Scott’s relationship turns south, the claws come out.
Not that Scott is blameless in all this. He did essentially agree to be Liberace’s man-slave, and his cries about “this isn’t what he wanted” don’t really hold water when he’s been sleeping with the man in exchange for gifts for the better part of a decade. On top of it all, he ends up becoming a hardcore drug addict, which is his crutch to bear, even if it was an indirect result of his relationship with Liberace.
Both Damon and Douglas’s performances are stellar, with Douglas in particular going way outside of his comfort zone to inhabit the Willy Wonka-esque mind of Liberace. The film is less impressive than the performances it contains, and can often drag at times. And really, when you strip away the glittering jewels and the Damon-on-Douglas love scenes, it’s a rather rudimentary story about a love/hate relationship like we’ve seen dozens of times before. Just because the characters are famous and bizarre doesn’t inherently make it interesting.
This lacks the emotional and philosophical weight of something like HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack or the political thrill of Recount. Rather, it’s essentially the mirror image of a film like Blue Valentine about a crumbling relationship. But instead of focusing on poor trailer trash, it’s about one of the most lavish entertainers in the world.
It’s worth watching for the performances of Damon and Douglas alone as each really stretches their range. And between this film, Side Effects, Magic Mike, Haywire and Contagion within the last two or three years, it might be time for director Soderbergh to take it easy for a while.
3.5 out of 5 stars