Point and Counter Point:  Liberace’s Life In Front Of and Behind the Candelabra.

When I first heard that a biopic on Liberace was in the works, I was less than thrilled.   And when I finally saw the glitzy trailers for the film, I shook my head in bewilderment. Seriously, who cares about the life of a long-dead, pop-culture icon who hid in the closet all this life?  And while the gay community has made great progress in their quest for acceptance and equality, a film extolling the life of a pathetic, old queen would set the movement back a decade or so.  I expected it to be prurient if not downright sordid.  I was absolutely mistaken about the latter and delightfully satisfied on the former.

Behind the Candelabra is not a biopic.  Although the story revolves around the life of Liberace, the film is more than that.  It is a love story that encompasses universal themes with a surrealistic twist.   It is well crafted by Steven Soderbergh, a veteran director with such films as Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven under his belt.  And although Soderbergh describes the work as “Alice going down the rabbit hole,” it is a surprisingly strong film with convincing performances and a tender, yet out-of-the-box, point of view.

The film opens in an LA bar with Donna Summer’s quintessentially 70s sex anthem “Love to Love you, Baby” blaring in the background.  Matt Damon, here as Liberace’s young lover-du-jour Scott Thorson, spots his “macho, macho man” across a crowded room on this some enchanted evening.  Although Damon portrays the typical gay-blond bombshell, he does so without being stereotypically Village People.  Once the two hook up, Thorson falls down the rabbit hole and is transported to the surreal world of glitz and glamour inhabited by Liberace.  Damon is a wide-eyed kid in this candy store; and he is seduced by all the treats.  But you know this world is unreal.  And it won’t be long before its time for a seat in the dentist’s chair.

Two of Hollywood’s big-name alpha males – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – play the lead roles delivering strong and convincing performances.  It would have been easy to portray the over-the-top flamboyance of Liberace in high camp theatricality.  But not here.  Douglas is restrained, measured, and deliberate.  His Liberace straddles both sides of the male persona.   Douglas goes from being tender lover and father-protector to the excessive, power-hungry controlling tyrant driven to an addiction for acquisition:  homes, jewelry, dogs, new lovers, and all things Louis Quinze.

Damon’s Thorson is both a quintessential 70’s male hooker and passive disco diva.  All through the film, he is dazed and awestruck by his surroundings.  As Liberace’s latest boy-toy, he basks in the glow of rococo excess.  And he is bewildered and confused when Liberace — moving on to the next conquest – tragically, and predictably, takes everything away.  Always, Thorson seems to be a man to whom things happen.  He is not a figure who takes control of his surroundings but rather is controlled by them.  This passivity is quite surprising in as much as the movie is based on a book written by Thorson who is hell-bent on casting himself in the best possible light.

In contrast to the one-sided take of Thorson’s book, Soderbergh’s film provides Thorson with depth and dimension.  He is more than a victim.  He actively plays into his victimhood.  Soderberg shows Thorson as actively doing nothing to improve his life or circumstance.  Instead of taking full advantage of his relationship with Liberace, Thorson lives in, and for, the moment.  He piddles away the opportunity to make something of himself beyond the rentboy persona.  It brings new meaning to the old Freddy Fender song “Wasted days and wasted nights.”   At the end, all he ends up with is another diet, addiction, a new face and a paltry $75K.

The supporting cast members are equally effective as the leads.  The standout here is, unquestionably, Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz.  His face is wonderfully plastic and his acting sublime.  Scott Bakula is Liberace’s mustachioed procurer; Dan Aykroyd is his Foster-Grant-wearing manager/henchman; and Debbie Reynolds is Liberace’s prosthesized-up-the-ying-yang, Polish mother.  All submit strong performances despite brief appearances in almost cameo roles.  None of the supporting actors distracts from the focus on the two tragic lovers whose end comes as expectedly as any Shakespearean tragedy.

To convey that 70s and early 80s look and feel, Soderberg seems to have used old-fashioned film in lieu of going “straight” digital.  The movie is bracketed by what appears as grainy home movies.  It opens with the LA bar scene and 17-year-old Thorson at his outlying rural foster home.  It ends with the melodramatic flourish of Liberace’s death in Palm Springs and the resulting saga over the Riverside County coroner’s attempts to autopsy the body despite the  family’s efforts to keep his AIDS-related cause of death from public view.  The conflict is told via newsreel storytelling straight out of Orson Well’s Citizen Kane.

In between, we are taken on a trip to wonderland.  Like riding in a monorail, we are shuttled between houses in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Palm Springs.  We enter rooms upon rooms replete with white painted pianos, crystal chandeliers and gold-gilt furniture.  The journey is a magical mystery tour into a bizarre world inhabited by two larger than life figures beset with very ordinary problems.  Like everyone else, they face issues of money and power; attraction and rejection; youth and old age; addiction and dysfunction; life and death.  And weaving through it all, is the all-too-common story of “the next new thing; the next big fix.”  I guess in the end, the grass is always greener on the other side.  And what we have is never enough.

Soderberg weaves a morality tale where choices have consequences and people get exactly what they deserve.  In this movie, the consequences are cruel but quite sober and sensible.  There are neither suicides nor any type of saccharine sentimentality.   And while the pathos could be deliciously comedic – especially on a story about the avatar of kitsch when punctuated with high camp – Soderbergh is refreshingly restrained.  He tells his story with a firm grip and a cautioned mannerism.

The religious references are refreshingly original especially when conveyed by a man trapped by his time. Candelabra’s Liberace seems to find solace in God’s acceptance of his genius and his gospel of entertainment and “making people feel good.”  After all, he was spared from death by God and told to return to life by “the nun in white.”  All the while, his mother’s Catholic guilt and the social taboos of the time kept Liberace unable to express his true feeling and without restraint except on stage.  It is as if, for Liberace, the theatre was his church and the stage his confessional.  The theatrical quality of the church is also visually presented by Soderberg via the point of view of Thorson, who morphs Liberace’s funeral mass into a big-budget Las Vegas act of glitz and glam, liturgy and ritual.

These religious references, however, fail to reconcile Liberace’s acceptance of his rise to fame despite being a closeted, gay man.  The movie also fails to answer how Liberace stumbled on, or was able to fuse, Las Vegas-style glamor with vaudeville showmanship.  And finally, the movie left me wondering if his fans were, indeed, so naïve as to be oblivious to what Scott Bakula’s character describes in the opening scene as Liberace’s “blindingly obvious” sexuality.  Or, as in true “camp,” were they always in on the joke?

On stage – and in front of the candelabra – Liberace lived a life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams.  But behind the glitz and the  glamour, we glimpse the flawed, all-too-human and imperfect everyman who is uncomfortable in his skin, seeking miracles from plastic surgery and sexual hedonism.  He is not a hero or anti-hero; victim or victimizer; predator or prey.  He is all and neither.  Liberace’s life is heroic because he was able to achieve much despite the odds.  But his real life was lived in darkness cast by the shadow of the lights behind the candelabra.

Which brings me to compare this film with that other big-budget, glitzy summer blockbuster, The Great Gatsby.  The two are great companion pieces in theme and in cinematic expression.  Both deal with broad issues:  the illusive nature of dreams; the ambivalence of gender roles; and the role of money and resources with respect to power and control in Western society.  The two stories are both set during two pivotal periods of the 20th century:  the roaring twenties (post WWI and pre-Great Depression) and the hedonistic seventies (post-Vietnam and pre-Reagan excess).  And in both movies, the protagonists are reckless people lacking moral backbones.  And all are damaged children looking for acceptance, forgiveness and love.  But then again, aren’t we all?

As Liberace once said:  “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”   Soderberg plays it straight and hits near the bulls eye.   Baz Luhrmann camps it up and misses the mark.

Grade B+

Review by Armin Callo