Published on July 2nd, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Behind the Candelabra 
Summary: At a shade under two hours, this Liberace biopic drags in spots but is impeccably acted by its two leads. It's hard to believe this one wasn't released to theaters.
NR | 118 min.
Director: Steven Soderbergh | Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese (Based on Scott Thorson & Alex Thorleifson’s memoir)
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon
Studio: HBO Films | Network: HBO | Air Date: May 26, 2013
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” That quote attributed to Liberace, is uttered by Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra and is also printed on the movie’s poster. According to how the famously flamboyant pianist is portrayed in this picture, it seems to sum his views up well.
In Steven Soderbergh’s latest, the director proves he’s still one of the best at pulling great performances from a-list talent. Like Matthew McConaughey in his 2012 film Magic Mike, or Benicio del Toro in Traffic before that–Douglas is flawless in Behind the Candelabra. After a battle with stage IV throat cancer in the last few years, it felt like he’s been waiting to get back onscreen and impress. There are times in this film where you don’t realize you’re watching Michael Douglas–thanks to heavy makeup & hair effects, a thick accent, and countless garish costumes. However, the attitude that he’s famous for bringing to the screen is there in every scene.
His co-star is Matt Damon, who plays Liberace’s longtime lover Scott Thorson. Thorson’s memoir is the credited source for the film’s narrative, meaning he’s the audience’s sympathetic lead. Damon is equally strong in his role, diving head-first into this character who gives up everything he’s held important for a shot at wealth, spotlight, and love with an egotistical star. We feel badly for Thorson as he sees himself literally being transformed by Lee (as he calls Liberace) into a glam version of Frankenstein’s monster.
Watching Damon and Douglas, two of Hollywood’s most established leading men and bonafide sex symbols, carry on a complicated relationship doesn’t feel forced. It’s nothing new for straight actors to “play gay” in the post-Brokeback Mountain era but stars of this magnitude being this physical on the small screen is unprecedented. If Behind the Candelabra opened in theaters with these two actors, this director, and a ton of buzz about their unflinching performances as lovers–this film could easily have opened in the top three at the box office.
It’s sad that in 2013, a year where many obstacles facing gay rights have been cleared, Hollywood studios are still turning down movies that are “too gay”. Instead, HBO reaps the benefits by electing to produce and air Behind the Candelabra to a reported 2.4 million viewers on its premiere night–compare those numbers to Phil Spector‘s 754,000 and it shows the widespread interest in this picture.
The film’s supporting cast includes Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, Paul Reiser, and an unrecognizable Rob Lowe as a character who epitomizes plastic surgery gone awry. Most of these actors, however, only have a quick scene or two, as this is certainly a picture about the leads. The hair, makeup, and yellowish tint to Behind the Candelabra are effective in taking us to the world of Vegas in the late-’70s/early-’80s where Liberace was a huge draw. It’s costume designer Ellen Mirojnick who should be a shoo-in come Emmy time, though. The multi-colored gowns worn by Douglas appear identical to the famous costumes Liberace wore onstage during that era.
Behind the Candelabra clocks in at just under two hours, and it feels like every bit of that. Plot-wise, not much happens in this movie–it’s essentially a romantic affair that plays out over the course of a decade, complete with fights and manipulation. If you’re interested in getting to know the pianist’s background, this movie provides little outside of recounted childhood memories and a frail depiction of his mother by the great Debbie Reynolds. From the first time you see him, Liberace is played as a generous but egotistical showman who uses people until he’s bored, which goes largely unchanged through the film.
Soderbergh remains one of my favorite working directors not only because of his tireless work ethic (he’s made nine films since 2008) but his dedication to strong acting. Behind the Candelabra is a likely favorite for several Emmys this year and with it, HBO continues to be the destination for daring, original pictures on the small screen.
And damn is it great to have Michael Douglas back and going for broke!