I'm not the biggest Steven Soderbergh's fan but I'll hand it to the guy - he has his own style. I enjoyed quite a lot of his movies, with Solaris sitting firmly in my top 20 of all time for a decade now. When Soderbergh announced his retirement plans and that Behind the Candelabra will be his last movie I did feel that cinema is losing something. His films are quite unique, elegant, subtle and interesting.
But as I watched Side Effects and now HBO's produced movie based on the love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson, I kept thinking that Soderbergh really can use a break. The truth is that he hasn't made truly great movie, at least for me, in years. His recent movies aren't terrible but they are utterly forgettable. So imagine my surprise when, deprived of new Game of Thrones episode last Sunday night, I sat down to watch much hyped Behind the Candelabra only to discover it is just as forgettable as Soderbergh's recent movies. If not more so.
The film tells the story of famous pianist and showman Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his relationship with much younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). We see Liberace perform on stage, audiences adoring him, him meeting Scott and proposing that Scott stays by his side as "his companion". Scott agrees and Liberace slowly starts controlling his life without Thorson putting much of a fight. There are smiles, joys, screams, tears and glitter. Unfortunately, the film itself is quite lifeless.
I may not always love Soderbergh's movies but I always thought he is the guy who can put an interesting spin on a genre - Solaris is not a typical science fiction film, Haywire puts a woman in the centre of kick ass scenes and shows her defeating bigger guys and Magic Mike is much too intelligent for a movie about male strippers. Yet Behind the Candelabra is nothing but formulaic biopic with cheesy ending on top of stale 2 hours.
While it is great that the movie doesn't take sides, despite being based on Thorson's book, at times I almost wish it did. Things get creepy here. Intensely creepy. For example - after talking in jacuzzi Scott and Liberace put on their robes. Then Scott is staring through the window. Liberace approaches him, startling him and telling him that they can share a bed and he won't touch him.
And then the next scene is Scott awaking, seeing Liberace with a smile on his face while he is giving Scott a hand job...Now, I can understand how someone with Scott's issues - he was raised in various foster homes, never really had a place in his life - could cling on to someone who reaches out. But that scene was just creepy. And I don't feel like Scott's personality, nature and needs nor Matt Damon's performance gave the audience enough to be left with more than one question - why the hell doesn't he run away?
Because the characters aren't well established it's really hard to care or even begin to understand all of that when it comes to their actions. Scott meets Liberace, he gives him money and gifts and Scott is prepared to do everything in return. To be completely honest neither of these two guys came off as likable to me, or even that interesting.
Based on that movie Liberace comes off as typical aging star obsessed with youth and appearance, afraid of loneliness. He actually seduced a teenager - as Scott was only seventeen when they met and Liberace was 40 years his senior. But age issue is not something I want to get into here, because it is not for me to decide where the line lies. Scott comes off as someone who is either so bland he doesn't care about his own identity or someone more cold than Liberace (who dispensed of his lovers when he grew tired of them, simply moving on to someone younger) - there was no passion in anything he did. He kept telling Liberace he was bisexual, it seemed that he was ashamed of his sexuality. Either it was supposed to be that or Damon just failed. He tried but neither does he carry this performance well nor does Soderbergh manage to direct him well enough.
Another huge problem was the cosmetic surgery issue. After some time Liberace actually asks his plastic surgeon to do surgeries on Scott to make him...look more like young Liberace. Scott is present in the room at the time of request and he just sits there. He doesn't protest, he doesn't do anything. Just sits there. It was beyond ridiculous.
I'm sure that is what actually happened as Thorson himself wrote the book the film is based on. But the movie didn't sell it to me. It didn't convince me. I didn't feel for Scott because I didn't have much reason to. Should I even feel for Scott? The goal of this movie remains unknown for me. Was it just about telling the story? If so, why this story?
My disenchantment with the movie grew the more I read about the actual people behind the story. Scott Thorson was actually a witness in Eddie Nash's trial - Nash and John Holmes, the porn actor and their criminal activities could make for far better movie than this (I have not seen Wonderland, which is apparently based on Holmes's life). Hell, the characters in Boogie Nights were based on these two.
And what about Dr Jack Startz? That's a fascinating character. Rob Lowe's caricature look and eerie way of playing him was actually the most memorable part of the movie for me. Lowe was creepy, but creepy in a good way, not like that scene I mentioned before. Creepy in "let's explore that darkness" kind of way.
I'd much rather see a movie about Startz. He was a famous plastic surgeon, but he was sloppy and unethical. He injected liquid silicone into his patients' faces. He botched many surgeries, silicone migrated, disfiguring the people he operated on. This is like straight from horror stories. The film left a bit of information about his incompetence - after Liberace's face lift he couldn't close his eyes completely.
While I did enjoy the effort of everyone involved, the film just lacked courage. The story is bold but the movie is not. It doesn't explore the issues that are presented here - the weird father/son/lover dynamics between two central figures, the question of one's identity, the pursuit of youth. It doesn't create characters interesting enough to make you think about those issues after seeing the film.
While the actors do a good job I can't say I was exactly in awe about anyone here. Damon didn't show anything that you wouldn't see in any other love-gone-bad-let's-do-drugs flick, Douglas was reduced to caricature through most of the movie and didn't really get to show much heart and charisma and Lowe...well, there was very little of him here.
The cinematography was very good. I really liked how the shots were composed, especially when Scott's life was falling apart. The details were all very fascinating and you definitely felt as if you were right there, in extravagant house in the 70's. Shame the movie itself was so ordinary and uninspired.
Apparently major theatrical studios didn't want to produce the movie because it was "too gay". To be completely honest, while it was odd seeing sex scenes here - because of the age difference between characters and actors - I don't think the film is more graphic than recent famous movies about homosexuals. But then it hit me - all of those big movies about gay people - Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, The Hours - are about people rejecting who they are. Here, though Liberace is hiding the fact he is gay, he never rejects it. Is Hollywood only comfortable with self-loathing gays?
I really enjoy HBO movies, but this one is one of the most forgettable out of those that I've seen. It's not as amazing as Grey Gardens, it doesn't have a single performance that comes close to Al Pacino in You Don't Know Jack, it's not as memorable as Temple Gardin and not as amazing in every way as Mildred Pierce. Soderbergh was supposed to go with a bang but all he gets from me is an unimpressed shrug.
Behind the Candelabra
(2013, 118 min)
Plot: Based on the autobiographical novel, the tempestuous 6-year relationship between Liberace and his (much younger) lover, Scott Thorson, is recounted.
Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Alex Thorleifson (book)
Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe