Behind the Candelabra: adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the non-fiction book by Alex Thorleifson and Scott Thorson; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Matt Damon (Scott Thorson), Michael Douglas (Liberace), Rob Lowe (Dr. Jack Startz), Dan Aykroyd (Seymour Heller), Scott Bakula (Bob Black) and Debbie Reynolds (Frances Liberace) (2013): Enjoyable but slight HBO outing by Soderbergh which features a fairly stunning bit of acting by Michael Douglas as Liberace. Soderbergh says he couldn’t get funding for this picture from movie studios because it was too gay, hence its production by HBO.
But as even I only vaguely remember Liberace as a performer, probably from The Muppet Show in the 1970’s, I wonder if the studio redlight on this production was also a result of executives wondering if anyone in the younger movie-going populace would have the faintest idea who Michael Douglas was playing. Brokeback Mountain this isn’t. The love story here is pretty creepy, as Liberace gets Thorson to undergo plastic surgery so as to look more like a young Liberace. Eww.
Douglas pretty much nails Liberace’s voice, though the pitch is a bit lower than I remember it. Damon is perfectly adequate as Liberace’s late-in-life love Scott Thorson, whose book the movie is based on. I’m not sure why Soderbergh didn’t do more with lighting values, as he’s done on so many other films: this seems like a movie that needs to look much more stylized, but except for a few oversaturated scenes, it’s actually about as conventionally photographed and edited as a movie of the week. As the film’s major intertext is Sunset Blvd., black-and-white photography might have been nice. But I think we’re supposed to feel much more sympathy for Liberace than we do for Norma Desmond, and I can’t say as I felt it. It’s like being asked to feel sorry for a Dick Tracy villain.
Rob Lowe, though. Holy Moley! His plastic surgeon character actually looked worse than the filmmakers have Lowe made up here. He looks like he got caught in a face-stretching machine from Brazil or possibly Star Trek: Insurrection. In any case, I’d guess that Douglas is a mortal lock for a least a best acting nomination in next year’s Emmys. Recommended.