“Behind the Candelabra” debuts on HBO tonight with so many pre-packaged talking points, it’s a wonder a single film can support them all.
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has been laboring to bring a film about the late entertainer Liberace to the screen since working on 2000’s “Traffic” — when Michael Douglas slipped into an impromptu Liberace impression between takes and sparked Soderbergh’s artistic fire. Even though Douglas immediately agreed to play the role and Matt Damon quickly committed to playing Scott Thorson, Liberace’s lover and the author of a tell-all book about the relationship, Soderbergh couldn’t find a studio willing to finance and release a film on the right terms.
Eventually Soderbergh gave up on a theatrical release, “Candelabra” landed at artist-friendly HBO and the result — which Soderbergh has called his final feature film — was invited into the prestigious competition section of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received the sort of international attention (and upbeat reviews) most movies made for television would never dare to dream of.
Of course one of the central themes in “Candelabra” is dreaming — and doing — big things. Liberace’s legendary status as an entertainer is synonymous with words like “flamboyant” and “flair.” He was a precursor to Madonna and Lady Gaga, but also a classically trained, undeniably talented pianist. He knew how to deliver an unforgettable show, and he had the talent to back it up.
The same can be said of Soderbergh at his best, but his recent work has grown cold and overly controlled. Lately, in films like “Magic Mike,” “Haywire,” “Side Effects” and “Contagion,” Soderbergh’s technical proficiency has far outstripped his ability to sculpt engaging narratives and complex, multidimensional characters.
That makes “Candelabra” something of a throwback. It’s not surprising that the idea originated in the director’s “Traffic” heyday, and it’s his strongest and most entertaining film since 2009’s “The Informant!” — which also starred Damon.
While “Candelabra” is stocked with familiar faces and terrific actors doing their part to bring Liberace’s idiosyncratic world to life (especially Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s dear old mother and Rob Lowe as his plastic surgeon, both unrecognizable examples of the film’s consistently impressive makeup work), the movie belongs entirely to Douglas and Damon. The story is Thorson’s — who was only 17 when he moved in with Liberace, almost 40 years Thorson’s senior — and Damon nails a starry-eyed young man’s journey from naive eagerness to please to a drug-addicted empty vessel desperately clinging to his lover’s coattails.
But the star turn comes from Douglas, who gives his first great performance of the decade and continues the run of sterling screen work he’s delivered since the 1970s. Miraculously avoiding caricature and only going as camp as necessary, Douglas makes Liberace something of a sympathetic monster. A calculating predator who — perhaps out of guilt, shame or societal pressures — creates a larger-than-life persona to conceal his most intimate truths.
“Candelabra” is more horror show than love story — even if Damon’s casting undercuts the more uncomfortable reality of Thorson’s age at the beginning of this five-year relationship — but Soderbergh and his stars leave the judgments up to the audience. Even when Liberace decides he wanted to legally adopt Thorson and demands his young lover get plastic surgery to look more like Liberace (!), the script by Richard LaGravenese (an Oscar nominee for “The Fisher King”) doesn’t overplay the exploitation angle and the direction and performances never descend into “Can you believe we’re doing this?” immaturity. Whether they’re in bed, in the bath or bantering in lovers quarrels, Damon and Douglas play the relationship — no pun intended — completely straight.
And yet as inspired as the performances are and as fully realized as the world is, traces of Soderbergh’s recent weaknesses remain. For all the insight into Liberace’s private life, there’s very little insight into the man himself. The overall arc is typical of doomed love stories and tales of innocence corrupted (it’s eerily similar at times to the recent FDR bio-pic dud “Hyde Park on Hudson,” albeit far better crafted and acted), and there’s a sense that there’s not quite enough on screen to support two hour running time.
But compared to recent dismal HBO efforts like “Phil Spector” and “Game Change,” “Candelabra” is flat-out exceptional. Douglas and Damon deserve whatever laurels they have coming their way. And HBO likely made a wise choice in cozying up to Soderbergh as he transitions out of feature films. If he takes a shot at a limited or ongoing series (as he has hinted), this undeniably talented filmmaker could find a reawakened passion for giving his audience an unforgettable show.