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Behind the Candelabra - Film Review

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by Richard Leathem (subscribe)
Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published July 23rd 2013
Douglas and Damon as you've never seen them before
Director: Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean's Eleven)
Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds

The private life of Liberace probably isn't something you've been waiting your whole life to see, but given the chance to see him portrayed by Michael Douglas with Matt Damon playing his boyfriend, admit it, you're curious.

behind the candelabra liberace michael douglas
Michael Douglas as Liberace in all his finery

This could've easily been a shallow exercise in kitsch, but with the assured hand of Steven Soderbergh behind the helm, we thankfully get a whole lot more. He delivers an impressive balance of pathos, intimate humour and of course, camp - this is Liberace after all. He displays the garishness of Liberace's lifestyle without ever de-humanising him or taking cheap shots.

The real talking point though remains the pitch perfect performances of Douglas and Damon. Even in the most outrageous situations (and costumes) they play it straight, so to speak, giving their exchanges maximum impact. Douglas shows glimpses of vulnerability beneath the flashy surface, and Damon conveys an overwhelming array of conflicting emotions at being both a kid in a candy store and a man trapped in an unfulfilling relationship. Both actors throw themselves into their roles with a complete lack of vanity and have an easy physical chemistry on screen.

behind the candelabra liberace michael douglas matt damon
Liberace (Douglas) with his main squeeze, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon)

Another of the film's great assets is the extraordinary make-up used to highlight the dramatic physical transformations taken by the two lead characters.

Behind the Candelabra says as much about a certain era as it does about the be-jewelled showman. The film starts with the hedonistic disco days of 1977 and concludes in 1986 when closeted celebrities like Rock Hudson became the unwilling face of the AIDS epidemic. It was a time when to be openly gay was career suicide. Even for someone as camp as Liberace, there was always a large percentage of the population who just didn't believe anyone was really gay.

Throughout it all, Liberace is depicted as an essentially decent guy with a weakness for young men and enormous vanity. Considering the story is based on the memoirs of Damon's Scott Thorson, his character comes across as refreshingly flawed - not so much a victim as a well-raised young man who handles his new found lifestyle irresponsibly.

behind the candelabra rob lowe
Rob Lowe as the most plastic of plastic surgeons, Jack Startz

This HBO production was originally made for U.S. television and was deemed "too gay" to be released in cinemas. Due to the universally positive reaction to the final product, the film has deservedly gained a theatrical release outside of the U.S. and has already proved a huge success in the U.K.

Like its subject, Behind the Candelbra is first and foremost about entertainment, and in this respect, it passes with flying, gaudy colours.

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Why? Michael Douglas and Matt Damon shine
Where: At selected cinemas
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