Friday, January 17, 2014

DVD of the Week: Behind the Candelabra

For a time Behind the Candelabra felt like it could be overshadowed by the strange story of its journey to screen. A biopic set in the later years of famous pianist and entertainer Liberace, and centred on his relationship with Scott Thorson, it doesn't sound too contentious, and a shoo in for an interesting film. After all, to modern eyes of course Liberace was gay, but was fiercely protective of the truth coming out and that conflict, as well as the "Sunset Boulevard" tone of a fading star, well that just sounds great, right? Well yes, apart from the "being gay" bit. It seems that big studios weren't interested in funding what they though was a "niche" film, and in the end it was made with money HBO, and never released in US cinemas. Big Gay Epics being more "European", I guess, it did hit the big screen here though, which I guess is (non-HBO subscribing) America's loss.

And what a loss it turns out to be. Directed by Stephen Soderburgh, and staring Micheal Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and Thorson, Behind the Candelabra is a real triumph. It's really more Thorson's story than Liberaces, starting with his life as an animal trainer and part-time member of the California gay scene, he's introduced to Liberace and quickly becomes his latest young paramour. From there it's a strange, down-the-rabbit-hole journey of excess, drugs, plastic surgery and, ultimately, Liberace's tragic death from HIV/AIDS. Which sounds very dark, but the tone of it is actually pretty funny all the way through, which suits the counterpoint between Liberaces public ladies man persona and his private life.

Micheal Douglas has stolen a lot of plaudits with his portrayal here, and it's not surprising. It's one of those roles where the actor just vanishes into his performance, by turns charming, and sad, and menacing and then sad again. He cuts a lonely figure, desperate to be loved, but also desperate to maintain control over those around him. His showering of gifts that he can then take back on a whim is the perfect example, as is the passive aggressive way he squeezes out those he's grown tired of. Damon's take on Thorson makes him the perfect foil, someone who cares, but doesn't really understand, the relationship that he's found himself in.

In the end, Behind the Candelabra works because it invests you in the characters and their relationship, and thats got nothing to do with their sexuality or time period, or how many Rhinestones they're wearing. It's a "time and place" movie; in many ways the passing of an era, when things were different in so many ways than they are now. It's got great central performances and a stellar supporting cast - Rob Lowe is an awesome grotesque plastic surgeon - and I'm glad that even if it didn't get a wider release it reputation is preceding it and it means more people will now see it.