On the surface, Behind the Candelabra is the perfect HBO movie.
It has a gleaming creative pedigree, led by superstar director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike) and uber-producer Jerry Weintraub.
It has a scandalous story with a new look at an old time, exploring the relationship of closeted, pop-classical pianist Liberace with house husband Scott Thorson in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
And it has bravura performances from film stars Matt Damon as a hunky, often bewildered Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace himself, letting his middle-aged paunch show in an explicit depiction of a sex and drug-laced relationship that puts a new, jarring vision of the easy listening pop culture icon onscreen.
But what this movie doesn’t really have is the most important element of all: insight.
Like Liberace’s sequin- and special effects-filled Las Vegas shows, Behind the Candelabra is a showy, star-filled vehicle with little depth, dazzling with minutely detailed characterizations that ultimately lead nowhere.
In part, I blame the source material: Thorson’s tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. Because that book tells the story of their relationship from Thorson’s point of view, too much is automatically excluded from HBO’s story, focused on their five-year romance.
How did Liberace handle his rise to showbiz fame as a closeted gay man? How did he stumble on the odd collision of gaudy glamour and old school showmanship that made him such a huge star (inspiring everyone from Elton John to Lady Gaga)? Why don’t his middlebrow fans — as a porn star mustachioed Scott Bakula notes at the film’s start — guess what seems blindingly obvious now, that Liberace was a man who loved men?
Instead, we see a wide-eyed Thorson picked up by Bakula’s Bob Black in a Los Angeles bar and later brought to meet “Lee” backstage after one of his Las Vegas shows. Later, we learn that Black seems to act as a procurer for the wealthy pianist, bringing young men to the performer for a life where they are lavished with affection, gifts and a job – until the star loses interest and finds someone new.
Thorson was different. He gets Lee to fire an insulting houseboy, amid talk that he would be included in the star’s will or might be adopted as his son. He undergoes plastic surgery to look more like Liberace while getting hooked on a mix of drugs originally aimed at keeping his weight down.
Still, Damon’s Thorson is a maddeningly passive character who mostly finds things happening to him. His drug habit gets the blame for most of his bad choices here.
A recent New York Times story revealed Thorson sitting in a jail in Reno, Nev., after pleading guilty to burglary and identity theft charges. In the piece, even his adopted father and manager says, “his approach to communicating with people is always to play it in a manner that reflects best on him.” His post-Liberace history includes going into witness protection after testifying against a drug dealer depicted in Candelabra in a murder trial.
That story would have been a much more revealing movie. But HBO’s film gives little hint that Thorson could be capable of such activities, leaving the feel of a whitewash.
What does work here is the quality of supporting performances, from Dan Aykroyd as the gruff, Foster Grant-wearing manager Seymour Heller; Debbie Reynolds, barely recognizable under a load of prosthetics as his Polish mother Frances; Rob Lowe, reptilian and oblivious as ethically-challenged plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz; and Paul Reiser in a blink-and-you-miss-it role as Thorson’s attorney.
In fact, almost all of these performances are throwaway roles, given bits and pieces of scenes throughout the movie hardly worthy of the talent at hand.
Douglas offers a fearless take, revealing Liberace without his prized toupees and working the piano in ways that make it seem as if the actor is an accomplished musician in his own right.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to salvage a film that mostly plays as a sordid look in the closet of a long dead pop culture icon.
TiVo or TiNO?
Goodwin Games, debuts at 8:30 tonighton WTVT-Ch. 13. You may find yourself really rooting for this Fox series, featuring three wildly different and dysfunctional siblings competing for their dead dad’s fortune, despite the stink of summer burn-off filling every frame. Beau Bridges is the dead dad, appearing to his kids via an eccentric series of videos recorded before his death. Scott Foley is a type A doctor, Becki Newton is his airhead actress sister, and T.J. Miller channels a watered-down Jack Black as their delinquent black sheep of a brother. Dad is obviously trying to teach them a Very Special Lesson from the grave, forcing his kids to complete Trivial Pursuit games and take pictures together as steps toward winning $ 23 million. But the only question left after a well-meaning but predictable pilot, is whether you’ll ditch the competition before they do. I suggest you move first. TiNO.