The Politics and Private Lives of Steven Soderbergh's 'Behind the Candelabra'


Liberace offered the public, in his words, "classical music with the boring parts left out." Showy abbreviations of Liszt and Gershwin gave those who knew nothing about classical music the ability to appreciate almost objective technical panache: multi-octave ascents and descents, hands and fingers bounding high (necessary to keep his rings from hitting the keys). Liberace built his first celebrity worthy mansion in 1953, one year before Arturo Toscanini (whose radio NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts were popular on a mass scale impossible to imagine now) left the airwaves, and offered a less demanding replacement.

Throughout his career, the image of "Mr. Showmanship" was cultivated with heavy-handed emphasis on the pieties of the folks back home. In his 1957 best-seller "The Hidden Persuaders," journalist Vance Packard noted how, on the air, "his real-life mom is frequently flashed on screen, beaming in her rocking chair or divan while her son performs" (an image he sinisterly attributed to promoters using "Oedipal symbolism [!] in selling him to women past the child-bearing age"). Soderbergh's barely interested in the musical reasons for Liberace's appeal, instead honing on the non-musical aspects of his public and private lives. His opening recreation of the late '70s stage show is a reasonable cross-section of Liberace's most famous monologue, audience interaction and performance tics. The rest of "Behind The Candelabra" is on his life as a gay man in a largely homophobic American social landscape, beginning in pre-AIDS 1977 and ends a decade later with Liberace's death from the disease, his life a distorted mirror to larger changes in gay social life.

Though keeping the narrative to the last decade of Liberace's life, Richard LaGravenese's script fulfills the standard functions of a biopic in outlining its subject's entire history and psychoanalyzing how that in turn affected his cultural impact. We're led to infer his maddeningly cold, money-obsessed mother (Debbie Reynolds) instilled both disciplined business acumen and a suffocating self-repression in public. The script also posits Liberace's that strong sex drive was channeled into exhibitionistic performances so obviously camp now that our instant audience identification surrogate is Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who disbelievingly observes he can't imagine how straight people like this. They don't know, his companion Bob Black (Scott Bakula) tells him before introducing him to Liberace (Michael Douglas), and that's more or less true: the performer won two separate libel lawsuits against papers that explicitly or implicitly called him gay in the '50s.

On one level, this is a straight-faced biopic that's fun for a while but always functions like a prototypical "TV movie" (a typically perverse genre assignment for Soderbergh). In this kind of film, a late-night phone call from a previously unheard-from relative can only mean tragic death. Thorson becomes Liberace's live-in boyfriend, but he's always aware he could be kicked out for a younger man. As in "The Informant!," the unreliable POV is Damon's and the arrangements are by Marvin Hamlisch, who scored the earlier film. Both soundtracks are heavy on frantic kitsch as delusional insulation (here, Damon grows increasingly pill-crazed, but his paranoia's never unjustified). The film exhumes Liberace's fundamentally fading cultural legacy to examine it through the lens of a toxic relationship undone by youth-fixated Hollywood (drug addiction and plastic surgery as effectively the same vice) and the prevailing homophobic climate, examining him primarily as a socially interesting figure rather than any kind of great performer.

One shot is a self-contained joke with little relation to the larger film. Liberace is flirting, as feared, with a younger dancer. Exuberant because he's been tapped to perform a suite of all the best score nominees for the 1981 Oscars, he mentions how he happy he is Jane Fonda's making a nice movie with her dad rather than shooting her political mouth off as usual, along with that horrible Ed Asner. This is basically what reading the comment boards is like (where the phrase "Hanoi Jane" is kept in currency). As Liberace blathers in the background about how actors should keep their (liberal) politics to themselves, the camera shifts its rack-focus gaze to Thorson quivering with rage in the foreground. The meta component is that Douglas is famously just as liberal as Damon (both also much-derided regulars on conservative comment boards), meaning the two characters are on the same page even as their characters are totally at odds. Such multi-tiered moments are rare: this is largely as straightforward as it appears, familiar material filmed with Soderbergh's usual lucid judgment of the best and fewest angles for every scene, no matter how tedious.

"Behind the Candelabra" premieres on HBO this Sunday.