Recently, HBO has carved out a niche of deceptively promoting biographical accounts of famous figures. The deception comes from portraying relationships and events surrounding the subject, rather than digging into the depths of the actual being.
In March, Al Pacino gave a stellar performance as the controversial and outlandish Phil Spector. Considered a genius and an innovator, the once celebrated producer faced murder charges and life behind bars. This man’s career, a horrendous fall from grace, would have made for a fantastically compelling story. Instead, we saw a focus on a team of lawyers who had hard evidence that, although washed-up and delusional, the guy was innocent.
Similarly, in HBO’s most recent film, Behind the Candelabra, the fascinating career of famed piano player Liberace takes a back seat to a brief relationship that inevitably ends in bitterness and resentment. Behind the Candelabra revolves around Liberace’s brief love affair with a man 40 years his junior. Taking place in the late 1970s, Liberace was by now a world-renowned entertainer. Famous for his outrageous outfits and flamboyant demeanor as much as his brilliant piano playing, the wealthy performer meets the young and vulnerable Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). A romance ensues, as Liberace (Michael Douglas) showers his latest squeeze with clothes, jewelry, money and a more importantly, a means of living. However, like many of Liberace’s countless number of lovers, the relationship begins to sour. His fame and charisma naturally attract anyone around him, but eventually becomes dull and stale for a man who lived for excess. Unfortunately, the film only showed glimpses of Liberace’s storied tale, instead choosing to depict the six-year affair through the eyes of Thorson. It makes sense, as the film was based on Thorson’s memoire, Behind the Candelabra My Life with Liberace.
In reality, Thorson simply serves as just one of Liberace’s numerous conquests; a young man who gives an aging and lonely celebrity affection in exchange for financial security. We receive an inclination of where Liberace stands in his career, but not how he got there.
Without a doubt, the film’s shinning savior belonged to the stellar acting. I couldn’t wait to see how Douglas would attack this courageous and challenging role. As an actor known for his masculine and authoritative characters (Wall Street, The American President, A Perfect Murder), Douglas brilliantly transformed himself and spread his creative scope wider than I’ve ever seen in his nearly 50-year career. Douglass absolutely dazzles, perfectly capturing the lavishing charm of a man who delighted audiences for five decades. Damon is equally superb as Thorson, showing us a lost spirit who gets sucked into a life of luxury and glamour.
The film entertains as well as one would imagine regarding a story of Liberace. And yet, most of the man’s captivating life and origins of his remarkable persona remained untold. Towards the conclusion, we hear Liberace utter the words, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” I couldn’t agree more. I just wish the movie echoed that sentiment. 3/5 Stars.
Behind the Candelabra is currently available on-demand from HBO