Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra

  • With recognizable actors aplenty and a star director, Behind the Candelabra has the ingredients to be quality filmmaking. But it fails.
  • Start with casting Matt Damon, a terrific actor, one capable of generating emotion, but also one twenty years too old for the part. When the real life Scott Thorsen (Damon) met Liberace (Michael Douglas), he was seventeen years old, a fact that is vitally important to understanding his decisions. Also a fact Director Steven Soderbergh’s movie fails to capture, by virtue of casting.
  • Let me be clear: Matt Damon is not bad in this film. Quite the opposite, in fact. His performance is the best part of the movie; the problem is that Damon can’t overcome being miscast to play a teenager. He doesn’t have the proper youthful look, no matter the makeup and prosthetics Soderbergh’s crew uses to disguise his age.
  • Michael Douglas has received rave reviews for his portrayal of Wladziu Valentino Liberace, a man about whom I know almost nothing. I cannot say whether or not Douglas’ portrayal captures Liberace’s mannerisms, voice and behavior, but I can say it borders on cliche.
  • So does much of Behind the Candelabra’s dialogue, at least for the first thirty-five minutes. Almost every early scene between Liberace and Thorsen includes the former soliloquizing about his past, thereby delivering necessary biographical information, but also making the picture’s first third exposition heavy, so heavy that identifying with the characters proves difficult.
  • As the plot advances, the dialogue is less expositional, but it isn’t much better. Conflicts between Thorsen and Liberace are unnaturally shortened, meaning their explosive fights end before reaching resolution. It seems Soderbergh doesn’t have Richard Linklater’s or Abdel Kechiche’s courage, the courage to force immersion into genuine relationship strife. Instead, Soderbergh and script writer Richard LaGravenese hint at conflict and then cut away before the actors can finish it.
  • Similarly, Behind the Candelabra’s final act is rushed.We have only a vague sense of the two men’s legal and tabloid battle.
  • If it isn’t clear, I have very little praise for Behind the Candelabra. I can say the costumes, set designs and cinematography all show Liberace’s penchant for over-indulgence.
  • So does Douglas’ performance, I suppose.
  • Soderbergh and LaGravenese wisely focus on a single period of Liberace’s life, instead of trying to show all of it at once.
  • They also draw interesting parallel between Billy (Cheyenne Jackson) and Scott, when each eventually faces Liberace’s new lover.
  • In the end, though, the movie’s few merits are not enough to make it worth a two hour time investment. Behind the Candelabra simply isn’t good.
  • Final Grade: F+

38 thoughts on “Behind the Candelabra

    • I certainly think it’s terrible. But I am in the way-way-way minority. It has a 95% approval on Rotten Tomatoes and cleaned house at the Emmys, being nominated in 15 categories and winning 11 of them, including, of course, Best Movie or Miniseries.

      Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not recommending it. Just acknowledging difference of opinion. 🙂

  1. I really liked this movie as I felt like it was not just an indictment on the Hollywood idea of “staying beautiful for forever, and ever”, but just a true story in and of itself. That’s just me, though. Good review.

    • That’s not just you, actually. It’s also 95% of Rotten Tomatoes’ critics and 11 victories out of 15 nominations at the Emmys.

      There’s no question I’m in the minority here. 🙂

    • I will not try to dissuade you from that decision. I hate this movie.

      I will, however, be intellectually honest, and acknowledge that the vast majority of viewers and critics disagree with me. So did the Emmys, which nominated Behind the Candelabra for 15 categories and awarded it 11.

  2. The wife and I actually watched a Liberace Christmas special on Christmas just to see what it was like. MAN was this guy creepy or what???

  3. You are right about the Matt Damon character, I kept thinking he is just way to old for this movie. But he is the love child of Steven Soderbergh. But he does do a good job performance wise. I thought the movie was ok, not great, not totally horrible. Good review!

    • I agree that Damon is fabulous, performance wise. It is some of the best acting he’s ever done. It’s just not a role he should have been playing.

      And, obviously, I come down much negatively on this one.

  4. I haven’t got around to seeing this one yet but my husband loved it. I’m definitely keen to check it out now… controversial.

  5. Aw, it wasn’t that bad. It’s an odd journey into the mind of both of these men, but also a reflection on a side of the industry that is so empty and dangerous, detailed in the way that Thorson shows in the face of such alterations.
    Really liked Damon in it too.

    • I agree that that is its objective. I just don’t think it does it well (though I understand I am very much in the minority).

      And I also agree Damon is terrific, sometimes even mesmerizing. In fact, it might be the best acting he’s ever done, but …

      He was still 42 years old with more than 2 decades acting experience behind him when he filmed this, and his character is supposed to be 17 at the start of the film and late twenties at the end. Damon is still young enough he can pull off late twenties, but 17,18, 19? Not so much. Which means, good as he is here, he’s not the right actor for the part. After all a 42 year old making these decisions and having this dependent relationship is different than a 17 year old doing it.

      My argument boils down to this: to really understand Scott Thorsen, we first need to understand his youth. No matter his acting skill, Damon just can’t do that for us, not at his age.

  6. Good review jjames. I actually really liked this movie. I agree that Damon looked far too old to play Scott and whilst I wasn’t aware of Liberace when I was growing up, I thought the film did well to present more of the man than what was reported in the papers (or what he tried to cover up). He loved the glamour and the lifestyle aka he loved himself. He was an enigma and those stories about his life showed the life he used to be and why he acts the way he does. Some of it comes off creepy (e.g. trying to adopt Scott) but overall I thought it was a good watch and showed how hypocritical he was and towards Scott. For this to be Michael Douglas comeback role I thought he was superb, hence why it made my top 10 films of 2013!

    • I agree with everything you said – that is clearly what the film is trying to do.

      In the end, it just didn’t work as well for me as for most audience members. I had a hard time getting past Damon’s miscasting and the awkwardness of the dialogue.

      But I am clearly in the minority here. That much I know.

  7. I didn’t much care for it either. Sure, it was a strange relationship, but it didn’t really need such a long time to tell us how shallow their lives are … Sure, the campness is entertaining (to a point) and the performances are spot on … but in the end, it adds up to very little.

    Good review. I’m with you.

  8. Nice review, first i’ve seen which does not like it. But this is good as I am always a bit fearful of films which have nothing but praise. Hope to get around to it at some pount.

    • There are definitely very few negative reviews for this one. Cleaned house at the Emmys and has 95% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

      Hopefully, when you see it, you like it as much as most people. Instated of feeling the way I do. 😉

  9. Interesting how everyone seems to praise this film AND the casting, clearly the HFP loves it that it nominated both Douglas and Damon (w/ Douglas winning). I didn’t know Damon’s character was supposed to be a teenager, yikes he certainly is way too old for that role.

    Well this isn’t something I was keen on checking out anyway, so your review didn’t exactly change my mind, James 🙂

    • 😉

      Damon is terrific. It might be the best acting he’s ever done. But by casting him, they render most of Thorsen’s decisions nonsensical. 40 year old men don’t act like this. 17 year old abused and lonely orphans, though? Yeah. They might.

      And Douglass is good, too, I suppose. Though I think he often borders on cliche.

  10. Jjames, before I read this review I had zero desire to see this film. You will be happy to know that after reading this review I now have absolute zero desire to see this film. Good job.

  11. I agree about Damon not being the right age but I was taken in by his performance all the same, MD transformed himself and I think they both deserve a viewing based on this alone, it’s very creepy how camp MD comes across, in a good way.

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