As I watched Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, something unfortunate happened. I had that dreaded moment, the moment where I wanted to like the HBO film more than I did. Invariably, it’s happened to all of us. You look at the previews. The cast and the director are top notch and the story looks interesting. Yet, while watching it, there’s something missing. And, in this case, it kind of bummed me out.
Behind the Candelabra follows the early life of Scott Thorson, played solidly by Matt Damon, who through happenstance, meets the famed Liberace and has a tumultuous relationship with him. Thorson starts out as a young man who works with animals in the movies. A chance meeting in a bar with Bob Black (a handlebar mustached Scott Bakula) sets his life on a different course. One evening he heads to Las Vegas, where Bob introduces Thorson to an older Liberace, played by Michael Douglas. From there, to two begin a tumultuous relationship which ends six years later as the two sit across from one another, lawyers flanked at either side.
The story was definitely interesting. Going in, I didn’t know a great deal about Liberace’s life. Yet the film didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t feel the connection between Thorson and Liberace. Their relationship seemed average. Sure, the verbal sparring between the two was entertaining and Damon looked humorously ridiculous in his multitude of thongs. But, the chemistry between Damon and Douglas wasn’t what was needed to give Behind the Candelabra something memorable. Perhaps this comes down to Douglas. I am a huge Michael Douglas fan, and it pains me to write this, but I believe he was miscast as Liberace. I never bought him completely as Liberace. It felt like something didn’t fit. This could be solely based on what my idea of what Liberace was like from interviews or short video clips I’d seen in the past. But, I thought both how Douglas played Liberace and his voice didn’t ring true enough.
One of Behind the Candelabra’s brightest moments is when Liberace wants to have plastic surgery done to his face. We are introduced to Jack Startz, played expertly by Rob Lowe. Lowe plays the physician as a squinty-eyed, feather-haired quack who not only fits Liberace and Thorson with facial reconstruction (did Liberace get a 2 for 1 deal? I doubt it), but he starts Thorson on diet pills. This begins Thorson on a spiral down into drug addiction. While Lowe is hilarious, the scene where he and Liberace discuss plastic surgery turns into something far more sinister. Liberace wants Thorson to have his face reconstructed so it looks like a younger Liberace. This is twisted, exposing something disturbing from behind the candelabra. Further it sparks an interesting question – why are humans so afraid of looking old? Is it as simple as showing us the end is closer than we’d like? Or are we too vain for our own good, always wanting to not only feel young, but to look young, and for the sake of Liberace, be consistently surrounded by the young? If we all had bottomless bank accounts as he did, would we act the same, wanting to change things to preserve youth (including a loved one’s face) to satisfy our every urge? Likely not. But for those swimming in the pool of self-absorption and holding a black American Express card, perhaps it’s not that big of a stretch.
For me, Behind the Candelabra missed the mark. It left me thinking it could have been, should have been, better. The cast and creative team had me desiring something that was never delivered. I wanted to feel deeply about a story that was filled with lover’s quarrels, drug and sex addiction, and a diamond studded twinkling jacket. Alas, I left wanting.