Liberace, man. Am I right? Absolutely. Now, everyone in the world knows who Liberace is. You could be a 17 year old Danish foreign exchange student studying aeronautical engineering in Oklahoma and shriek every time you see a piano and a mink stole (thinking he had risen from the dead, I guess). He was at one point the highest paid musician in the world and could tickle those ivories like some kind of genetically modified, hard-wired…ivory tickling machine. So, his level of fame or legacy is not something that’s generally up for debate. But besides the fact that his apparent homosexuality was always shrouded in secrecy, I’m not sure Liberace was a character that left some unsung and otherwise unpublicized story that the American people still needed to explore. That was my impression, anyway. HBO’s newest original film “Behind the Candelabra” has confirmed this for me.
I don’t know what it was, but something about the general premise of this film just did not interest me. For someone so fabulously extravagant and talented, I just wasn’t compelled to sprint to my DVR and record this film about Liberace. But of course I’m only human and the staggering acting talent they got was a selling point if nothing else. If you don’t want to see an overly tanned Rob Lowe shake his flat-ironed hair around and perform cosmetic surgery on Michael Douglas in a wig who was just getting nailed the scene before by Matt Damon in make up while huffing Poppers…then you’re not someone I want to be associated with. So a few weeks after the film premiered I plopped my ass down on the couch to watch it. And I did, I watched it. My first reaction was: “Did I miss something?”. The narrative clearly revolved around Matt Damon’s character and yet I felt like his actions as a character were so unmotivated I felt like certain scenes were literally cut out. It felt less like I was watching a young man’s slow descent into psychosis and drug addiction and more like I was watching a pinball being blithely knocked around in different directions until he explodes. Now, don’t get me wrong, Matt Damon’s dark turn was beautifully acted and pretty genuinely powerful, but the road to that point just felt so odd and unbelievable. The only thing we know about Matt Damon’s character prior to his first encounter with Liberace is that he’s been raised by Foster parents and he’s really into having sex with men. He seems like a genuine, sweet guy living in the country (via Agoura Hills or wherever he was supposed to be from) working with animals. What EXACTLY draws him into this completely over the top lifestyle? Why is he going to the extreme of physically altering the structure of his face just for this man? I didn’t FEEL his motivation. If he’s just a lost boy looking for a father figure, then play up how emotionally vulnerable and fragile he is. If he’s looking for a ticket to some fabulous show business lifestyle to pull him out of the soul-consuming tedium of his country life, then show that! I just wasn’t buying his character going from blue jean wearing animal wrangler to Speedo and studded leather vest wearing gold digger in the span of a few weeks without ever facing emotional repercussions. However, having said that, when he DOES face his own repercussions by way of grappling with his obvious drug addiction, he embraces EVERY emotion I wish he’d had from the get-go and he makes you believe it all.
One thing about the storytelling that I really appreciated was how morally ambiguous Liberace’s character turned out to be. I feel like there’s an impulse in some biopics to unearth the truth about some historical figure and either highlight the saint they really were or expose what a monster they became. BTC opted to deftly avoid any sense of “exposé” of the dark goings-on of his secret relationships. He was certainly a flawed character (in the way that human beings tend to be), but at the end of the day he was who he was and sometimes it was lovely and caring and sometimes it was a little cruel and most of the time it was just fucking odd. What I took away from him as a person was that, while a raging narcissist, he just wanted to take care of people and be loved in return. While some of the things he did were a little questionably sordid (the muddled father/lover relationship with Matt Damon, ie.), he had a genuine capacity for unconditional love. Michel Douglas’ performance certainly nailed that. I was a little worried going into it that his acting would teeter on that line between “Oh, yeah, he sounds like him!” and “If he talks any longer a purse in the shape of a penis is gonna fall out…of his butthole” but for the most part I found him respectful of the role. But regardless of the deference, I do feel like the performance was not exactly transcendent. I dare say it was even one dimensional at times. Michael Douglas did his part well but if you ask me, and some of this can be attributed to the writing, the spirit of Liberace died when he did. Whereas Scott (Matt Damon) lingered with a heavier emotional resonance. I suppose to be fair though, fundamentally Scott has more nuance and sense of arc that lends to the power of the role.
Perhaps my favorite part of the film (besides watching the credits and realizing Debbie Reynolds played Liberace’s mother the whole time [whaaaat???]) was Rob Lowe as the plastic surgeon. The character certainly proved to be the comic relief we all expected him to be. I was just so endlessly amused whenever his freshly stretched, leathery face popped up on screen. He really embodied the recurring theme of “wow, this is all really unnatural” and the general feeling ickiness that much of this story seemed to conjure. If anything I say you should have plopped him into a few more scenes. Every time he spoke it was as if his face was so damn tight he could barely form words (let alone see out of those slits that were his eyelids) and it was damn funny.
Another tasteful an tactful artistic detail I thought was the non-exploitative use of gay sexuality in this movie. I would have been personally miffed if the sexual component to their relationship was just tiptoed around in the interest of keeping it family friendly. However I also would have been annoyed if they just splattered anal sex with dudes all over the screen every six seconds to make it more real (because come on, it’s not TV…it’s HBO, right?). The one real sex scene between the two of them was just graphic enough to be a little shocking and fun but never wander into the arena of desperation. And even with the treatment of the sex scenes themselves, the ROLE of sexuality was well handled I think. I’m sure a lot of viewers just assumed that because the movie was about two homos that the characters would just be ALL about boning 24/7 and any interpersonal dynamics would be otherwise incidental (obviously gay men think of nothing else, duh!).
I guess my attitude is that after all is said and done, the essence of the story is about a young man who spirals into an unhealthy relationship and a bout with drug abuse stemming from self-image issues. It’s not the most earth shattering tale ever told by any means. And while there were glimmers of greatness, nothing about the story was quite riveting enough for me. The acting was great, it looked beautiful, it was tastefully conceived, and the crew certainly spared no expense in the wardrobe budget, but I’m not sure going behind the Candelabra was quite as interesting as people had hoped.