Film review – Behind the Candelabra (2013)

25 July 2013
Behind the Candelabra: Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon)

Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon)

Liberace was a larger-than-life pianist and entertainer whose love of excess and flamboyance was legendary. Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to capture the essence of the great showman begins towards the end of Liberace’s career in 1977 when he began an affair with Scott Thorson, whose 1988 memoir is the film’s principle source material. By focusing on the final decade of Liberace’s life through the eyes of a close companion, Soderbergh avoids any pretence of presenting a definitive portrait of the man. Instead we see Liberace the way Scott saw him – as a lover, a showman and as an aging man reflecting on his life and career, and starting to become vulnerable. More importantly we see what Scott loved about him and what Scott hated about him. The result is far more complex and engaging than traditional biopic approaches. However, Soderbergh’s real masterstroke is how well he takes the audience on the journey of initially finding Liberace’s world absurd and comedic, to ultimately feeling empathy for him.

Matt Damon portrays Scott as a curious mix of worldliness and naivety. He is introduced working as a dog wrangling assistant on a film set suggesting both an earthiness and an awareness of how the entertainment industry manufactures illusion. And yet, he is dazzled by Liberace’s mystique and personae, not noticing the evidence around him that he is not the first young man to be taken in by Liberace and unlikely to be the last. Scott is also clearly comfortable with his sexual preference for men and yet defensively claims to be bisexual (despite all evidence) and is astonished when told that the vast majority of Liberace’s mostly elderly fan base has no idea that their matinee idol is gay. Possessing both boyish charms and whimsy with the sexual desires of a grown man, Scott is an ideal conquest for Liberace who wants to be his ‘father, brother, lover and best friend’.

Liberace’s mystique and the impression he has on Scott is suggested when the audience shares the way Scott first sees in him concert. As Scott first enters the room where Liberace is performing, Liberace is just a shimmering figure in the background on the stage, his music filling the room. Every edit takes the camera closer and closer to Liberace until we finally see the man being played beautifully by Michael Douglas. And then Soderbergh and Douglas treat the audience to the Liberace experience of his astonishing piano skills, showmanship and banter with the audience. Intercut with shots of Scott’s delighted face, the sequence successfully communicates how seeing Liberace in concert is a transcendent experience for Scott.

When Scott visits Liberace in his changing room crosscutting medium close-ups are then used to convey a different set of expressions passing between the two men. Just as Peggy Cummins was instructed by Gun Crazy (1950) director Joseph H Lewis to look at her co-star like she was a dog on heat, Damon and Douglas appear to have received similar direction from Soderbergh. The sexually charged glances the pair exchange are just the beginning of an intense onscreen chemistry that both performers work with exceptionally well throughout the film to convey Scott and Liberace’s tumultuous relationship.

For a large portion of the film, Soderbergh keeps the audience feeling unsettled about the nature of the arrangement Liberace has with Scott. The beginning of the relationship is highly dubious with Scott staying the night under the pretence of convenience and then waking to discover Liberace being sexual with him. There are plenty of other episodes that raise doubts about the balance of power between the two men. Scott was both Liberace’s employee – later being incorporated into his performances – and his lover. Liberace wanted to adopt Scott as his son despite their sexual relationship and later in the film Scott struggles to explain why this was not a problem for him, suggesting that he never stopped to think about the situation either. Most alarming is Scott getting plastic surgery to look more like Liberace, evoking the actions of James Stewart’s obsessive lover character in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). Liberace is controlling and predatory, yet Scott is also framed as complicit and willing. Often this dynamic is played for laughs, which Soderbergh seems to do deliberately to make the audience feel uncomfortable.

The inevitable deterioration of the relationship is heavily signposted by the earlier scenes with Liberace’s former disgruntled lover/protégée Billy Leatherwood (played by Cheyenne Jackson and based on Vince Cardell), not to mention the overt reoccurring motif of Liberace’s home being full of dog shit from the many dogs he owns – the same dogs that first gave Liberace the excuse he needed to invite Scott to his home. As the pair, and by default the audience, start to examine the nature of their unconventional relationship, the black humour that stemmed from the grotesque materialism of Liberace’s world transforms into something more serious, which is when the film becomes most compelling.

Sexual conservatism and denial of human rights to same sex couples is brought into the discussion by the fact that despite living like a married couple, the pair are never legally or publically recognised as such, with Liberace always hiding his sexuality and Scott maintaining that he is bisexual. An addiction narrative is also introduced into the film where Scott’s addiction to dieting pills (supplied by the equally terrifying and hilarious Dr Jack Startz played by Rob Lowe) is contrasted to what could be interpreted as sex addiction for Liberace.

Most engaging is how the film represents the agonies of aging and later illness, and what that meant for Liberace. While his opulence and vanity are initially played for comedic effect, later scenes reveal how much appearance and showmanship meant to Liberace. His glamorous exterior and persona is exposed to be a lavish form of protection for a vulnerable man. Soderbergh takes the audience past the point of sniggering at Liberace’s excessive materialism to appreciate why appearance was so important to him.

The ability with which Soderbergh takes the film from uncomfortable comedy to a point of sincerity and poignancy is masterful. Certainly, without the journey from mocking to understanding that Soderbergh takes the audience on throughout the film, the end sequence would not have worked. However, in the context of what has come before it, Behind the Candelabra concludes in an extraordinarily touching and heartfelt way. It also provides a fitting resolution to a clearly difficult relationship that involved a complicated and larger-than-life person, and somebody who went from being star struck to somebody very bitter and hurt. Most satisfyingly, the films ends suggesting that beneath the glamour, excessiveness, cynicism, materialism, addiction and pain, there was a love story between two people who in their own way made each other happy and gave each other comfort for a period of time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

19 September 2010
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)

Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko character from Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street embodied capitalism at its worst. Gekko was a corporate raider whose desire to generate wealth for its own sake eclipsed any sense of moral or legal accountability. However, Wall Street reportedly had the bizarre counter effect of actually inspiring people, who were turned on by the idea that greed is good, to become stockbrokers. If stockbrokers today really have modelled themselves on Gekko then is it any wonder that the resulting financial culture of unsustainable lending and speculation led to the 2008 market crash? With this in mind it makes perfect sense for Stone to resurrect the Gekko character in order to explore the events leading up to, and the outcomes of, the Global Financial Crisis.

Gekko for the most part is not the focus of the film but a strange spectre who lurks in the background of the narrative as part mythical legend, part fallen angel and part broken man. Since the first film he has spent eight years in prison, lost his family and lost his wealth. Nevertheless, he is still something of a hero to a new generation, including Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) an already highly successful proprietary trader who is living with Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake is attempting to make his fortune from investing in green energy, which is the next major boom market. Young, confident and hungry for success Jake is a gentler version of the type of characters from the original film and somewhat of an idealist, despite what he tells himself.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan)

Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan)

Stone’s politics are still worn proudly on his sleeve but he has mellowed somewhat as the expression of those politics is no longer so aggressive and his visual style has significantly calmed down from the Brechtian excesses of his 1990s films. After World Trade Centre and W, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is his third film made very closely after the events the films are examining. However, Stone and screenwriter Allan Loeb’s ability to make sense of what happened and incorporate those events into a compelling drama is very impressive. Meeting scenes set inside boardrooms could have been deathly dull but Stone communicates the significance of such meetings with his engaging directing style. The film is full of financial jargon that a layperson will not be able to fully understand but it is all contextualised in a way that gives you a sense of what is being spoken about. Like listening to an unfamiliar dialect or slang, you always have a sense of what it going on even if some finer details are lost.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is probably as good a film about the GFC as can be expected. It also explores the fascinating position that renewable energy has in the market, the growing role of new media, the devastating impact of credit culture and, of course, the intrinsic immorality of relentlessly pursuing money over all other considerations. Stone also meditates on what people value most when they look back on their lives and issues of fatherhood (literal and symbolic, inspiring and brutal) also play a big role. The film does undercut itself badly with an unconvincing and contrived final scene and then credit sequence, but it is otherwise a compelling drama and a convincing vehicle to return Douglas to the screen as the infamous Gordon Gekko.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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