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Seitz on Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra: Swan Song or Not, an Impressive Work

Whether the biopic Behind the Candelabra (HBO, May 26, 9 p.m.) ends up being a swan song for director Steven Soderbergh or merely the last entry in one phase of a long career, it’s an impressive work. This story of superstar pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his young lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is dark stuff.

Liberace, who goes by “Lee,” dictates their relationship be completely private; he won’t take the teenage Scott out in public. Scott was abandoned as a child by his addict mother and grew up in foster homes; after a while he starts to feel like a concubine, a prisoner in an opulent jail, and his fears of abandonment and neglect are reawakened. At one point, Lee has his face remade to create a more youthful appearance (Rob Lowe plays his plastic surgeon; his makeup suggests Jocelyn Wildenstein by way of a Disney cartoon prince) and ends up with muscle damage that makes it impossible for him to completely close his eyes. Lee encourages Scott to get surgery, too, so that he’ll look more like the pianist as a young man. (The Freudian implications for their lovemaking are so obvious as to require no comment, and the film wisely refrains from offering any.) Over time, Scott develops a cocaine habit, and Lee drifts away, losing himself in porn and in new trysts. The end of the story isn’t merely tragic, but wrenching. If you’ve ever felt saddened by the death of somebody who treated you like shit, you’ll see yourself in this movie. Sequins or no sequins, it will speak to you.

And yet for all its frank sex and drug use, gory plastic surgery and moments of pain and humiliation, and the specter of AIDS looming just beyond the film’s disco-era time frame, Behind the Candelabra often feels like a great old Hollywood film — the sort that might have been directed by George Cukor or William Wyler or another unselfconscious master. Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother and Dan Aykroyd as his manager bring a touch of Old Hollywood professionalism as well. Every scene seems carved from marble. A few play out in long takes, with few cuts, at times from medium distance. The tale’s elegant purposefulness suggests that Soderbergh and his screenwriter Richard LaGravanese (The Fisher King, Living out Loud) came into the project knowing what they wanted to say and how they would say it. There’s a solid, patient, confident quality to this movie that’s rarely seen in modern mainstream cinema. It’s better than most American films playing in theaters, and better than most of HBO’s films, too.

The story begins in 1977 with Thorson and his then-lover Bob Black (Scott Bakula, mustachioed and grinning) attending a Lee concert in Las Vegas. From minute one, the film’s confidence impresses: It creates a world and immerses us in it, secure in the knowledge that we’ll feast on the details and think our way into the heart of the story. The first section of Candelabra spends several minutes at the concert, letting Lee’s technical virtuosity and wry showmanship take the film’s spotlight; it’s as if you’re sitting there at the same table as Scott and Bob.

As you watch the master work the keys and the audience, you get a sense of the delusion in which Lee and many of his fans were engaged. They’ve all decided to pretend he’s a heterosexual male love object — a charming gentleman who could make any woman’s life complete, or at least charm her mother. Although the outward signifiers would seem to make any other interpretation impossible (the gaudy rings and sequined clothes; the overall aura of musical-theater queenery, the beautiful but sullen young men cycling through Liberace’s orbit), his straightness has become a lie collectively agreed upon. “People only see what they want to see, Scott,” Lee says, and he’s right — up to a point.

When Lee first lays eyes on Scott, he already has a young lover (his duet partner Billy Leatherwood, played by Cheyenne Jackson as a man embittered by the knowledge that his days are numbered), and we’re given to understand that this is how he operates: Like a lot of powerful older men, he treats younger boy toys as mirrors reflecting his long-gone youthful self back at him. Lee seduces Scott physically, emotionally, and economically; Scott succumbs not just because it’s Liberace, for heaven’s sake, but because he’s a parentless boy at heart, and sees Lee as a father figure–mentor as well as a boyfriend, somebody who’ll make him feel protected and adored.

Lee is not the boy wonder he once was. He’s terrified of decrepitude and obsolescence. He admits to Scott that he’s had penile implant surgery to create a larger endowment than he had at birth and make his sexual performance match his drive. And he’s at the point where every word out of his mouth sounds like the reiteration of a life narrative that he came up with years earlier — as if he’s an actor saying lines with feeling, but perhaps not always truly feeling them. “I never know whether people like me for me, or for what they can get out of me,” Lee tells Scott, with a typically gentle, accepting tone that suggests he’s learned to accept the things he can’t change, and decided not to fret over them too much. The tone is one aspect of the performance that is Lee’s life. He’s only truly happy when he’s playing. He’s only really himself when he’s playing. When Liberace steps away from the keyboard, he’s Lee. Liberace is the candelabra. Lee is what’s behind it. Liberace is in control. Lee only pretends to be. Liberace knows who he is. Lee doesn’t — not really.

Is there a “there” there anymore inside Lee? Was there ever? Does Scott see something authentic in Lee, something beyond what Lee represents — beyond the fame, the money, the rings, the sequins? Does Lee see something authentic in Scott, beyond what Scott represents: blond hair, young flesh, a kind of innocence? The movie doesn’t answer these questions with “yes” or “no,” preferring to let the characters slip in and out of different psychological states. Sometimes they’re using each other, obviously. Other times they seem to have bonded because each completes the other, in some horrible, wonderful way.

Douglas’s performance is as extraordinary, as you’ve heard. It goes far beyond impersonation. I suspect that the movie star in him understood the importance of maintaining a façade, and that his age allowed him to see the fears that plagued Liberace quite clearly. There’s great empathy in every choice he makes, and yet at the same time, it’s an unmerciful performance, with no special pleading. Damon is just as strong in a much more reactive role. It takes great talent and concentration to play such an opaque soul while still letting us think that we can see into his heart. He’s too old for the part (though the makeup helps sell the illusion a bit), but it doesn’t really matter because Damon seems to remember what it was like to be a teenager, and lonely, and unformed as a person, and that knowledge infuses the performance. The character’s neediness comes through without ever being overbearing, and the more jaded Scott becomes, the harder it is to watch Damon’s disappointed face. This is what it means to be ground down by age and experience.

There’s a huge danger in choosing Liberace in the seventies and eighties as the subject of a biographical picture, and viewing him mostly through the eyes of a man who was locked in a horrifically dysfunctional relationship with him for years. The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara puts her finger on the downside: The film, she says, “paints such a narrow portrait of the man who was for a time the most famous entertainer in the world that it comes dangerously close to realizing Liberace's greatest fear — that he would be remembered simply as ‘a crazy old queen.’”

I don’t think Candelabra succumbs to that tendency, though. It has sympathy for Lee and Scott, and for everyone around them, even when they’re behaving abominably. Soderbergh and LaGravanese have taken the most retrograde material imaginable — this world is in some ways a homophobe’s fantasy of what it’s like to be gay, creative, and rich — and treated it as another set of storytelling circumstances. As strange as it might sound, their attitude feels like a great advance in pop storytelling sophistication. This film about two gay men, one much older and richer than the other, is not explaining anything or apologizing for anything or putting anything in politically correct context. It’s saying, “Here is what happened, and here are the people involved, and here is how they thought and felt about it.” Period.

The approach expects audiences to look at the material and translate it into their own personal terms, whatever those may be. Behind the Candelabra’s greatest gift is its facility for finding the universal within the specific. When Lee patiently and meticulously seduces Scott for the first time — over the course of many hours and days — it’s not an anthropological study of gay male rituals; anyone who’s ever been in a sexual relationship with a power differential will recognize certain actions and inflections and situations. When Lee begins a long slow physical decline from HIV, and it’s represented in the press as “heart problems,” it’s not just a commentary on how AIDS was covered up and misrepresented during an era of rampant ignorance and homophobia; it’s an example of a man desperately trying to maintain a false image as he lays dying.

When Scott reads Liberace’s autobiography in a bookstore, hearing the man’s gentle voice speaking lie after lie, it’s not just the lie of Liberace’s straightness that feels tragic. He pretended to be something he wasn’t, yet he was what he was. Damon’s face in this moment says it all: anger, pity, love. For all the misery Liberace put him through, he loved Lee, and he misses him.

Photo: Claudette Barius/HBO