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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

'Behind the Candelabra:' 'Boogie Nights' Meets Newt Gingrich

This review of the HBO bio docudrama "Candelabra," which premiered May 26, 2013, is the second of two Liberace-themed posts this week. The first shared thoughts on Liberace's 1955 film "Sincerely Yours." The contrast between these two films is as sharp as the differences between Joan Crawford's 1945 film "Mildred Pierce" and 1981's "Mommie Dearest."

In the cases of "Candelabra" and "Dearest," someone with a legitimate axe to grind provides the base material for deliciously campy pulp about a fading beloved star from yesteryear. Although the highly acidic melodrama in both productions is great fun, "Candelabra" unfortunately does not hold a candle to "Dearest."

"Candelabra" stars Michael Douglas as legendary pianist and "Mr. Showmanship" Liberace during that celebrity's declining popularity; Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, who was Liberace's boy toy twink lover from the late '70s to the early '80s. The film is based on Thorson's book of the same name.

Damon's remark years ago in reference to big-screen adaptations of television series that he would not play Gilligan because that might cause him to miss an opportunity to appear in a Steven Soderbergh film echoed my sentiment regarding that former auteur.

As my review of Soderbergh's artistically disasterous "Magic Mike" from last summer states, Soderbergh has experienced a decline and fall since Damon made those remarks. "Candelabra" is a truly sad end to an awesome career. 

One serious, but not fatal, flaw with "Candelabra" is that, ala John Travolta's horrible attempt at drag in "Hairspray," Douglas simply does not relate to his character. He seems more like an SNL or SCTV variation of Liberace than the man himself near the end of his career and his life. Douglas slightly redeems himself with a few great lines. The comment "so, its repugnant only when I do it to you" is the most memorable of these musings of that cartoonishly flamboyant character. Having Thorson undergo plastic surgery to look more like Liberace is one of the more darkly funny segments.

Damon does a better job as the young star-struck not-so-bright 18 year-old who quickly replaces Liberace's latest young lovah. One sad aspect of this Gingrichesque technique of rapidly replacing someone who is is nearing his or her expiration date with someone younger and cuter is that the replacer never recognizes that he or she will almost certainly become the replacee.

Although clearly too old for the role of the 18 year-old Thorson, Damon at least shows some emotion. His initial glee when he is introduced to Liberace as a member of his audience and nervousness on being invited to Mr. Showmanship's dressing room after the performance is believable and reminiscent of the playfulness between Damon and childhood chum Ben Affleck regarding rumors that their friendship has benefits.

The serious shortcoming regarding Damon's performance is that his overall deadpan performance is at odds with his young allegedly bisexual character during the early days of gay liberation. He never really seems  to enjoy even the good times or his uniform that is almost as flamboyant as the military garb in the "Sgt Pepper" film.

Nor does Damon show much anger or other emotion as his cocaine use increases and his relationship with Liberace crumbles. The tone in which he tells Liberace "you must be getting it from somewhere" after two months of celibacy between the couple is the same that he would use for stating that he did not want Chinese food for dinner.

The truth that is almost as sad as the outcomes for the real Liberace and Thorson is that this entertaining film would have been a special one if Damon and Soderbergh had made it 15 years ago and had a different leading man. Patrick Stewart comes to mind based on his prior gleeful portrayal of gay characters and proven ability to play the range of emotions that Liberace experienced in his later years.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Candelabra" or Liberace is welcome to email me.