Stephen Soderbergh is the ultimate one-for-me-one-for-them director, but it’s still unbelievable that the final film before his (first) announced retirement was going to be a made-for-TV biopic. Seemingly fed up with the indignity of begging for funding for proper movies and the general corralling of proven auteurs to the limbo of Prestige Television, Soderbergh announced that he was bowing out of the game entirely. That “retirement” didn’t last long. If anything, he’s more prolific than ever now, having found a way to pump out a steady stream of heady low-fi genre experiments powered by smartphone cameras & celebrity actors’ goodwill. As always with Soderbergh’s career, there’s something slyly cheeky about the suggestion that he might’ve retired on a made-for-TV biopic, though; it’s as if the choice of project and the timing of the announcement were themselves a statement on the current state of the movie industry. Of course, that doesn’t mean he phoned in his work on Behind the Candelabra; it’s just as crowd-pleasing & devilishly self-amused as any of his other, better-funded films.
It helps that Behind the Candelabra isn’t so much a birth-to-death biopic as it is a chronicle of one specific, fucked-up romance that typified Liberace’s love life. Recent glammed-up biopics of outrageously costumed musicians (think Rocketman, Stardust, and Bohemian Rhapsody) have strained themselves limp trying to emphasize the Rock Star Magic of their subjects while sticking to the exact lifeless formula that Walk Hard parodied over a decade ago. Behind the Candelabra instead takes that alluring glam persona for granted, plainly presenting Liberace’s glittery hair pieces, disco-ball pianos, and on-stage limo arrivals without any stylistic embellishment behind the camera. The most the movie goes out of its way to underline the majesty of those Vegas showroom performances is in including the wide-eyed audience who ate it up with childlike wonder. It’s a glittery presentation that still mesmerizes even in its fictionalized recreations, and by the time Liberace declares “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” at the emotional climax it’s a tough point to argue against. Of course, those performances are only a small portion of runtime, as the title invites us to witness a much uglier performance behind those glimmering stage curtains.
Beyond the curdled vintage camp, the fabulous sequin capes, and the plastic surgery gore (!!!), the film is most worthwhile for its two central performances. Michael Douglas gets to return to the sexual menace of his erotic thriller era as an already-famous, ferociously horny Liberace in his middle age years. Meanwhile, Matt Damon goes full Dirk Diggler himbo as the pianist’s naïve teenage (ha!) boyfriend, who’s taken on more as a house pet than as an equal. Once the novelty of daily champagne bubble baths with his glamorous idol wears off, Liberace’s lover starts to question just how much personal freedom he’s given up to live a lonely life of wealth. The over-decorated mansion they share is populated only by a disapproving staff who act more as prison wardens than friendly faces. The relationship rapidly declines once Liberace pressures his young ward/fucktoy to get plastic surgery to look more like his biological son (or a Dick Tracy villain, depending on your perspective); it’s an eerie undercurrent of body horror that crescendos when Damon shouts “He took my face!” in horrified acceptance of how much of himself he’s given up to accommodate the Glam God who runs his ever-shrinking world. It’s a pain that stings even worse when he realizes that he’ll eventually age out of his usefulness to the much older man, and there’s a replacement waiting in the wings to start the cycle all over again.
For the most part, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t do much to test the boundaries of the TV Movie as an artform. Soderbergh skips the pageantry of an opening credits sequence, occasionally goes meta with trips to movie sets & the Oscars, and concludes the somewhat dour drama with a show-stopping musical number, but for the most part he’s pretty well-behaved. If Behind the Candelabra is to be contextualized as a Soderbergh Experiment the way most of his movies are, it’s merely in the fact that he made a TV Movie at all. Maybe the idea of being stuck in television productions for the rest of his career was enough to make him want to retire (or at least take a break from the press), but the results are mostly as sharp & slyly playful as most of the one-for-them pictures he makes for the big screen. The performances, the costume & set design, and the jarring mix of high/low, dour/camp sensibilities are all wonderfully realized, and I’ve seen plenty of much better funded, Oscar-winning biopics about glamorous musicians do much worse with their glut than what’s accomplished here.