“Well I ask you, can you see me now?!” says Liberace to a full house at one of his shows. To me, this line summarises the tone of the whole film – Behind the Candelabra is about grandeur and flamboyance. Liberace’s style seeps into the set design and creates a world of its own. There is a sense of objectivity to the glitz and glamour. The Bling Ring is a recent example of a film that failed to make its subtext apparent enough to be fully appreciated. Behind the Candelabra, however, clearly has Soderbergh’s intelligence in all its excesses and benefits from his direction.
The story focuses on the relationship between Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson who is manipulated in a number of ways. As someone who had little knowledge of Liberace, I was still very interested in the story and impressed with the performances. At no point does it feel like you are watching Matt Damon and Michael Douglas; they are truly convincing in their roles. This is perfected through their mannerisms as well as the great make-up effects used to convey the extensive plastic surgery both characters have.
The main issue I had with the film was its focus on a very specific part of Liberace’s life and career. In just depicting his relationship with Scott it doesn’t feel like a biopic and it is very insular despite its grandeur at times. All of this seems deliberate as the film appears to sympathise with the lover, Scott, and uses this as a way of presenting Liberace’s quirks. Some of the impact of this is, however, lost by a strangely sentimental final sequence which failed to work because I found it very difficult to fully sympathise with Liberace. Some of Soderbergh’s other films, such as Magic Mike and Side Effects, were able to have more of an impact because the characters were easier to sympathise with.
Behind the Candelabra has a lot to say about a materialistic society and certain individuals who thrive on the lavish and glamorous. It is well made and a real performance piece but is let down slightly by its narrow focus and an inability to create any real sympathy for Liberace. Maybe this was never Soderbergh’s intention but it does seem important considering the film’s focus. There are variations in tone throughout – ranging from the disturbing obsessions with body image to the comical nature of many of the film’s excessive elements. All of these elements as well as its overall flamboyance make Behind the Candelabra an interesting watch.