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SOUND OFF: BEHIND THE CANDELABRA Strikes A Real Chord

Packed with a plethora of talent heading the cast - Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, Cheyenne Jackson, Paul Reiser and Dan Aykroyd - as well as a strong script by Richard LaGravenese, the final feature film from Academy Award-winning auteur Steven Soderbergh, HBO's Behind the Candelabra is a shimmering, glittering Hope Diamond of a musical biopic dedicated to Liberace - and, also, an all-too-befitting final film to feature musical arrangements by the late, great EGOT-winning music master Marvin Hamlisch. It's absolutely fabulous!

I Feel Love

Navigating a smoky and seedy late-night labyrinth in 1977, set to the pulsating, provocative sounds of Donna Summer's iconic Giorgio Moroder disco anthem "I Feel Love", an entire world is conjured forth in a masterful flash by Soderbergh from the very first frame. Soderbergh gives the entire affair a distinct feel, tone and style unlike any of his other films and conjures an instant milieu. Just take the aforementioned first shot, for instance - that is, following the witty and all-too-apt inclusion of a vintage HBO intro; and, on that note, who, in 1977, would have ever thought HBO would be producing original films better than anything in Hollywood? Through the dark into light, from the haze into semi-clear sight, we are immediately brought into the world of Scott Thorson, the protagonist of the piece.

Admittedly, Matt Damon has shown incredible growth as an actor over the course of his career - SCHOOL TIES through to his Best Screenplay Oscar for GOOD WILL HUNTING all the way until now - and Behind the Candelabra presents him with his riskiest role and he matches it in almost every way, offering up his best performance to date. At turns unnerving, endearing, infuriating, pitiable and boyishly charming, Damon makes the movie - as brilliant as Douglas is, Damon steals the show. While the outward overall effect of the film may ultimately be so tremendously powerful due to the dynamic created, explored, enacted and made emotionally real through the intense intimacy - physically and otherwise - the two actors exhibit, it is actually from Damon's eyes (as Thorson) that we really view it all. Through the exacting structure and involving storytelling nature of the film, Damon holds the crystal-encrusted grand piano almost squarely on his ample shoulders while Douglas is allowed to play it, lay on it, tap dance on it and even fly above it for the grand finale - actually and metaphorically. That's the act. Truly, Douglas's greatest skill as displayed in Behind the Candelabra is quite similar to Damon's - a palpably, fiercely committed dedication to creating a complex, 3D character, veering from camp but acknowledging it. In what so simply and easily could have become a caricature, Douglas instead paints for our pleasure a wondrous watercolor - rich with detail, dark with depth; loaded with layers of distinct colors and flourishes of shade swirling just below the peaceful, placid, too-perfect, oh-so- shiny surfaces. Yes, the surfaces... and the sheer amount of stuff!

Wow oh wow, what stuff! What decorations! What costumes! What locations! What sets! If it's the glitz you came for, the glitz you get - all in good time (that finale!). While there are far more two-character scenes in the film than many you are likely to see, now or ever, the film never feels suffocating unless it is explicitly intending to feel that way - which, as the action wears on, is a significant portion of the running time, as it so happens. The juxtaposition of the spending-spree Beverly Hills pre-Christmas montage with the depleted and depressing atmosphere of the drug-fueled Christmastime scenes in the second half is yet another instance of the utmost skill of construction and seamless storytelling afforded by Soderbergh and company - capturing all of the details of the actors and their minutiae as the scenes play out, time after time, beat for beat, in his oft-two-shot set-ups uninterrupted and always adorning them with a vivid and evocative atmosphere in which to exist.

While Behind the Candelabra is not a feel-good film, the forthright and uncompromising Nature with which Soderbergh tells this all-too-true story, to say nothing of the sheer power of the performances of Damon and Douglas, makes it a must-see film as important as any Oscar contender, this or any season. Indeed, the film has been warmly received at Cannes just this week, with many prognosticators speculating that Douglas make very well walk away with the Best Actor trophy. Should it happen, it will be more than well-earned - as much as Jamie Foxx made us appear to really somehow see the blindness and personal struggle in the life of Ray Charles in RAY, and, similarly, how just last year Daniel Day-Lewis painted a 3D portrait of Abraham Lincoln that virtually brought the issues he dealt with in his presidency to life for us, now, so does Douglas make Liberace a living, breathing, fabulous - totally, totally fabulous - human being. And, more to the point, Douglas really plays the piano in the gorgeously-rendered and effortlessly elegantly outfitted, styled and shot Vegas sequences - arrangements by the one and only Marvin Hamlisch, by the way, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh (and Damon) on THE INFORMANT! in 2009. Without a doubt, the Vegas scenes - especially the ending one - are sure to please movie musical fans checking out the film for some of the expected flair all too elemental to the success of Liberace's actual show. Excess is excess and the excess in Behind the Candelabra is about as excessive as could possibly be presented without the film becoming pure camp - which, in every minute of every scene, it dares to become. Yet, it never, ever does even veer into true camp territory - it's daring where it could have been Dorothy. It's never bad at all, so it can't possibly be so bad that it's good (which is the definition of camp).

The most grisly sequences in the film are undoubtedly the scenes of plastic surgery procedures - and, on that account, Rob Lowe is award-worthy as a crooked quack of a plastic surgeon in those scenes - but the descent into drugs that dominates the final third of the film is even more grotesque and gruesome, all things considered. If anything in the film goes too far or reveals too much, it may be the final scenes before the musical coda - but, then again, all of that also gives the story its real grit and drama beyond being a showbiz love story that happens to center upon two idiosyncratic men. Not that these hard-hitting, undoubtedly true-to-real-life moments are merely dramatic fodder for our entertainment pelasure, but the film goes to very dark places and threatens to implode by depicting them in such an in-your-face way. Yet, in viewing the film again it does not have quite the desperate air and corrosive feel as it may initially on a cursory look. Prudishness will not last long while watching this film - if those souls even last past the first few scenes. The final scenes are heartbreaking and depressing, yes - but, then, we must remember this film is about Scott Thorson, too, not just Liberace. Yes, Liberace is a major figure in it - with Scott, the major figure in it - but, unlike RAY or LINCOLN, this is a film about how a man was perceived by the public and how he presented himself to them, knowing full well what he was doing and the dynamic being played out, and how imperative that was to his persona versus who he really was; and, in the end, what he sacrificed for that and what he gained from it all. In the second half, Damon gives it all he's got - without giving too much away, the sex shop scene alone allows us to glean some of Scott's dissatisfaction with the state of his relationship affairs, and, at the same time, acts as evidence of the umpteenth time Douglas accents and decorates rather than commanding and dominating what could have been an over the top moment, which is his true skill in this film throughout. Douglas never overdoes it - and it is never too much. Everything Douglas does in this film has been carefully planned - and that's why the flamboyant and perceivably flamingly gay aspects of his portrayal of Liberace feel authentic. Douglas plays Liberace as he would any original character, but also gives us just enough of the true-life piano superstar viewers of a certain age will actually remember to give it a ring of authenticity.

The final blow-outs with Thorson and Liberace are set in the cold, contemporary and monochrome LA lair and in it Douglas sensitively and delicately shows us the paternal side of Liberace in his dealings with Scott, as well as the impish troublemaker within, too. True, the request for Scott's plastic surgery and references to Scott as his son are unseemly and unbecoming, especially given the romantic aspects of their relationship, yet one cannot deny that - at least as Douglas plays it - there is a caring, sincere, naïve tinge to it all that tends to soften its weirdness in a way. "It's kind of repugnant," Scott says of a certain sex act when prompted to switch roles in bed by Lee (aka Liberace), and the same could conceivably said for the incest kink, in any event. Considering this is a film in which the two main actors spend one of the longest scenes in the film fully nude - post-coitally, no less - a conservative attitude shall not serve one well here. And, thank goodness - and HBO - for that. What would this film even be rated by the MPAA were it to be released, as it is? I can't imagine it could get away with an R without some nips, tucks and quite a few cuts. So, again, thank goodness for HBO.

Besides Douglas, Damon and Lowe, very fine supporting performances are also offered by a swarthy Scott Bakula, a seedy Dan Aykroyd and a sweet (and unrecognizable) Debbie Reynolds, while a deliciously smarmy Cheyenne Jackson hits the right notes in his featured role as the amusingly named Billy Leatherwood. Unfortunately, this is a film that feels as though much more could have been shot than ultimately ended up in the final cut and those characters were assumedly the ones to suffer in the process - yet, to the betterment of the central storyline and the riveting central relationship and its uncompromising depiction in this rare, inciting, exciting, exceptionally remarkable film. Like the famous mirror that always hung above Liberace's grand piano in his home theater in Las Vegas, Behind the Candelabra offers an up close and personal view of one of the most popular musicians of the 20th century as seen through a gold-encrusted, Swarovski-filigreed looking glass looking down on (or up to) him from beyond. Heaven? Hell? A little bit of both, baby.

Evoking the aura of an entire era all the while and exploring an especially compelling and pertinent topic - that of gay relationships - while telling part of the later-life story of an impossibly unique figure in the entertainment realm, Behind the Candelabra set a particularly high bar for itself in its lofty ambitions and potential for failure - and, I am happy to report, it has surpassed the wildest expectations in almost every area. It's rhapsodic - and, ultimately, totally unforgettable. While the glimmer and gilt and gold of the first half eventually fades and gives way to the cold crystal, colder stares and copious cocaine of the second half, we are brought with arresting immediacy into the messy magma of a marriage, more or less - after all, these two men were intended lifelong companions as serious as any legal marriage; and, with the ensuing fall-out due to the final fission made fatal crack byway of, well, crack (among other things), we are granted a glimpse of the even messier, bloodier and painfully desperate legal proceedings coming after the dissolution of the decade-spanning relationship for good (and bad).

"I just don't want to be remembered as some old queen who died of AIDS," Liberace says on his deathbed. Now, thanks to BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, that will certainly never, ever be the case (as if it ever was in the first place). It is a masterpiece of a biopic and one of the greatest musical biographies ever filmed. "The Impossible Dream" fulfilled.

Indeed, "too much of a good thing is wonderful" - Behind the Candelabra shows it in spades. And diamonds.

Photo Credits: HBO


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