Behind the Candelabra

[This piece was originally written for and published at the website The 500 Club:]

Behind the Candelabra, suitably for its subject, seems to proudly announce itself from the get-go. Read those three words aloud, let them roll off your tongue, and then tell me that they don’t form the title of the year. The first two words, which we know so well from so many tell-all entertainment industry TV specials—including one about Liberace himself—immediately sit us down in a familiar, well-worn genre. But with the unexpected, faintly absurd, and ostentatious “Candelabra”—itself a word that needs to be said out loud for the proper effect, of an arm waved to the side in the manner of a theatrical unveiling—we get a knowing wink and a smile which pledge as the movie’s plaything its very generic familiarity.

So it should be expected that the story in outline is a broadly familiar one. It’s that of an ingénue seduced and corrupted by the glamorous but depraved life of an older authority figure, with the power to transform, to bestow admiration and an impression of love. Matt Damon plays the young Scott Thorson, whom we meet in a gay bar, where he is picked up by Bob (Scott Bakula). Thorson works on the literal and figural outskirts of Hollywood, as a dog trainer and handler for cheap, pedestrian film productions. But through a trip to Vegas with Bob, he is introduced to Michael Douglas’s Liberace, who takes an immediate shine to the young man. Soon, Scott is made the sparkling new replacement for Liberace’s previous hot young male companion, who we see has become alienated, embittered, and resentful, providing an early—and perhaps too bluntly telegraphed—sign of things to come. Soon, Thorson is employed, or more accurately ‘kept’, by Liberace, the two of them locked together in a palatial but claustrophobic Las Vegas mansion, their co-dependency manifesting itself in Liberace’s slowly building, perverse desire for their complete convergence, in tension with Thorson’s smothered need for self-assertion and recognition.

Perhaps my initially underwhelmed response to the movie as a whole was because of how this story, and its setting in America’s tawdry 70s and 80s off-Hollywood entertainment world, invited comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s energising, generous, still-arresting Boogie Nights. And yes, Soderbergh’s movie is not as good as Anderson’s. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Candelabra for lacking the monumental ambition of the earlier movie. At one point when I was craving the same dazzling scope of imagination that is so astonishing from the young filmmaker who made Boogie Nights, I asked myself whether Candelabra was promising to transcend, or merely re-tread, its generic turf. It all started to seem a bit familiar, with the drugs, and the disillusionment, and the drifting away. There was pleasure to be had, for sure; Soderbergh is skilful, nothing falls exactly flat, or is spectacularly mishandled, but—particularly throughout Thorson’s spiralling fall from Liberace’s grace—nothing got its hooks into me either.

But I was looking in the wrong places. The broad generic strokes of the story work in something like the fashion of Liberace’s jewels and cloaks, and his beguiling keyboard trickery and showmanship, as a veil of glamorous distraction or deception. And what they conceal is a much more compelling shadow narrative. At the heart of the movie is, for me, a small, quiet scene tucked away somewhere in the middle. It’s one that does little to advance or contribute to the surrounding glamour and noise of the rise-and-fall story, but might help to make sense of the various details intricately threaded throughout.

Liberace sits at a table by a sun-drenched swimming pool, having a drink with his elderly mother. Their lack of free conversation is punctuated only by Liberace’s repeated offers of material help for his mother: “Is there anything I can get for you? Is there anything you want?” The gaudy pianist is uncharacteristically dressed in a staid blazer and bone white trousers, a picture of respectability. But even as Liberace tries to give an impression of leaning back in his chair in comfortable ease, Douglas brings a brittle quality to his character. The fingers that so nimbly dance across the keys in more public performance here skittle uneasily amongst themselves, the smile that is so strong beamed to hundreds now seeming forced as it tries too hard to strike a picture of familiarity in the company of one. The placement of his highball glass on the wrought iron table is in sympathy with the performance, strengthening its effect. The table itself embodies the tensions. Its decoration strives for the delicacy of lace, but cannot soften the implacably hard material from which it is built, and threatens to shatter the finery of the surely crystal glass. Liberace, who in two performances every night has on a string an entire ballroom of hotel guests, morphs before our eyes into a desperate concierge, supplicant to an enigmatically demanding mute, as if oblivious to the way his mother appears to bask serene under the sunshine.

Douglas is so arresting here precisely because up to this point he has inhabited Liberace as a man in fully confident command of his being, a skilled conductor of self-performance, his every gesture, word, and winking smile deployed to orchestrate the feeling and satisfaction of the people around him, gathering up those feelings and moods and powerfully directing them back upon himself, and abandoning to the darkened wings of his life-stage those players who no longer reflect his light with warmth. And so it is sitting by the pool with his mother that Douglas show us how Liberace is nowhere less at home than in the ordinary and domestic, those spaces and moods that, in a tiny moment of this scene, threaten, or require, intimate exposure on terms that are not his own. The moment turns around an eloquent gesture. Liberace’s mother tells him something to the effect that she needs nothing from him but his love. Douglas has Liberace respond to this invitation to shared intimacy, one based on mutual vulnerability between a son and his mother, by reaching with his right hand inside his jacket, as if to retrieve a wallet or chequebook, emerging instead with a silver-plated cigarette case, which allows him an opportunity to busy himself with its clasp, and to remove and tamp a cigarette before bringing it to his lips as if an obstruction to speech. An invitation to do nothing but enjoy with another person the light of the world that shines on them equally from above is met with a reflex that evokes the retrieval of cash, one in which the business of his fingers and their contact with the emblems of ostentatious wealth provide a distraction against his potential exposure, a display of calm collection that attempts to conceal a broiling discomfort within.

What should we make of this, in a movie whose drama elsewhere pivots around the offering, acceptance, pawning, and retrieval of rings, jewellery, and other props of self-display? In which the characters’ contacts with these ornaments provide them with material re-assurance of their self-worth, but they are so often and so often publicly strapped for cash? In our displays of self-performance, how do we know whether we are exposing or concealing ourselves, and from whom?


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