Review: 'Behind the Candelabra' reveals the rhinestones behind Liberace

2013-05-25T14:00:00Z Review: 'Behind the Candelabra' reveals the rhinestones behind LiberaceBRUCE MILLER bmiller@siouxcityjournal.com Sioux City Journal

You can see why "Behind the Candelabra" wasn't released in theaters.

A fascinating -- often creepy -- account of the relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, it has a train wreck quality that makes you wonder who the key audience could be.

Certainly, fans of the late pianist aren't going to warm to this. Gay activists may take offense and Thorson (now doing time in a Reno, Nev., prison) isn't going to feel like it puts him in a good light.

So, who? All those people who love to read about the Kardashians? Or the people who love to make fun of those who read about the Kardasians?

Director Steven Soderbergh walks a tightrope between camp and class and, if you make it that far, pulls it off. This isn't a warts-and-all look, but it's certainly more than we'd ever expect about a closeted entertainer who successfully sued a newspaper for calling him gay.

As Liberace, Michael Douglas has a firm grasp on the man's essence but doesn't nail the voice or the showmanship.

He's a predator in the film, luring a naive young man into his life -- and bedroom. Matt Damon (as Thorson) has the appropriate innocence, even though he's probably a decade too old to play the role.

When Douglas' Liberace sweeps him up into a world of rhinestones and  faux opulence, we get it. Soderbergh is particularly good at capturing that tacky idea of what passes for money.

Thorson's book must have dished a lot of dirt (there's plenty here) and given someone like Rob Lowe ample rope to play a plastic surgeon  as wild as he could imagine. Lowe's a hoot pushing diets and tucks on an unsuspecting outsider. When Liberace questions facelift results, "Candelabra" gets its best laugh. ("Will I be able to close my eyes?" he asks. "Not entirely," Lowe responds and, sure enough, Liberace sleeps, eyes wide open.)

While some of the stage stuff could be better (a mesmerizing sample of his work would explain why he was such a Vegas mainstay), the home talk is fascinating. Dan Aykroyd gets a few laughs as Liberace's manager and Debbie Reynolds provides grist as his mom. When Thorson senses he's being replaced, "Behind the Candelabra" becomes more than a lurid look at Liberace. It's the disintegration of a relationship -- a "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" for gay couples.

Damon is particularly good at showing the change that occurs in a guy without a rudder. Gamely, he follows Liberace's lead and becomes a mini-me without the talent. He's telling -- easily the best performer in a film filled with memorable performances.

Douglas does his best but, routinely, he isn't as Lee as the real Lee. And "Candelabra" invites an incandescent performance.

With this one little slice of show business history, Soderbergh captures much that fans never know. Hollywood, Vegas -- you name it -- aren't as glamorous as they'd like you to believe. They're built on illusion and, sometimes, that illusion masks scars that are often too deep to repair.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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