Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Candleabra -- my review

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, now playing on HBO, is LA CAGE AUX FOLLES meets BOOGIE NIGHTS. It’s at times hilarious, creepy, fascinating, and horrifying. But let’s be real. You’re not tuning in because you have so many unanswered questions about Liberace. Many of you don’t even know who Liberace is (or was more accurately). You’re curious as to whether Michael Douglas can pull off playing a flamboyant queen and Matt Damon can convincingly play his boy toy.

I’m happy to say the answer is a resounding yes.

But if you are tuning in to see a freak show you will be disappointed.  There have been numerous TV biopics about Liberace and they all came off like giant cheesefests. Campy, ridiculous, and boring after ten minutes. I think the difference here is that Michael and Matt commit totally to their roles. Never is there a wink. Never are they channeling Ru Paul.

Credit to director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese – they somehow produced a movie that feels grounded and real despite the most outrageous costumes, over-the-top characters, and settings that Caligula would find too ostentatious. It’s a stereotype mine field that they seem to hop scotch through without blowing themselves up.

Another delight awaits you too. Rob Lowe as the gay plastic surgeon almost steals the film. When this guy stars in something I’m never interested, but when he plays a small supporting role like in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING or this, he’s an absolute riot. I guess what I’m saying is I love Rob Lowe when he plays anything other than Rob Lowe. But I digress…

For those not really familiar with Liberace (a good test: if you think his name is pronounced Liber-ace you do not know who he is), here’s a thumbnail: Liberace (pronounced:  Libber-ah-chee) was a flamboyant piano player who rose to fame in the ‘50s with a TV show. He always had a candelabra on his piano and wore flashy glam suits. He was Elton John for ‘50s housewives. He actually was an excellent musician, but first and foremost he was a showman. He sported fur jackets with thirty-foot trains. Try finding those at T.J. Max.

The movie makes reference to Liberace successfully suing a London tabloid for claiming he was gay. Either Liberace had the greatest attorney in legal history or the London jury was worse than the O.J. jury because no one on the planet Earth, including barnyard animals, believed he was straight. I was six and I knew he was gay… and I didn’t know what gay meant.

I have two personal Liberace memories. The first dates way back to when he owned a mansion in the San Fernando Valley. I was probably seven or eight. I was visiting a friend who lived near his place and we hiked up there to see if it was really true that he had a swimming pool in the shape of a piano. It was true. I was blown away. That was the coolest thing EVER. He wasn’t there that day. At the time I was disappointed, but in retrospect I was probably lucky. I might’ve seen things no third grader should ever see.

In the mid ‘70s he owned a mansion above the Sunset Strip. When he moved out to Las Vegas he decided to turn it into the Liberace Museum. Old ladies would gather at a spot on Sunset to be shuttled up there. At the time I worked across the street at the KiiS Broadcasting Workshop. One day the group KISS was at the station doing a promotion. Afterwards they decided to go to the museum. So standing in line with blue-haired old ladies was Gene Simmons and KISS in full costume. I wonder if Gene got in for free. Y’know, professional courtesy.

I’d be surprised if both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon don’t get Emmy nominations. Soderbergh will get one for sure because the Academy is in awe of any successful feature director. Hopefully LaGravenese will be recognized as well. To find the real person inside the aggrandized image he had to dig and dig and dig. And dig. Meanwhile, Rob Lowe is well on his way to becoming a gifted comic actor and Christopher Walken.

BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA is not for children, homophobes, or anyone who thinks Eric Stonestreet is too outlandish. But if you have an open mind or you never got to the Liberace Museum I recommend it. Gordon Gekko and Jason Bourne were never like this.

43 comments:

slgc said...

My daughter once got into the Liberace museum for free.

This was in 1994, when she was four years old. My husband and I and our two kids were in Vegas, and we packed nice clothes because one of the things we did out there was to renew our wedding vows. Long story short, my son came down with a horrible cold, and while my husband stayed in the hotel room with the little guy so he could nap I took my daughter to the Liberace Museum. She was wearing a pretty dress and shiny, very sparkly shoes (think Dorothy's ruby slippers, only in gold). The woman charged me for admission, but said that my daughter could visit for free because "she looks like she belongs here."

So if that woman was minding the ticket booth, perhaps Gene Simmons got comped after all.

Anonymous said...

The video you embedded is "private".

Barry Traylor said...

My wife and I will have to wait for the video as we don't get HBO. Looking forward to it though. My mother was a huge fan of Liberace and I used to watch his tv show with her back in the 1950's when I was a kid (not as though she would let me change the channel). :-)

LouOCNY said...

I was in Vegas a couple of years back, and got to go to the Liberace Museum there. The LM in Vegas was appropriately fashioned out of a strip mall, and two separate sections - with one section totally devoted to his clothes and jewelry - perhaps for security reasons.

What was most interesting abut the experience, was that in the one section, the docent/guide was in total denial about his gay life, emphasizing about how devoted he was to his mother, etc.; while in the other section the guide was about as frank about things as he could get, without dwelling on it.

Too bad that closed...

Bamboo Harvester said...

This is worth reading - http://www.newsfromme.com/2013/05/25/my-liberace-story/

Anonymous said...

Please proof read. It's Jason Bourne, not Matthew. Thank you.

Pete Grossman said...

A great testament to the talent that put this together and in front of and behind the candelabra scenes.

As I was watching I couldn't help think, could Michael Douglas ever have seen himself paying this role back when he was bitch slappin' Charlie Sheen? oh wait a minute may-be...

bossbossjohn said...

Disappointed that Debbie Reynolds had two minutes on screen and two lines. And Matt Damon has been working out. Loved the make up though, especially Rob Lowe..."will I be able to close my eyes" classic!

Bob O'Brien said...

I was an extra in the film - a fun experience. Did not get to meet Debbie Reynolds or Michael Douglas - I was in all the funeral scenes and those two were not in those scenes, but Damon, Aykroyd, Soderbergh and Bakula were all very nice.

Steve said...

Question:

Are we ever going to hear YOUR thoughts on #ArrestedDevelopment?

I've been checking every day, hoping you're about to take your turn.

MikeBo said...

Liberace's estate with the piano shaped swimming pool, the mansion above the Sunset Strip and his Las Vegas holdings were very well known. His penthouse at 7641 Beverly Blvd., near Gardner, however was Liberace's "trysting hideaway."
After Liberace's death, the penthouse came into public view. I remember doing a story on it for INN TV. Dale Olson, Liberace's long time publicist took my cameraman, Dave Cox and I on a fascinating visit through one of Liberace's life secrets, sharing personal anecdotes gathered from his own friendship with him. Olson said that he played host to numerous young men over the years, but never let them stay overnight. I found that kind of strange. But, then, his life was strange. Douglas and Damon were fabulous.

Johnny Walker said...

Sweet! Looking forward to this.

Also: No sign of your Arrested Development review? I was expecting to see it after everyone gave their thoughts first.

Michael said...

The Liberace Museum is supposed to reopen in downtown Las Vegas. As I undertsand it, the foundation that runs it (Liberace endowed it) had to choose between keeping it open and funding the music scholarships they give. I grew up and still live in Las Vegas, and I know a lot of people who knew Liberace who said he was just a fine person.

Mike Doran said...

About that libel suit:

The man Liberace sued was a columnist named William Connor, who signed his work "Cassandra".

Connor was famous for attacking his subjects on a presonal level, usually quite savagely.

The Cassandra column about Liberace appeared at the height of his first successful tour of England, when most if not all of his press coverage was favorable (Liberace's skill at charming even his critics was well-known).

Ordinarily, Liberace's response to a column like this would have ben to laugh it off - "all the way to the bank".
Two things changed his mind here:
- Cassandra had included slighting references to Liberace's mother, the one sure way to set him off.
- Someone told Liberace that the libel laws in England were written to favor the plaintiff: they were mainly about "malicious intent" on the part of the defendant.
Sidebar: Leon Uris's novel QB VII was based on a libel suit that Uris had to defend against a Polish doctor who'd been a POW at a concentartion camp and had supposedly tortured Jewish prisoners.
The jury found in the doctor's favor because of the malice issue, but only awarded him one halfpenny, the lowest coin in the realm, because they believed Uris's witnesses of the camps.
In the case of Liberace v. Cassandra, the latter gentleman was someone the British public loved to hate, because of his over-the-top attacks; the trial became all about malice, and the ever-charming Liberace won that issue going away.
Had this case been tried in an American court, under our stricter libel laws, the truth of the allegations would have had at least equal weight with the malice, and might have ended badly for Liberace, years before people became less bothered about this sort of thing.

John said...

The New York Post (I know, but they also gave Soderbergh's film a rave review) did a comparison last week of the new movie with the film Liberace did for Warner Brothers back in 1955, "Sincerely Yours". While the public in the 50s bought Liberace as an entertainer, they didn't buy him in this movie as a romantic lead for Dorothy Malone and Joanne Dru (as part of an overall weak plot that doesn't really know what to do with its star when he's not playing the piano).

It's your call if the '55 movie also hints at a gay subtext between Lee and Uncle Charley from "My Three Sons".

Mac said...

Looks good. Would have an easy one to take cheap potshots at, or drown it in screaming high camp, so it's very interesting that they've produced a quality film.

roger said...

Haven't yet seen the movie, but that pic at the top makes it look like Michael Douglas playing James Farentino playing Liberace.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

This is what HBO preempted Game of Thrones for??? I want my week of abstinence back.

bettyd said...

I thought in the US that "the truth is not a defense" in a libel case, since the issue is whether the statements damaged reputations. Maybe I am thinking of somehting else.

As far as the movie - I really liked it. Michael Douglas embraced the role. The scene where Scott frist sees Lee without the hairpiece is quite revealing. Matt Damon seemed too old for what people reported Scott's age is, but he was very good as well. And you got to love Scott Bacula's 'stache and Rob Lowe's cat eyes. Make-up should win for this come Septemeber.

Brian Phillips said...

As for a jury believing that Liberace was not gay, it's certainly no surprise in retrospect, but if you go back even further, the female impersonator Julian Eltinge had a fairly healthy fanbase...among young women.

People will believe what they want to.

Ed said...

"...I can't believe Liberace was gay. I mean, women loved him! I didn't see that one coming." -- Austin Powers

Sorry. Had this quote in my head the entire time reading this.

Brian Phillips said...

...and going a bit farther forward, Paul Lynde had a sitcom in which he played a married father in the 1970's., so...

Jeff 68 said...

What makes you think that Rob Lowe was playing a gay plastic surgeon?

In real life, Dr. Startz certainly was not gay. I knew him and entirely while in high school.

Also, he didn't look anything like Rob Lowe with that terrible wig.

Otherwise, I thought movie was great - Douglas & Matt were excellent.

PS - The Hollywood Bowl seats more than 10,000 people -- its closer to 18,000.

Anonymous said...

Anon, plse be less arrogant and anal. Thank you.
Annoying, isnt it.

Edward Copeland said...

When I was really young (kindergarten and first grade, I think, my grandma too me to the local Starlight Musicals two summers in a row to see Liberace. What I remember most are those who performed with him. One year, a magician who called himself Mr. Electric and did tricks with lights and the other year, the late, great Foster Brooks. I bet even fewer people know who Brooks was today than those who remember Liberace.

Anonymous said...

Better than Douglas convincingly playing Liberace is Matt Damon convincingly playing dumb. He's like the anti-Ripley here.

tb said...

Liberace was a villian on Batman the other night as "Chandell", charming Aunt Harriet

RCP said...

Brian Phillips said...

"People will believe what they want to."

And ignore what they don't wish to acknowledge. That's interesting about Eltinge's fanbase. During his era, both male and female impersonators were popular - the audiences of the time weren't going to snicker or clutch their pearls - it was considered quality entertainment. As long as drag and experimenting with gender roles were confined to the stage, there was a comforting buffer between 'entertainment' and 'reality.'

Liberace's over-the-top theatrics no doubt helped keep reality at bay for his more conventional fans.

D. McEwan said...

In the 1950s - 1980s, my mother's first husband lived next door to Liberace. As a result, my elder siblings got to swim in that famous piano-shaped pool.

Ken Levine said...

I will post my thoughts on the first ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT sometime tomorrow. I wanted enough people to see it first. So stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

In the early 50s, Liberace was touring the bay area and spent the day at our home in Palo Alto. I have a picture of him in a bathing suit, by our pool (not piano shaped), playing jacks with my sister. He was extemly charming and nice, played the piano for me and joked around. But - it was certainly obvious he was gay.

Rosariorose9 said...

@Mike Doran and bettyd,

In the United States, truth is an absolute defense in an action for defamation - meaning, even if something is said (or written) with malice, it is not actionable if it is true...

Michael said...

Friday question: Have there been porn parodies of any of the shows you've worked and, if so, have you seen them? Asking because of news reports of Lena Dunham tweeting her unhappiness about a "Girls" porn parody.

Dangerous Dimebag said...

I thought Douglas was fantastic. From his lilt to his facial expressions, it was a true transformation into the character.

Pat Reeder said...

Don't have HBO, but I'll look for this movie on DVD. I'm old enough to remember being taken by my parents to see Liberace when he played in Fort Worth and sold out the Will Rogers Auditorium. All those Texans didn't seem to mind the high camp. If they didn't know he was gay, then they must not have had an inkling of what that meant. (Years later, I was in Vegas when Liberace died, and I remember hearing Gallagher ask, "Liberace, gay? Who next, Truman Capote?!") I still remember him wearing a long, white ermine coat; twirling a baton while wearing a sequined US flag hot pants outfit; and working his way across the front row to show everyone his jewelry up close ("Get a good look; you paid for it!")

Anyone interested in his musical side should check out his records and the DVDs of his TV show. Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook series on PBS recently had an amazing clip of him using double exposure to duet with himself on "You're Not Sick, You're Just In Love" in an effect that seems impossible for that early era of TV.

BTW, to Michael: There is, indeed, a porn parody of "Girls." It's called "Girls," and it airs regularly on HBO. Warning: it's the WORST porn ever!

Canda said...

I thought it was filled with awful stereotypes, and why are we believing the version by his felon boyfriend? The film ends by saying, "He lives in Reno". He's in prison in Reno! This film is another example of Hollywood applauding people for playing what they're not - super straight Michael Douglas plays mincing queen - rather than for playing a fully realized character. The film, nor Douglas, never captured the exuberant performer Liberace was, and the enthusiastic response audiences had to him.

This is one of the few times I disagree with you, Ken.

Damon was good, period, I grant you that, but the teleplay writer obviously made the author of the tell-all book a more complete person.

Shawn Rech said...

Thanks for the nod to my Cleveland Indians (Matt Bourne).

This movie was fantastic, and deserved to be released on the big screen. And I gree, Rob Lowe was hilarious, just like when he played Drew Peterson, though I'm not sure that was intentional.

I love your blog and am enjoying "The Me Generation"

Shawn Rech

Don K. said...

I'm in the minority as well. I thought this movie was very hard to watch, and I'm not talking about the sex scene where Damon's character is having anal sex with Douglas's character and we keep seeing Douglas lurch forward with every thrust Damon makes.

It's mostly from Thorson's point of view, and to me that makes the story's perspective suspect. Thorson's currently in jail in Washoe County after pleading guilty to a myriad of identity theft and burglary charges, and he claims when he visited the set no one would give him the time of day. Thorson currently has stage IV anal cancer and will likely pass away in custody.

Karma's a bitch.

YEKIMI said...

My mom used to listen to Liberace when she was pregnant with me. Even as a fetus, I knew he was gay! She was shocked when he died of AIDS. Didn't ever suspect he was gay.

Anonymous said...

It used to be, if you wanted to invigorate your career with newfound levels of attention, and lay the tracks to an almost certain acting awards, your agent/manager would advise you to play a mentally retarded person. The field has broadened.

Gay is the new retard.

Wayne said...

I tuned in late. Thought it was Matt Damon in the Bourne This Way Identity.

Imagine Liberace prevailing in a libel suit in a British court. Somewhere Oscar Wilde was going "Who's your lawyer?"

Patrick said...

To all you homophobic deniers: Liberace sucked more young men's cocks then there are keys on all of his pianos, black and white. Capiche?

Anonymous said...

douglas was horrificly mincing- what a poor job for an usually good actor- matt faired muc better....and steven????? what a piss poor script- I knew Mr. L and there is so much more to the story than this piece of garbage
approved by the blog author? well her goes this comment