Film and TV

Cannes: Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra is a Delightful Little Curio

Ladies and gentlemen—anyone, really, who cares about his or her mug—step right up. According to a bit of advice proffered in one of the festival editions of The Hollywood Reporter a few days back, the beauty product to buy while in Cannes is Avibon, an “only-in-France aging cream.” If sun and cigarettes don’t turn your skin to crinkled leather, now there’s a product to help you achieve that just-rolled-out-of-the-crypt look.

Add to that the California Diet—conveniently packaged in pill-sized portions—mentioned in Steven Soderbergh’s wicked and delightful little curio Behind the Candelabra, and you’re on your way to looking as wizened as a sun-dried tomato. Behind the Candelabra, set to air on HBO this Sunday after making its Cannes debut on Tuesday, tells the sordid, twisted but ultimately rather touching story of the relationship between Liberace and his much-younger lover and “protégé,” Scott Thorson, a man who became the bejeweled entertainer’s willing boy-toy and ultimately, maybe, his victim. Matt Damon plays Thorson, and he uses his laid-back, corn-fed demeanor to good effect: Thorson comes off not as a hustler who’s out to take advantage of a star’s wealth and fame but as a dazzled kid who sees an adventure dangled before him and says, “Why not?” If beefcake can be nuanced, Damon pulls it off.

And then there’s Michael Douglas as Liberace, his skin stretched into an almost alarming assimilation of Mr. Showmanship’s own visage. Swanning about in a full-length fur (with train!), sitting down at one of his gaudily appointed pianos to tickle the ivories with gusto, appraising male flesh as if he were selecting the right cut of pork tenderloin at the supermarket: Douglas does it all, managing to walk the fine line between characterization and caricature.

Behind the Candelabra is great fun, and even though the production and costume design are heavy on mirrors, gilt furniture and sequins, it stops short of being kitschy. Among other things, it’s a meditation on the sadness of self-deception as a way of life. Liberace and his longtime manager, Seymour Heller, here played ably by Dan Aykroyd, took great pains to hide the performer’s homosexuality from the public, even after his death. Motivated by the conviction that his fan base, much of it female, would love him less if they knew the truth about him, he fabricated hetero romances, claiming, for instance, that skating star Sonja Henie was the love of his life. It sounds absurd, but Douglas plays the character as an operator who still can’t hide his romantic streak—you can almost see how he could talk himself into believing his own nonsense.

It’s too bad more people won’t see Behind the Candelabra on the big screen—the story and its tacky-opulent setting are larger than life, and TV will only shrink them down. But Rob Lowe’s performance as Dr. Jack Startz, Liberace and Thorson’s personal plastic surgeon and diet-pill guru, will translate just fine. As Startz, Lowe’s face has a smooth Ken doll-sheen, and he wears the self-satisfied look of a lizard sunning himself on a rock. He delighted the audience at Cannes—we all giggled whenever he came onscreen. As a symbol of male vanity taken to extremes, he’s the latest wrinkle.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.