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Case Number 26206

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Behind the Candelabra (Blu-ray)

HBO // 2013 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // September 4th, 2013

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All Rise...

Too much of Appellate Judge Tom Becker...is wonderful.

The Charge

Why do I love you?

Opening Statement

It's weird watching your cable bill grow from a tiny acorn to a mighty oak of debt.

It seems so simple and economical at first: there's a great deal with an essential package—Internet! Phone! Cable—and you're getting better reception for network and local channels than you'd get with an antenna. Then, for just a few dollars more, you have a whole other tier of cable channels. And for just a few bucks above that, another tier. And another. And then, finally, the prized premium channels like Showtime and HBO.

Suddenly, your cable bill is starting to look like a second mortgage; this is the time when people start assessing how much they watch as opposed to how much they pay, particularly where premium channels are concerned.

But everyone once in a while, a premium channel offers an "event" program, the kind of thing networks thrived on years ago, when they were turning out prestigious TV movies like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Eleanor and Franklin, Brian's Song, and The Burning Bed.

In 2013, HBO offered up the kind of prestige offering that harkened back to those TV-movie days. Behind the Candelabra featured award-winning talent on both sides of the camera, including two Oscar-winning stars (Michael Douglas, Wall Street, and Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting) and an Oscar-winning director (Steven Soderbergh, Traffic). Its focus—the relationship between pianist, personality, and master showman Liberace and his decades-younger lover, Scott Thorson—would be a tough sell on network television even today, but the premium cable channel was able to present it in a refreshingly no-holds-barred fashion.

Now, this acclaimed movie is being released on Blu-ray.

Facts of the Case

It's 1976, and teenager Scott Thorson (Damon) meets Liberace (Douglas), one of the wealthiest—and most flamboyant—men in show business. The two become lovers, with the older entertainer offering the kind of life the younger man could never have imagined.

While the youth is dazzled by "Mr. Showmanship's" opulent lifestyle, what Scott really wants is love. Raised in a series of foster homes, he's as impressed with the idea of being part of a family as he is with the cars, furs, and jewelry Liberace lavishes on him. For his part, Liberace also seems to love Scott—far more deeply than the many other young men he's taken in, going so far as to have Scott undergo plastic surgery to look more like Liberace and floating the idea of legally adopting the young man as his son.

But the good times can't last forever. Contrary to Liberace's personal philosophy, too much of a good thing can be…well, too much. Drugs, drinking, clashing egos, infidelity, and decadence burst the happy bubble, and Scott starts a downward slide that changes everything.

The Evidence

Behind the Candelabra could have been the campiest made-for-TV movie since Malice in Wonderland; instead, it's a massively entertaining and ultimately touching tale of love, fame, and excess played out against the backdrop of the late '70s and early '80s. It's amazing to consider that, as flamboyant and sometimes reckless as Liberace was concerning his personal life, people were still surprised to discover after his death that he was "secretly" gay; his efforts to maintain the illusion of being a heterosexual—while not compromising his whims and urges—are an integral part of the film.

Be aware: This is a very gay film. Soderbergh had planned it as a theatrical release, but had trouble getting backing because of the content. There are a number of fairly explicit sex scenes between the stars, but none of it feels gratuitous or exploitative, and most of it is handled with humanity and good humor—note how time passages are denoted by the tan lines on Damon's bare backside.

While the film is based on a memoir by Thorson (which I haven't read), it deals with its players admirably even-handedly. This is not the story of a wealthy older man taking advantage of an innocent; nor is it the story of a young opportunist. Liberace and Scott actually work well as a couple, and as depicted here, their feelings for each other seem genuine. Both men are shown as loving and caring, and as flawed and self-centered.

The film wouldn't have worked without strong central performances, and Damon and Douglas are fantastic. When I first heard about the film, Damon sounded like an odd casting choice; yes, he often plays younger than his age, but at 42, it seemed a stretch to have him play a teenager. Wigs and make-up certainly helped the illusion, but that takes nothing away from Damon's flawless performance. He easily and believably goes from a slightly wide-eyed, well intended, and easily impressed teen to a too-soon-jaded man in his 20s.

Good as Damon is, Douglas's performance is exceptional. He takes a man who became a caricature and humanizes him—without losing the over-the-top qualities for which Liberace became famous. Manipulative, child-like, driven, insecure, self-absorbed, cunning—Douglas hits the right notes and offers a complex, fascinating portrayal. This must rank among Douglas's best work, a fully formed characterization of a highly recognizable public figure.

In supporting roles, Debbie Reynolds is very good as Liberace's mother, Dan Aykroyd offers a memorable turn as his agent, and Bruce Ramsay gives a scene-stealing performance as Liberace's jaded houseboy.

Soderbergh's direction is superb—dynamic and sensitive. I enjoy Soderbergh's work, but I've found many of his films to be distancing and a bit impersonal, more about the technique of storytelling than the feeling of storytelling. With Behind the Candelabra, he offers a film in which the characters are front and center. Working from a script by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), Soderbergh's arresting visual technique is intact—there are some beautifully executed tracking shots and pitch-perfect edits—but what's important here is that we get to know these people, that we get to understand these people, and that—warts and all—we sympathize with these people. Even with its occasional Boogie Nights-ish '70s sheen, this might be Soderbergh's most emotionally resonant film.

The production is top-notch. The lone special feature on the disc is a "making of," and in addition to Soderbergh, Douglas, Damon, and other cast members, it features interviews with the costume designer, set designers, and others who contributed to the recreation of the Liberace lifestyle. The designers worked with the Liberace Museum to get the look of the settings and costumes just right—costume designer Ellen Misorjnick deserves an award on the strength of her recreation of an elaborate white, jewel-encrusted cape that Liberace wore on stage. The depictions of Liberace's concerts are extremely well done, and the film gives the showman a poignant, production number send-off that would likely have gotten the approval of the Man himself.

While the featurette is very strong and comprehensive, it's also the only supplement on the disc, which is a bit of a shame given how high profile this project was. What would have been great is if HBO had licensed some footage of Liberace performing, appearing on game shows, or doing interviews; he's been dead nearly 30 years, and a lot of younger viewers probable aren't all that familiar with him. For those interested, there's plenty of this on YouTube.

Tech-wise, Behind the Candelabra (Blu-ray) looks and sounds fine, just as it did when it was broadcast in May of 2013. The 1080p image is clear, with vibrant colors and a good amount of depth; the DTS-HD surround track is great, and the film actually sounds better than it did when it was shown on HBO.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Note: I often get discs that include a printed insert warning me that my Blu-ray should be updated to play the movie; so far, it hasn't been a problem. It wasn't a problem in my machine for Behind the Candelabra; however, I brought the film to a friend's house to watch it, and his machine would not play it. I put it in the Blu-ray drive in my laptop, and it played after a software update. So, just be advised that this one might be a bit tricky to get going.

Closing Statement

Glitzy yet sublime, Behind the Candelabra is an excellent, entertaining, and moving film. While it's a bit of shame that HBO didn't puff up the supplemental package a bit, this is still a good Blu-ray of a terrific film.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 40
Acting: 96
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: HBO
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• DTS 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
• English (SDH)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Blu-ray
• Comedy
• Drama
• Gay
• Romance
• Romantic Comedies
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurette
• Digital Copy


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