Perhaps vamping is the only real purpose here. In that regard, “Behind the Candelabra” is a costuming and cosmetic half-success, somewhere between freak show and amateur drag night. Michael Douglas stars as the famed pianist, dolled up and bedazzled, lisping his way through what turns out to be only a vague approximation of the older, 1970s/’80s-era Liberace — “Lee” to his inner circle — that most of us remember from variety shows. This is the faded celebrity in his semi-retiring Vegas years, surrounded by garish furnishings and yippy-yappy dogs that defecate on marble floors. Atmospherics are “Behind the Candelabra’s” strongest suit, re-creating a gauzy and unctuous realm of expensive cheapness.
Though Lee is an enthusiastic participant in the back rooms of the sexual revolution, its broader freedoms have entirely passed him by; when Douglas’s Liberace takes the stage, everyone except his geriatric fan club has caught on to the entirely unsurprising notion that Liberace is homosexual.
As a measuring stick of social progress, “Behind the Candelabra” at times comes off like those films about the tribulations of black Americans in the Jim Crow era; you simply cannot get your mind around the construct of fear and secrecy that defined gay men. The Liberace we see is obsessed (to the point of litigation) with maintaining the fiction of his heterosexuality, insisting to his grave that he only ever pined for the figure skater Sonja Henie. For all his flamboyance, Liberace perceived open gayness as a humiliating career-killer (as many celebrities still do).
Yet it seems “Behind the Candelabra” has little interest in unpacking the ironies and self-loathing that haunted Liberace and those around him. With some subtle adjustments to Richard Lagravenese’s screenplay, the movie could very well act as a metaphor for a story about the beginning of the end of gay discrimination. Instead, “Behind the Candelabra” is one long downward spiral, a gratuitous tale of a man who drowns in his own opulent acts of denial.
Lagravenese’s efficient but weirdly two-dimensional screenplay is based on a tell-all book of the same name by Scott Thorson, who was Liberace’s live-in lover and, nominally, his chauffeur and houseboy. Released a year after Liberace died in 1987, Thorson’s “Behind the Candelabra” was greeted mainly as an act of salacious revenge penned in the wake of a bitter legal dispute. In hindsight, Thorson’s book was a stab at truth — even if it was an opportunistic stab at truth.