There seems to have been a decisive change in the mainstream biopic recently. Instead of attempting to chronicle a public figure’s emergence into renown from childhood to death, several biopics find their subject in a way that assumes the achievement of fame to be a given from the get-go. Movies like Capote, Invictus, Hitchcock, and Lincoln (not to mention the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks) choose to examine a particular episode in the life of a well-known person instead of justify its subject’s achievement of fame by depicting a summary trajectory of youth to adult achievement.
Sure, J. Edgar and The Iron Lady stand out as conspicuous exceptions, as signs that the conventions of the biopic are still alive and well. But this newer approach to the biopic (Invictus excepted) seems to allow a great deal of opportunities that conventional biopics don’t (to the point where they’re arguably no longer biopics): the ability to understand the exceptional individual not through a portrait of their entire life, but through a detailed examination of a more narrative-friendly set of select events and circumstances drawn from a particular point in their life.
Such is the same with Steven Soderbergh’s latest (and purportedly last) film, HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. By taking a more modest and focused route to the biopic, Candelabra is a close and fascinating examination of the bizarre phenomenon of fame itself.
Liberace seems like a worthy subject for this type of biopic treatment. For people of a certain generation, especially those born around the time of his death, Liberace’s name was a vague title that served as an index for fame without a specific referent. Like Alex Pappademas said of David Bowie, the name Liberace seems synonymous with fame itself. At some point, it seems we’ve all heard his name, whether or not we understood who he was; and like many famous people, the word Liberace seemed to reference neither a first nor last name, nor even a flesh-and-blood individual, but a general state of renown.
Even when one discovers the specifics of his fame, it’s difficult to imagine that someone became famous in the age of mass media for playing classical piano, or practiced such a campy and excessive act without being read as gay. Liberace was a type of famous that has no equivalent in 2013.
So it’s fitting that Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) first encounters Liberace (Michael Douglas) the way in which most people did during his lifetime: as an entertainer who had long settled comfortably into fame, but who remained an inaccessible and enigmatic figure. It’s a device used by several films of this type: we need somebody relatable, somebody seemingly “normal” and everyday, through which we can access the life of someone who is bigger than life. It’s effective because it takes an existing perception of the famous individual as the point of entry towards understanding their life behind the…well, behind their candelabra, I guess.
Candelabra, at its core, isn’t a film about the exceptional individual who achieved renown. Despite Douglas’s fantastic performance, the film isn’t interested in the inner life of Liberace. And while we’re given some great anecdotes that build the character into something far more dimensional than an imitation of a familiar face (Liberace’s sex-positivism, his Catholicism, and allegedly losing his virginity to a Green Bay Packer), none of these things provide a comprehensive psychology or allow us to occupy the subjectivity of Liberace. We’re invited to observe from a vantage point far closer than a booth in a Las Vegas showroom, but we’re still essentially observing.
The film also isn’t even entirely interested in exploring complex relationship at its core in depth. The relationship between Liberace and Scott behind-the-scenes is queer in the most deconstructive sense: the two interchangeably refer to one another as father and son, as husband and wife, as employer/employee or benefactor/recipient, but their relationship both exceeds and resists the traditions and limitations associated with such titles. As evidenced by Scott when he attempts to describe their relationship during a hearing, there is no word that fully encapsulates their correspondence.
Despite the film’s compelling depiction of Liberace, and the particularly ’70s relationship between he and Scott Thorson, Behind the Candelabra is really interested in fame as an institution, as something that can be reducible to contracts and points of ownership, and as a state of being that one can be fully subsumed in without ever acquiring it themselves. Candelabra’s Liberace sees fame and public perception as something that can, and should, be highly regulated. Douglas’s Liberace bemoans the politicized bastardization of fame by the Jane Fonda types, and makes a business out of suing for libel anyone who tries to connect the private Liberace with the public one.
Despite his stylistic expertise and apparently economic approach to a wide variety of filmmaking modes, Soderbergh often gets accused of too much coldness and calculation in his approach to filmmaking. This aspect benefits Candelabra, as we’re (once again) invited to observe but never fully possess Liberace’s life of fame from the inside. Sure, Liberace’s star image is deconstructed to some degree: we see his post-middle-age gut, his bald chrome that’s often hidden by an illustrious wig, the look on his face on the receiving end of sex. We see, essentially, behind-the-scenes of the show he puts on, but we never get a sense of how that show came meticulously into being, how the giant furs became an identifying armor and not a costume. Instead, the opposite occurs: Liberace makes another person into his image when he sees to Scott getting plastic surgery. There is no essential, corporeal, psychologically individualized Liberace: fame is instead a transferable state of being, a mere likeness that can be commodified and circulated.
As Scott slowly realizes while his access to Liberace wanes and dissipates, he came far closer to that famous person than the first time he saw Liberace in that Vegas showroom, but there remains a vast ocean between having access to a famous person and owning fame yourself. By becoming subject to the institution of fame, Scott becomes trapped, deprived of his agency and any sense of his self apart from Liberace. His dreams of becoming a veterinarian are dashed, as the person who operates in the service of a particular famous individual is rendered incapable of doing anything else. We’re kept at a distance because Scott is, too; we’re compelled and terrified the closer we get, but an association with fame is still an arm’s length from fame itself – and the possessor of that arm makes all the difference.
Though Soderbergh publicly admitted struggling to find a studio that would distribute Candelabra, the film seems fitting on HBO, a network that’s recently made something of a business out of focused biopics (for better or worse) by feature-friendly directors like You Don’t Know Jack, Game Change, The Girl, and Phil Spector. Such films might seem slight in comparison to their theatrical counterparts, but they more accurately demonstrate the modern framework of the conventional biopic.
Additionally, Candelabra, while far from a summary of Soderbergh’s diverse work (the workaholic seems to have arbitrarily made this his break film), seems an even more fitting summation of the recent trajectory of the director’s career. A filmmaker long concerned with investigating the particular operations of social institutions, the Soderbergh known for mosaic pieces like Traffic, Out of Sight, and Contagion has more recently (since the two-part anti-biopic Che) turned his focus on the enigmatic individual in relation to the greater system with films like The Informant, The Girlfriend Experience, and even his two recent studio pieces Magic Mike and Side Effects. In all of these films, individuals exercise certain degrees of performance, both in order to gain some power and as subjects of power.
With Candelabra, the individual performer and the powerful institution are one in the same.