Beyond the Candelabra – This 2013 HBO film is a flat, one-dimensional, embarassing mess
In a recent update to the update newsletter for LOOK BACK IN LOVE, a 60s tale of love and rock n roll, I promised on the book’s website to write about who would be portraying our personal manager Seymour Heller in the recent HBO movie, Behind The Candelabra. At the time I hadn’t actually seen the movie yet. Seymour Heller was best known for managing Liberace from a struggling pianist to a gigantic international star but he also managed Debbie Reynolds, and a long list of famous stars, that also included, Stark Naked and the Car Thieves in the late sixties. I not only knew Seymour from the three years he worked with me as the bandleader in managing our act from during those years, but also for the nearly three years later when I worked directly for him as an associate personal manager in the early 70s. I think that gives me enough credibility to comment frankly on this movie and how he and Liberace were portrayed. While I didn’t know Liberace nearly as well as Seymour, I met him often in the years when our band played at the Flamingo and International (Now Hilton) Hotels in Las Vegas, and afterwards working with Seymour.
Let me set aside for a moment my thoughts about the actual content of the movie. With several later years experience in video, film and post production, I have some strong opinions about the actual movie making process itself. As the movie unfolded, my wife Laurie and I constantly looked at each other wondering what in the hell we were seeing. The screenplay was just flat and poorly written — one-sided, un-nuanced and trite. It was adapted from an adversarial memoir, Behind The Candelabra, My Life With Liberace, by Scott Thorsen, who sued Liberace for palimony and is played by Matt Damon as a victim of Liberace’s seduction. Replace the gay young man with a young girl and any rich movie star or entertainer and you have the most over-worked Hollywood story ever written. Despite the amazing cast of characters, their performances were flat and one-dimensional and so many possible themes that could have been interesting and relevant were skipped in favor of the film’s exploitative goal. I thought the direction was uninspired, the cinematography average or below. I would be hard pressed to find any redeeming quality about the movie, amazingly enough, not even costumes.
I’d found it hard to understand why Seymour Heller was being played by Dan Ackroyd when I first heard about it; Sy was a personable guy but hardly a comedian. I heard a fiction writer say the best way to make a story believable was to make nine out of every ten facts in the story accurate. Apparently both the memoir and the screenwriter used this principal along with spin to deliver an inaccurate defamation of Liberace and an interpretation of Seymour Heller as a buffoon and pimp. I could never have believed the stars in this movie, many who must have known them both, would have taken part in such a character assassination of Liberace, or the parodying of an important and foundational man in the entertainment business as Seymour Heller if I hadn’t seen it for myself. Especially now that they are now dead and unable to defend themselves.
Let me tell you what I know firsthand. Seymour Heller, along with his New York partner, Dick Gabbe, practically invented the term personal manager. He fought to establish the talent management profession and worked with the big New York and Hollywood agencies to setup the rules that allowed them to co-exist. He established the Conference of Personal Managers, COPM, the first professional talent manager’s organization. Seymour began managing Liberace on a one year handshake contract in 1950 until Liberace’s death. Seymour was a tough negotiator and strict with his artists, and fought for them tooth and nail. He was a gentleman and wise in the ways of show business. There was nothing accurate in his portrayal in Behind the Candelabra. While we didn’t agree on everything, and I eventually struck out on my own, I always held Seymour and his integrity in the highest regard.
As for Liberace, he was an extremely kind and gracious host every time I met him. I did understand him to be thrifty, perhaps even tight-fisted except when it came to expenses for his show. Never did I see anything of the predator he is cast as in this movie. With Behind the Candelabra receiving 8 Creative Emmys, and likely to win several 2013 Emmy Awards I can’t help but feel sickened. I can’t believe I watched the same film. The cartoonish portrayal of Seymour and the single-minded depiction of a predatory Liberace disgust me. Very hard for me to see some of my favorite actors like Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Scott Bakula, Dan Ackroyd, Debbie Reynolds in such damning roles.
If you do decide to see, or have seen the movie, I hope you’ll keep my opinions in mind.