Dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2013
Scott Thorson, a young animal trainer for Hollywood films, is introduced to Liberace (“Call me Lee”) backstage at one of his Las Vegas concerts. Immediately taking a liking to one another, Scott moves in with Lee and they begin a romance which would come to define the last ten years of Liberace’s life and change his legacy forever.
“It’s funny that this crowd would like something this gay”, states Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson during Behind the Candelabra’s opening Liberace performance. To which Scott Bakula’s character replies, “Oh, they have no idea he’s gay”. In essence this exchange sums up the entire film as Soderbergh (with the help of Thorson’s source material) peels back the synthetic surface of what was Liberace’s fame and reveals an intimate, no-holds-barred glimpse into a remarkable relationship conflicted by, in a word, identity.
As mentioned previously, we first meet Liberace through the eyes of 17-year old Scott Thorson during a magnificent rendition of the Boogie Woogie that razzles and dazzles in the ways that Mr Showmanship excelled at. After that, we strip away the piano but not the pearls and are introduced to Lee, who Michael Douglas slips into like a rhinestone-studded glove. Though kitted in cosmetics aplenty, Douglas avoids wearing his role like a mask, as we do get with so many of those heavy-handed biopic portrayals. Douglas becomes Liberace – diva incarnate – exhibiting so much gusto that it’s almost bursting through the screen. However it’s Matt Damon who has the harder role as the impressionable and youthful viewpoint, unsure as to his orientation and suddenly strewn into a new world in which wealth is lavished upon him. Fortunately, Damon is equally superb as Douglas, though his role is slightly reminiscent of his turn as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley.
The story is hardly complex and it’s all a mite predictable but none of that matters to the enjoyment of the film. Rob Lowe is hilarious as Lee’s waxed, stretched plastic surgeon who looks more mannequin than man and Dan Akyroyd grounds the film just enough as the frustrated agent, tired of dealing with the Liberace’s short-lived affairs. It’s simply a shame that Behind the Candelabra was released as a HBO TV movie in the States and is therefore ineligible for any Academy Awards, for this might be the finest performance Michael Douglas has ever given while also being one of Soderbergh’s best pictures.
Bound by vulnerable performances from a committed cast, Behind the Candelabra is a marvellous and heart-warming presentation of the hidden life of Liberace – one that is flamboyant and comical but refrains from slipping into tasteless caricatures. Soderbergh expertly crafts a perfect blend of style and subtlety, capturing one of the most peculiar relationships the world has never seen.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆