Film review: Behind The Candelabra (15)

Matt Damon and Michael Douglas both play against type with triumphant results
Matt Damon and Michael Douglas both play against type with triumphant results
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AT THE peak of his powers Liberace was the highest paid entertainer in showbusiness, but more than 25 years after his death, the Liberace museum in Vegas has been shuttered and boarded up.

Behind The Candelabra (15)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running time: 118 minutes

Star rating: * * * *

Will 2013 be the year when the public appetite for double-time, classically-trained boogie woogie piano is revived? For the love of god, I hope not. On the other hand, Steven Soderbergh’s drama about Liberace’s rhinestone-encrusted world is a noteworthy triumph.

There is razzle dazzle, from the moment 18-year-old Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) goes out on a date and sees Liberace (Michael Douglas) perform on stage for the first time. “It’s funny a crowd would like something this gay,” he whispers to his boyfriend Bob (Scott Bakula). “Oh, they have no idea he’s gay,” Bob replies. Nor do they appreciate the artistry of a gay man who hides his sexuality in plain sight, and marble-clad kitsch. Backstage, Liberace basks in Scott’s enthusiastic attention, and soon they are sharing champagne, a Jacuzzi, and then a bed.

Behind The Candelabra knows you expect swishiness, but it delivers something smart; rather than raucous camp comedy, most of the film’s humour is dark and sly. A shot of Damon’s bottom isn’t there for a cheap gag – it also flashes a thong-shaped tan that confirms Scott’s new lifestyle, although Rob Lowe is a broader pleasure as a drug-peddling plastic surgeon who has taken his own medicine so often that he looks like a Ronsealed raptor.

The themes here are illusion and delusion: Liberace is a spangly showman with an orbit of gold-plated young men, an ermine coat with the longest train in the world and a female following who have convinced themselves that he’s a lovely straight man you could take home to meet your mother. “People only see what they want to see,” he tells Scott. Liberace’s own self-deception is that he tells his blonde new beau that he wants to act as his family, but the reality is that he wants to mould Scott into a younger reflection of himself through diet and surgery. Scott insists that he’s bisexual, but no women feature in his life in this film, except for his foster mother and Lee’s formidable mom (Debbie Reynolds).

Post-Brokeback Mountain, you’d hope we were past praising straight actors for being “brave” enough to tackle gay roles, as if it was a step beyond playing murderers, cannibals or Margaret Thatcher. In any case, Douglas deserves kudos for being unexpectedly good, and sometimes great, in a role that doesn’t seem an obvious fit for him – not because Douglas is straight, but because he’s physically too slight, emotionally too restrained an actor, and finally about a decade too old (so is Damon for that matter). Yet his performance is immersive, charming, cunning and deceptively light. He plays us like one of Lee’s pianos.

Damon is equally good; the scene where he reads his boyfriend’s autobiography and finds skating star Sonja Henie named as the love of Liberace’s life generates a mix of hurt, love and understanding with which any marginalised mistress could also identify.

Every scene of Soderbergh’s film is sprinkled in sequin dust, topped by a finale that Liberace himself might have enjoyed. Is this also the final fling for Soderbergh? He says so, but even Douglas seems inclined to disbelieve him. Perhaps it’s just a break, while he retunes. «

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• On selected release from Friday