Film review: Behind the Candelabra

Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and his  adoptive father/lover Liberace (Michael Douglas) in Behind the Candelabra. Picture: complimentary
Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and his adoptive father/lover Liberace (Michael Douglas) in Behind the Candelabra. Picture: complimentary
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By showing a gay relationship story without the Holywood moralising, Steven Soderbergh cuts to the heart of Liberace’s fascinating weirdness

Behind the Candelabra (15)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe

* * * *

Having bowed out from making feature films specifically for the big screen with Side Effects earlier this year, Steven Soderbergh’s latest and final film is a typically subversive effort.

Produced by HBO for television, but getting a cinematic release internationally, it’s a marvellously stylish, provocative and withering look at showbusiness excess, the deleterious allure of fame and their effect on a relationship, all wrapped up in a fabulously entertaining biopic of Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his young lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

Set during the later years of the flamboyant American pianist’s life, and based on Thorson’s own autobiography, it homes in what seems to have been Liberace’s strangest relationship in a bizarrely closeted life. The story begins in 1977 with Scott being taken by a boyfriend to see Liberace perform in Vegas to crowds of mostly elderly women who have no idea he’s gay. “How can they not know?” he asks, bewildered, as he takes in Liberace’s outré manner, dazzling costume and ostentatious stage act. It’s not an unreasonable question. Indeed Liberace’s ability to hide his sexuality in plain sight under the cover of showmanship not only becomes a motif in the film, it’s echoed in the way Soderbergh – ever the formalist – approaches the story. Hinting at coyness with a euphemistic-sounding title, he delves straight into a forthright exploration of the whacked-out private world Liberace cultivated with Scott after meeting him backstage on that night.

Liberace moves Scott into his house – to the obvious chagrin of the most recent in an apparent long line of young male courtiers – and the pair are soon almost inseparable, with Scott fulfilling the role of enthusiastic lover, spouse and son. Soderbergh approaches the first two aspects of their relationship without prudishness or prurience – the sex, the affection, the way Scott’s trophy-like status becomes more complicated the more involved he becomes in Liberace’s business affairs isn’t treated as anything particularly special and Douglas and Damon embrace it all with the acting equivalent of a shoulder shrug –this is not, mercifully, one of those films where being gay is a traumatic event in and of itself.

Instead, the film’s primary area of psychological interest is rooted in Liberace’s odd attempt to turn Scott into the son he never had. Inspired by Scott’s upbringing in a series of foster homes, Liberace floats an idea that he should adopt him legally, an idea to which Scott, looking for some kind of security, readily agrees. But it is Liberace’s demand that Scott undergo plastic surgery to look like more like his younger self (Liberace, that is, not Scott) that really signifies how strange this relationship is. Before you know it, Scott is being transformed by a plastic surgeon – played by a monstrous-looking Rob Lowe – into a hideously chiseled Ken Doll version of Liberace.

He looks horrendous, and Soderbergh ups that yuck factor, showing each procedure being carried out in sort of forensic detail that makes the Gywneth Paltrow autopsy scene from Contagion look tame. Once again, nothing is being hidden away here. Indeed, this culture is so omnipresent now that these scenes feel like an amusingly gruesome comment on our celebrity-obsessed times.

Not that Behind the Candelabra ever feels like it has an agenda to push. Soderbergh smartly lets the performances drive much of the story, and both Douglas and Damon, while being immensely entertaining, bring a lot of subtlety to their respective roles, mining the pathos from such tragically deluded men without tipping us off as to how we’re supposed to feel about them. In the first instance it’s really Douglas’s movie and he plays Liberace with a kind of toxic appeal that infects the rest of the film. He’s the product of a vacuous, fawning, image-driven world, but Douglas also makes him human. There’s an extraordinary scene when Scott first sees him without his wig; Douglas plays the moment with a lot of nonchalance, but there’s a hint of vulnerability too, something that becomes more pronounced much later on, when Liberace’s health starts to deteriorate due to an Aids-related illness.

As for Scott – did he really love Liberace? Damon’s performance, which is funny and vain, but compassionate and anguished too, certainly suggests he genuinely cared for him. True, that may also reflect the fact that the film is adapted from Thorson’s book, ensuring it has a natural bias towards his version of events. But that almost doesn’t matter. What the film ultimately serves up is an intriguing, and in the end, quite sad portrait of a marriage, not a legally binding one, but one in which all of the attendant complications and power plays that can make or break any relationship are laid bare. It’s just a shame Hollywood ran scared from this. On the plus side, that does make it the perfect swan song for a director who broke through by circumventing Hollywood in the first place.