Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace picture had been kicked around the studios a fair few times before HBO signed a cheque to fund it. Shown exclusively as a TV movie on the home of quality drama, Behind the Candelabra has managed to break out of the flatscreen and receive a cinematic release in the UK this month and a July release in Australia.
Detailing the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his secret lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Soderbergh’s latest isn’t a biopic in the strictest sense. There’s no watching young Liberace climbing the ladder of success or deciding on which glittery suit best matches the tone of his tan. No, we meet him when Scott does; playing boogie-woogie in Vegas and at the top of his game. At a speed that would leave a whirlwind breathless, Scott has moved in with old tinkletoes and they blossom into a fully symbiotic relationship; palatial kitsch and all. Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth. Ignored and ridiculed by Liberace’s house staff and considered a minor blip by his agent, Scott struggles to cope living in the shadow of his elder boyfriend and begins to turn to drugs.
Damon and Douglas are truly captivating. Douglas in particular is spellbounding as Liberace, taking the performance beyond a simple impersonation. His Liberace cares for Scott with wild love and an even wilder jealousy. As Scott, Damon goes under a number of facial reconstructions – something Liberace did to Scott in real life – but it never distracts. Both actors treat their parts as the living breathing couple they were. When they hold each other in bed and share a gold-plated spa, they are two people living in a bubble of Liberace’s creation.
And it doesn’t just end with the main attractions, as Rob Lowe is outstanding as Dr Jack Starz; Liberace’s plastic surgeon, Scott’s gateway to drugs and the closest you’ll get to a real life Ken doll crossed with the Child Catcher. He oozes charm through, what appears to be, very alcohol-saturated breath. Debbie Reynolds, as Liberace’s mother, is equally memorable. Adored by her son in public, she is seen as a burden behind closed doors despite appearing to be very accepting of her son’s closeted lifestyle.
Soderbergh’s direction is never flashy. In fact, for a film about someone as flamboyant as Liberace, it’s surprisingly restrained. The only real flashes come during a black and white flashback detailing Liberace’s born again Catholicism and a tear-stained funeral scene that the real Liberace would be envious of were he alive to see it. This isn’t a criticism however, it’s more about how Soderbergh ensures we focus on the central performances and the relationship between the two.
Blackly comic and full of heart, Behind the Candelabra is an exquisite film of love that never really judges Scott or Liberace for the things they do.