Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir of the same name, Behind the Candelabra examines the last ten years of flamboyant piano-player Liberace’s life, and in particular his secret relationship with young Scott Thorson. The film was the final outing for director Soderburgh before he went on hiatus, and marks the end in a run of top-notch films including Contagion, Magic Mike and Side Effects.
It’s 1977 and we join 17 year-old Thorson (played by 42 year old Matt Damon), a young man who grew up in various foster homes, while he is working as a dog trainer in Hollywood. His path soon crosses that of Bob Black, a Hollywood bigwig who in turn introduces him to the super star and unlikely heart-throb of the day, Liberace (Michael Douglas). Liberace constantly has a pack of small dogs he thinks of as his family (“They never judge you”) and after helping one of his poodles, Baby Boy, recover from temporary blindness, Scott becomes both Liberace’s assistant and lover.
Travelling through Liberace’s world of crystal-lined furs and frequent and extensive plastic surgery, Soderburgh gives us a dizzying feast for the eyes. Scott’s early tour of Liberace’s fabulous “palatial kitsch” home lets us look at him in all his gawdy glamour, a mix of traditional family values (the portrait of his mother over the mantel) and a great deal of SHOW. Indeed, SHOW is the film’s primary concern, with the version of Liberace that was presented to the public (with the media thinking he had love affairs with Judy Garland and Sonya Henie amongst others) battling with the real Liberace and his many boy-toys. Soderburgh paints a tragic picture of a man who was so keen to keep up pretence, despite all outward signs (“a conspiracy of blindness”) he even perjured himself in an English law court. As a result everyone in his life also buys in to the conspiracy, leading to a great deal of emotional turmoil.
The films leads had been attached to this project for quite some time, but found it stalling before it began for being “too gay”, eventually being picked up by HBO in the States. The pair stuck by Soderburgh’s vision, and as a result give some astounding performances. While the make-up on Douglas takes him partway to becoming Liberace, the real marvel is his performance, leaving you genuinely questioning whether it really is Douglas under all that silicone, fur and glitter. Damon is engaging and emotionally affecting in his role as Liberace’s lover/assistant/son, but can’t quite pull off the feat of playing someone 25 years younger. Rob Lowe also puts in a scene-stealing turn as Liberace’s decidedly over-taut plastic surgeon and Dan Ackroyd is suitably sleazy as Liberace’s manager and sometime boyfriend-handler Seymour Heller. The great performances extend to the canine too, with poodle Baby Boy receiving the 2013 Palm Dog award.
Great performances coupled with Soderburgh’s masterly directorial flourishes take the audience on a complex emotional journey, through a story which is told with some affection for Liberace, a man who could very easily have been painted as both predatory and shallow. Instead we are left feeling a level of empathy with him, as he found himself trapped in the ultimate show, even beyond his death.
Behind the Candelabra is both gawdy and fun as well as emotionally complex, much like Liberace himself.