Behind the Candelabra shines a glittering spotlight on the tempestuous relationship between Liberace, the famed pianist, and his younger lover, Scott Thorson.
A hazy opening shot sharpens to reveal young Scott (Matt Damon) frequenting a Los Angeles gay bar in 1977. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” plays on the soundtrack. Scott meets Bob Black (Scott Bakula), who introduces Scott to Liberace after they attend a concert of his in Las Vegas. Scott’s attention to Liberace’s favourite poodle, the blind and deaf Baby Boy, endears him to the piano maestro, and their relationship develops.
Behind the Candelabra is an entertaining showbiz biopic genre piece distinguished by its gay romance. The film makes clear that Liberace and his manager, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), promoted an image of Liberace as heterosexual. When we first see Liberace’s camp antics on stage, Bob tells Scott that nobody in the audience thinks Liberace is gay. It’s hard to believe there was a time when such high camp passed for straight. Soderbergh’s film looks behind the façade to present a look at the “real” Liberace.
Drawing on Thorson’s memoir, Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S. I Love You) provides an engaging script that features Liberace recounting to Scott stories of his childhood, his relationship with his mother and how he developed his stagecraft. The film charts Scott’s relationship with Liberace from 1977 through to Liberace’s death in 1987. Scott acts as friend, lover, son and husband, caring and listening to the older man, accepting his lavish gifts, before becoming increasingly jealous and feeling trapped before the relationship breaks down. Liberace decides at one point to adopt Scott as his son, though they maintain their sexual relationship. It’s an odd plea for recognition of gay marriage, with Scott declaring that they were married during negotiations for settlement after their break-up. All this may seem melodramatic and serious, but it’s frequently funny and generally entertaining.
Michael Douglas contributes a fabulous performance. His turn as Liberace benefits greatly from excellent make-up and glitzy costumes, and he works wonders with his voice and mannerisms, relishing in witty one-liners. Both Douglas and Damon undergo physical transformations. Scott’s requires him to appear like a younger Liberace, while AIDS ravages the great entertainer. Damon’s understated turn complements Douglas’ flashy histrionics. While Douglas takes the spotlight for much of the film, Damon comes into his own in the latter stages.
Rob Lowe almost steals the show playing Dr. Jack Startz, who provides advice on the surgery and Scott with dieting drugs. Frequent glances to his wineglass break up his otherwise vacant stare, which makes him seem such an unreliable surgeon. Lowe also benefits from make-up, topped off with a high camp wig.
The detail in the sets and costumes is excellent. Soderbergh adds some nice visual touches too, such as a flashback filmed in black-and-white when Liberace recounts his encounter in hospital with a messenger from God after the Kennedy assassination that converted him, as he tells Scott, to becoming a devout Catholic (who happens to enjoy visiting sex shops and wants to fuck his boyfriend for a change).
The title, also drawn from Thorson’s memoir, suggests that the film is getting behind Liberace’s kitsch persona, exploring and revealing the details of a gay romance of a celebrated entertainer. While the costumes and sets provide delightful visuals, the script provides funny lines and the performances entertain, Soderbergh’s work still rings hollow. It fails to transcend the conventions of the showbiz biopic. Tackling the loneliness of celebrity is hardly new, and taking a gay romance at its centre is not enough to make it groundbreaking or important. The showy performances of Douglas and Damon, despite tenderness in their scenes together, always feels like their acting. The film suffers badly by contrast to the naturalism of recent gay romances such as those seen in Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh).
Soderbergh presents a complex shot that reveals the film’s weakness. Liberace dallies with members of the Young Americans, a dancing troupe now performing at his show. It’s just before his performance at the 54th Oscars, where On Golden Pond was in competition. Liberace commends Jane Fonda for abandoning her protests and political campaigns and for making a sweet film with her father. He advises his young audience that stars should seek only to entertain. All this take place in the background. In the foreground, Scott drinks, worried about his relationship. Soderbergh focuses on their emotional and relationship difficulties. Taking Liberace’s advice, he avoids any political context, protest or political campaigns, in the late 1970s marked by such events as Harvey Milk’s assassination.
Soderbergh had problems with financing the film. Eventually, HBO came on board. Hence, Behind the Candelabra will not screen theatrically in the USA and will not be eligible for Oscars. The gay romance Soderbergh chose to explore is that of a very rich entertainer and his lover, played by Hollywood stars. For all its entertainment value, Soderbergh’s stylish effort functions as a fine example of ostentation: a pretentious, if glamorous, display.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
Behind the Candelabra is released on 7th June 2013