Behind The Candelabra
Matt Damon is Scott Thorson, a young man who becomes entranced by the showmanship of piano virtuoso Liberace (Michael Douglas). They quickly develop a strange but loving relationship, with Scott being swept up with the glitz and glamour of the Vegas lifestyle and Liberace determined to keep his sexuality a secret from his adoring fans. As Scott develops a drug habit and Liberace becomes increasingly distant from his aging lover, they try to hold on to whatever semblance of a relationship they once had.
Liberace would have hated this film. For a man who valued his privacy as highly as he, Behind The Candelabra is a candid deconstruction of the character of Liberace. The film shows relatively little of his life, really only over a 6-year relationship that is shown from Scott Thorson’s point of view, but alongside the great performer we are also given the mass of personality defects that made up Liberace. An insatiable sexual apatite, vanity bordering on narcissism, controlling and uncaring. Yet walking away from Behind The Candelabra, you cannot help revere the legendary pianist all the more for seeing his flaws laid bare. It’s this precise intention that director Steven Soderbergh crafted this film with, and he executes it flawlessly. It’s criminal that this film didn’t get a theatrical release in the US.
For a film that is sold as about Liberace, the truth is that Behind The Candelabra revolves around the author of the book, Scott Thorson. We enter Liberace’s world through Scott’s eyes – the first time we see Liberace it’s from a distance, in the audience, in full Liberace battle regalia. As Liberace begins to seduce the young Scott, it is the audience that is also being seduced. Every sly, libidinous look that Michael Douglas shoots at Matt Damon feels so real, so awkward and yes, so charming. Scott spends much of the film being a cipher for the audience. He’s not outspoken, fairly reasonable and doesn’t dominate any scene. He’s swept up completely by Liberace’s overwhelming presence that when Scott ends up giving everything he is to his lover it’s completely understandable.
The camera does so much story telling in Behind The Candelabra. Everything is perfectly shot to express Scott’s internal emotions. We feel Scott’s awe as he looks up at the stage, experience his shame as he descends into drug dependency, see his emotional attachment to Liberace consume him. It’s all the mark of a directing savant. It’s very much like strolling through Scott Thorson’s memories, some of the best and the worst moments of his relationship. At no point does it become confusing or stale., everything is as camp and entertaining as you would expect, and more so. It’s not as funny as it could have been, but considering how easy it would have been simply to mock Liberace and his bizarre lifestyle, this is a bonus, and keeps you connected to these characters.
Michael Douglas inhabits his character so fully that you swiftly cease to see him as anything but Liberace. When he firsts begins his sexual relationship with Scott, it does take you aback – these are two straight well-known actors after all, but it’s interesting how quickly this becomes a non-issue. After the first tender kiss the film ceases to be about a gay couple. This is not a gay film. It’s simply the chronicle of a relationship. True, there are utterly weird and wonderful moments, such as Rob Lowe giving Scott plastic surgery at Liberace’s request (to make him look more like a young Liberace, naturally,) but the paranoia, the feeling of unease, the bitchy unpleasant silences, the growing distance, these are things anyone who has been in a degrading relationship can identify with. We begin fruitlessly rooting for a clearly doomed marriage.
There’s no great message here, no moralising tale of love, or living with AIDs, or drug abuse, or disturbing decadence. Behind The Candelabra simply wants you show you a chapter in a man’s life spent with one of the most remarkable performers the world has yet produced. Even with such raw moments like as seeing Liberace without his wig, or discussing the complexities of anal sex, he remains an oddly unknowable character. His enigmatic personality is the thing you’ll continue to pluck at and puzzle over in your head long after the credits, as it has clearly remained in the mind of Scott Thorson after all these years. This film whisks you away to a world you didn’t even know existed, no matter how far removed you are from the rhinestone and glitter-plastered life of Liberace. What’s more, you’ll want to stay there, and there can be no greater compliment to a film than that.