Feather boas, sequins and glitter galore, Behind the Candelabra is a fabulously flamboyant spectacle from start to finish. Following on from Steven Soderbergh’s latest and much acclaimed effort Side Effects, this film takes a different and looks at the the five year tumultuous relationship between ostentatious pianist Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson.
Liberace is somewhat a less than a familiar name in the UK as his superstardom never quite made it over the pond. He could be described as an Elton John of types with the most grandiose pomp and circumstance that ever stepped on a stage. Forever in demand by audiences, as the title suggests Liberace’s personal life was one which was far different and concealed to what he projected. Soderbergh came upon Scott Thorson’s memoir of their relationship, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace for which he and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese based most of the film.
Cut to 1976 in Las Vegas. Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is a young idealistic vet in training who meets Liberace (Michael Douglas) back stage. The 56 year old Liberace offers him a job as an assistant. Seduced and overwhelmed by the extravagant lifestyle, Scott eventually succumbs to Liberace’s sexual advances. As time passes the relationship develops into something much deeper.
Liberace’s true eccentricity is revealed when he begins to convince Scott to change his appearance. He offers to pay for plastic surgery for both them based on a portrait of younger Liberace pointing to it and stating- “I want you to look just like me!” What may scream psychotic to most, this is instead shrouded by the hilarity of the absurd. Liberace is so rich, glamorous and self assured and Scott does not object.
It is not long before cracks begin to form as Liberace becomes erratic with his constant success and Scott worries of his philandering with other young men. The final act of the film details their breakup as Scott’s mental state is damaged by Liberace’s narcissism and eventually sues him for palimony payments for their years spent together.
The film also deals with the taboo issue of AIDS which becomes Liberace’s demise. Perhaps one of the more poignant scenes of the film is Scott’s daydream during Liberace’s funeral. He sees his coffin driven on stage like in his performances. He then proceeds to appear on the piano performing ‘The Impossible Dream’ before being wire lifted into the air “to heaven”. This is shown with contrasting shots back to Scott in the audience where he first saw him. The scene is not touching in the traditional sense but in that it brings the extravagant, gaudy theatrics full circle. It intended to be a biopic but the story is larger than itself in that is becomes fantastical.
Since its release at Cannes last month there have been very few criticisms and likewise I can offer nothing but praise and sycophancy as I feel it is the best film of the year. The performances were surprisingly flawless. Michael Douglas leaps into familiar territory as the wealthy insider pulling the innocent into the bubble of excess a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Equally he seems at first to be unrecognisable as his portrayal is so convincing, carrying Liberace’s camp demeanour to the films end.
Perhaps the most kudos must be awarded to Matt Damon. Despite previous collaborations with Soderbergh, his casting couldn’t have surprised me more. A performance I feared that would be as shaky as the horrendous blonde wig on strapped to his head. This is not the case at all. Damon’s warmth, loyalty and lust for Liberace could not work better against Douglas’s. One can’t shake off the absurdity of the thought of Damon as his most defining character, Jason Bourne strutting out of the pool in tight, white speedos before straddling and being spanked by Michael Douglas (as he is in one scene). Damon unashamedly engages in these intimate scenes which are very entertaining and convincingly portray their loving relationship.
Similarly, Rob Lowe’s character, Dr. Startz, must be mentioned as one of the most outrageously ridiculous characters. With a face contorted beyond what is humanly possible he delivers the most fantastic one-liners.
A film that promised to be a biting comedy of grotesques becomes something so enjoyable regardless. It pains me that the film will be disregarded in the 2014 Oscar nominations due to its US release as an HBO television drama. The ludicrous nature of the characters and the wildly extravagant aesthetics in the film become more satisfying to watch with every frame. It is a must-see.
Behind the Candelabra (2013), directed by Steven Soderbergh, is released in the UK by Entertainment One, Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below.