“Behind the Candelabra,” which premiered at Cannes today before heading to HBO on Sunday, May 26th at 9pm, is Steven Soderbergh’s virtuoso swan song to filmmaking (at least for now), his final feature before stopping to focus on his painting. Soderbergh recently and famously expounded on his frustrations with the studio system in a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which, while not the cause for his break from cinema, certainly didn’t dissuade him from it.
It’s fitting both that his announced final film was produced by and made for cable television after he couldn’t find backers for it in Hollywood, and that it’s a piquant, strange, funny-sad tale of a love affair that slowly sours and grinds to an end. It’s about Liberace (Michael Douglas), his glamorous, ridiculous life and his relationship with a young man named Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), but it also feels like a fond but firm tip of the hat to a world that has, by the time the curtain falls, slipped away.
When “Behind the Candelabra,” which adapted to screen by Richard LaGravenese from Thorson’s book of the same name, begins in 1977, Liberace is in his 50s and performing in Las Vegas under the appellation “Mr. Showmanship,” thrilling audiences of enchanted tourists with his ace piano playing and glittering suits, glittering rings, glittering swoop of hair (fake, it turns out) and winking patter. One of those delighted faces the camera pauses on in the audience is that of Scott, who’s been brought to the show by Bob Black (Scott Bakula), a friend of Liberace’s.
Bob and Scott understand what the rest of the crowd is fiercely oblivious to, that they’re watching of performance of astonishing high camp that is being passed off as straight through some kind of mass cognitive dissonance. Liberace is so gay that he’s managed the closeted equivalent of shooting the moon — he doesn’t have to convince his mainstream fans of anything; they desire and require his denials more than he needs to provide them. He proclaimed his heterosexuality all his life, and even his death from AIDS in 1987 first passed off as from other causes, but in the comfort of backstage there’s little attempt to keep the secret. Bob, who first met Scott at a gay bar, introduces him to an appreciative Liberace while the performer’s sulky “protege” Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson) sighs in the background, aware of what’s coming.
The real Thorson was a teenager when he met Liberace — while Damon is undeniably a grown-up, he plays Scott with an intriguing mixture of canniness and naïveté. He’s captivated and amused by the lifestyle Liberace describes as “palatial kitsch,” by the irritable houseboy in tight pants who offers him a crotch-level tray of sausage hors d’oeuvres when he and Bob come to visit, by the embroidered white housecoat in which their host receives them. Scott’s not entirely at ease with his sexuality, but he’s no rube — still, even he isn’t sure if he’s reading the signals right when summoned to the house again to sit in a hot tub and listen to Liberace talk about how he wishes Billy’s wife would come take the increasingly disgruntled man away, and to deal with a vague job offer that may or may not include sex.
Liberace really is the auteur of his own life, cultivating every detail from the garishly fabulous decor and costuming (he has a $300,000 crystal-studded fur coat with a train), and what Scott understands but can’t quite take to heart is that he’s being auditioned for the not uncomplicated role of Liberace’s lover, companion and employee, a constant but rotating position that’s been filled by different beautiful young things over the years, one at once incredibly intimate and an act of pampered monetary dependence. It’s a part that’s as decorative and carefully chosen as the furniture adorning the house. Scott arrives to move in just as Billy’s being shown the door, Liberace’s devoted manager Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd) collecting the ousted man’s rings from him before he goes, and yet even knowing this Scott slowly falls for his much older patron and for the decadent world he’s created for himself.
Liberace can be a laughable figure and a ghastly one, facts the film details with nonjudgmental fascination — he tells Scott about the importance of “knowing how to be yourself,” yet pushes him to get plastic surgery so that they can look alike. (The surgeon, played by Rob Lowe as a walking sight gag with a taut to the point of immobility face and bronzed skin, is happy to to comply, and also supplies Scott with speedy “California diet” pills that start him down a path to addiction.) He earnestly suggests an open relationship, then throws a violent tantrum over any hint that Scott is sleeping with anyone else. Soderbergh understands the humor and bizarreness of man, but the film isn’t just an exploration of his decadent eccentricities, as enjoyable as they are to watch — there’s a growing emotional heft abetted by the two very strong leading turns.
Douglas, who goes from preening in front of a theater full of people to being stumbled upon, bald and sagging, fresh out of the shower, plays Liberace as pulled between his need for control and his desire to care and be cared for by someone not just there to freeload. It’s a terrific and vanity-free performance, one that finds the conflicted, aging person underneath the self-embraced caricature while also making it clear that caricature is where Liberace is most comfortable. And Damon matches him by portraying Scott as someone aware that he’s leaping onto a gravy train (“My eyes are open,” he tells his concerned foster parents when moving in) but who can’t help but take seriously Liberace’s insistence that he’s the family Scott never had, his yearning and mild avarice inseparable.
On stage, Liberace glows, and not just because of all the crystals — he’s an incandescent performer, animated and deeply concerned with pleasing his audience. That desire to be adored that drives him, that need to keep his fans happy provides the reasoning for why he is so litigious about his sexuality, but it also explains his approach to his relationships — why make sure your lovers are also on your payroll? So you can be assured of a certain distance and fire them when things are over. As the years tick by, Scott’s drug use becomes heavier and Liberace’s eye starts to wander, the mirrored fantasia in which they live starts to seem claustrophobic, and Scott’s place in it precarious. It’s a tragedy on both sides, a cycle from which Liberace is unable to break and out of which Scott is spat, heartbroken, mangled and also intent on cashing out.
“Behind the Candelabra” depicts a romance that’s sincere and also a sham, that’s tawdry but also expressly poignant, and that finds an sharp, bittersweet sense of reconciliation at the end that gives way to a celebration. It’s a tribute to the glimmering surfaces of showmanship and the self-obsession that being a great performer all but demands, but watching it, it’s Soderbergh you have to admire. Who else is going to make films like this? Here’s hoping he comes back to make another one soon.