It’s almost unfair how easy Steven Soderbergh makes it look. As the filmmaker heads into his hiatus from movie-making, he’s spent the few last years dipping between high grade entertainment (“Magic Mike“) and accomplished genre films (“Side Effects,” “Haywire“) and for his goodbye, he’s more or less combined the two. “Behind The Candelabra” is a cinematic bauble, that coats typical biopic fare with some real panache and heart. And while this does indeed mark Soderbergh’s last hurrah for now, it’s likely that a different narrative will soon form around the film. That narrative will surround Michael Douglas, with the 68 year-old actor delivering his best performance in a least a decade if not longer.
It’s hard to put into words how much of a transformation Douglas undergoes in the role of Liberace, but it truly is revelatory. Granted, he probably hasn’t had a part this good since his double whammy of “Wonder Boys” and “Traffic” (the latter another Soderbergh joint) in 2000, but Douglas takes hold of the role and knocks out a genuinely surprising turn that moves far beyond mere caricature. His Liberace is one conflicted by mommy issues and who wants to be “father, lover, son and best friend” to the men in his life, even if his tastes are fleeting. He’s a charmer but prone to intense doubt, and he soon meets his match with Scott Thorson.
Played with bright-eyed awe that soon turns to drug-addled resentment by Matt Damon, Scott is a country kid who is soon overwhelmed and taken over by the magnetism, lifestyle and love Liberace offers. Bounced from foster home to foster home as a young man, before settling with a couple who finally provided a stable home, Scott has always seemed to be out in the world, fending for himself. So when the rich, generous Liberace comes along and not only is sexually attracted to him, but opens a door to the kind of life and care Scott never had, he walks through that door. But soon enough, what’s behind the candelabra isn’t so shiny.
The film is really the tale of a toxic relationship, one that for all intents and purposes is a marriage, but strains under routine sex, paranoia and boredom. Liberace has a taste for having hot young things around, only to tire of them and move on to the next fresh face. (Cheyenne Jackson gets early laughs in his nearly dialogue free role as Billy Leatherwood, a disenchanted protegé put out to pasture). But Scott is more than just the next boy toy. He becomes a trusted confidante and lover, but soon the bond between Scott and Liberace becomes something a bit more twisted.
At Liberace’s insistence, Scott undergoes radical surgery to alter his face to look more like a younger version of the singer. And the work is so good, he’s mistaken for Liberace’s son. Meanwhile, the pianist’s sexual appetites find him suggesting an open relationship and trying to fulfill his kinks elsewhere, a situation which drives Scott crazy. But that is heightened by his increased drug use, which puts him on a path of paranoia and loathing, and slowly, the innocence they once shared erodes.
While the story may make it seem that Scott snorted away the best thing in his life up his nose, Liberace is no saint. He complains that he’s surrounded by people who are neither his family nor his friends and reveals his regret that he never had children of his own. He slyly manipulates everyone around him by holding his generosity against them, though Scott probably doesn’t want to admit that he stays with Liberace for the lifestyle he is able to live. These are two people so used to being alone, they can’t possibly stay together.
Douglas and Damon ace that cocktail of mutual attraction turned to inevitable destruction. “People only see what they want to see,” Liberace says at one point during the film, and that sentiment works both ways. Scott is certain that Liberace’s infatuation will come to an eventual end, while Liberace is convinced he’s being used. And the pair ensure those prophecies are fulfilled, to some degree. Douglas and Damon sell this complex web of emotions wonderfully, with the pair getting to the knotty core of what drives both Liberace and Scott. Douglas finds the constant showman in the entertainer, who never seems to want to the party to end, while Damon chases acceptance fueled by his lingering feelings that he still hasn’t quite lived his life to the fullest.
Around them are a great band of supporting players, who add some great levels of texture to the picture. The surprise among them is Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz who is nearly as doped up as his own patients, who he keeps on a steady diet of pills. His turn as a space cadet California doctor, who wears a frozen perma-smile, is a nice treat. Scott Bakula again proves reliable as Bob Black, a friend to both Liberace and Scott, while Dan Aykroyd is solid is Liberace’s attorney.
Both hilarious and heartrending too, “Behind The Candelabra” is decadently entertaining, even if its basic rise-and-fall structure is nothing new. Soderbergh finds the hollowness lying beneath the “palatial kitsch” Liberace indulges in and takes viewers into a world where love is the only escape from a life that is pure fiction. Liberace lives out loud, but also lives in public denial of his sexuality, so how could he give himself wholly in private? And yet, as Liberace rises over the stage like an angel in his final performances at Radio City Music Hall, it seems that when he’s on stage, he finds a rare moment of heavenly peace. [B+]