Despite the earnest pr spin surrounding it, Behind the Candelabra invites us to
laugh at – not always with – the grinning, gaudy Vegas spectacle that is
Liberace. But Michael Douglas’ performance is also deep, sympathetic and brilliant,
an act of impeccable mimicry that reveals the essence of a man defined by his
fame as surely as he is encased in his spangled tux. The wonder of Steven
Soderbergh’s hugely entertaining film is that it beautifully walks the line
between hilarious kitsch and character study.
The story follows Scott Thorson, Liberace’s boy toy and live-in
love during the late 70’s played by Matt Damon with his usual conviction and
ease. Taken by his friend Bob (Scott
Bakula, looking one step away from the Village People) to see one of Liberace’s
flamboyant Vegas shows, Scott is surprised at how the mainstream, middle-aged
crowd embraces something so gay. “Oh, they have no idea he’s gay,”
Bob says, introducing one of the major themes in Richard LaGravanese’s deft screenplay:
the response of Liberace’s straight audience was part naivete, part willful
blindness, a reaction that existed in a particular moment in time.
Based on the real Scott Thorson’s memoir, the story is seen
through Scott’s point of view, and Damon creates a young man raised in foster
homes, flattered by the attention and the lavishness of his new friend’s life,
willing to sell himself into an arrangement with an older man. Damon — the most underrated of actors because he so
powerfully underplays — makes Scott’s youth his excuse for some odd choices.
Damon is terrific, but the film belongs to Douglas.
He has the voice down cold, the nasal drawl that turns Scott’s
name into two syllables: Sco-ot. But Liberace never seems like a predator; he’s
benign and, as he so often says himself, generous. He is also his own fictional
construct; it’s a great moment when we see him without his pompadoured wig, a sign
of his trust in Scott, a scene this smart film leads us to gradually.
And he is ludicrously self-absorbed. The most astonishing episode,
which really happened, begins when he asks his doctor (Rob Lowe) to reconfigure
Scott’s face to resemble a portrait of
the young Liberace. Shudder. Yet Douglas’
empathy for the character makes even
that seem like a child’s innocent Christmas wish rather than an act as creepy
as it is.
Much of the film take place in Liberace’s homes, gilded to
excess. And there are many extravagant recreations of his Vegas shows (total
camp now). Douglas’ fingers, with heavy gold rings poking out of large ruffled
cuffs, seem to fly across the piano keys in speeded-up variations on standards.
Scott appears on stage in a chauffeur’s uniform driving the car that carries
Liberace and his $300,000. crystal-lined fur cape.
But all that fun leads Scott to drugs and an inevitable
breakup, and a reconciliation scene with Liberace on his deathbed, still
capable of endless denial. He was a devoted Catholic who felt God exempted him
from the homosexuality-is-a-sin rule, a man who loved men yet successfully sued
a tabloid for suggesting he was gay.
Soderbergh’s production must have had wizards behind it,
because the piano-playing seems authentic, the prosthetics indiscernible,
although we know they must be there: Douglas has Liberace’s nose, Damon’s face
is Scott’s before and after the redesign, Rob Lowe’s eyes have been turned into
cosmetically-altered slits and Debbie Reynolds is unrecognizable as Liberace’s
Soderbergh’s much-discussed “retirement” from film
(which he’s lately recast as “taking a break”) is much less
worrisome today than it might have been five years ago, now that the distance between
theatrical films, television and whatever pops up online is diminishing so
fast. Behind the Candelabra – on HBO here and in theaters in other
countries – is the best evidence of that, a savvy movie that stands near the
top of both Soderbergh’s and Douglas’s careers.