Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir of the same name, Steven Soderbergh’s biopic Behind the Candelabra is a touching, funny and tragic tale of forbidden love between a fame-hungry pianist looking to build a legacy, and an animal trainer searching for a father figure.
“What’s important is to be yourself” the eccentric entertainer Liberace tells his young lover, Scott Thorson – fitting advice from a man who, up until his death, fought to hide his true nature from the public. Walter Liberace, played by Michael Douglas, was, in essence, two separate men. He was Liberace: the charismatic, extravagant heartthrob; the charming, winking showman; the first great television entertainer. And in private he was Lee: the materialistic, greedy yet warm-hearted friend; the closet homosexual; the man in need of the latest accessory, be it a coat, a ring or a lover. Liberace was Lee’s mask, an important mask, as a gay pianist would not be able to build the legacy that he strived for, not in the days where homosexuality was not only frowned upon, but illegal. Any accusations of a secret sex life were met with libel cases, and often a television message, directly to the viewer, reaffirming his heterosexuality. In fact, this mask was so vital to the longevity of the Liberace name that he requested to be cremated as soon as possible after his death, as public knowledge of his AIDS contraction would be detrimental. This request was rejected by the coroner, and where is Liberace’s legacy now? In Behind the Candelabra we see his struggle to balance his love for the fame he feels he was made to have, and his lust for the lifestyle he was told he can never have.
Michael Douglas slips seamlessly into the diamond-encrusted role of Liberace and is, as Liberace was in life, the star of the show; each of his lines delivered with the same gentle, loving warmth that Mr. Showmanship himself emitted, not to forget the gracious yet phony smile. But also worth a mention is Matt Damon, who takes the role of Scott Thorson, an animal trainer working in the film industry who, after a meeting backstage, becomes Liberace’s new plaything. Damon plays the part with the vulnerability and apprehension you would expect from a man suddenly thrown from dog-handling into the centre of Flamboyancy Incarnate’s life. Thorson, who lived in foster home after foster home, sees Liberace not only as a lover but also as a father figure – almost literally at one point – but it becomes apparent to Thorson that he is not so much of a son to Liberace than one part in the play that Liberace calls life – and a part that can very easily be recast. Although sincerity is at the heart of this film, Robb Lowe provides comic relief as Liberace’s hilarious plastic surgeon who seems to have gone to work on his own face; clearly not an advocate of putting his best wares in the shop window.
Visually, this film sparkles. In every frame there is either a hint of gold or the lens will catch the light, causing it to glitter like a diamond. The set pieces and costumes are fantastic too, be it giant crystal chandeliers or immaculate fur capes, the extreme flamboyancy is a fitting tribute to a man who once bought a golden Cadillac.
As with every biopic, there are strict limitations on the story in Behind the Candelabra, which admittedly do create a few slow moments. However, Liberace’s life was theatrical enough to make sure that you don’t stay bored for long in this revealing and occasionally scandalous story about one of entertainment’s oft-forgotten influences.
by Tom Woodcock