Liberace Up Close and Personal
With its exciting behind the scenes narrative about being a movie that almost didn’t get made because of its supposed taboo subject matter, production being constantly halted for extreme situations and the whole “this might be Steven Soderbergh’s last movie” paranoia, it’s almost easy to forget that Behind the Candelabra is a great movie.
The film opens in 1977 (Soderbergh’s use of a vintage studio logo and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” being small pleasures on their own) where we meet the handsome Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) as he begins conversation with an older man (Scott Bakula) in a club. Thorson shyly gives in to the man’s compliments and without a long exchange we instantly have been told what the entire movie will be about; this man’s endless quest for love.
Such is Soderbergh’s economy as a filmmaker that he has revealed an entire character’s backstory in seconds and by the time Scott meets who will become the love of his life, we know it won’t end well. Said man is none other than Liberace, the extravagant pianist whom Thornton meets after one of his shows.
Immediately wowed by the artist’s exuberance (the way Damon’s eyes shine is astonishing) they soon become lovers, with Scott moving in with Liberace as his “personal assistant”. The young man confesses that he thinks of himself as bisexual, but soon gives in to everything the rich man has to offer him, including love.
We follow their relationship throughout the years as Liberace tries to turn Scott into a younger version of himself (Rob Lowe plays a plastic surgeon from hell) and eventually they engage in an eternal battle as Scott starts abusing drugs and Liberace becomes more and more promiscuous. Written by Richard LaGravenese and adapted from Thorson’s memoirs,Behind the Candelabra, is an in-depth look at one of the most mysterious icons of the 20th century. It seems hard to believe, but there was a time when audiences had no idea Liberace was gay and Soderbergh captures this innocence—or voluntary blindness—with special attention.
Instead of making his movie about two men in a homosexual relationship, he makes a movie about two people in a relationship. Soderbergh is much too smart to sensationalize the story and without shying away from sexual scenes, he does them with such lack of self-consciousness that it’s easy, even for more conservative audiences, to look past it. In fact, by the middle of the movie, we could even think we’re watching a brilliant production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as both men are pitted against each other in a constant game of love-hate.
While the film’s production is magnificent (Liberace’s home by itself makes us wish we could pause the movie and explore) Soderbergh is able to turn it into something bigger than a run of the mill biopic. Behind the Candelabra doesn’t try to expose or reveal secrets about a famous person, instead it humanizes him and looks at him through a lens that lacks any sort of judgment.
Even if the screenplay seems to be Scott’s point of view, the director achieves moments of sublimity by reminding us that love and hatred are but different sides of the same coin. In one of the film’s best scenes, Scott visits an ailing Liberace and they have a heartfelt conversation that might remind viewers of when parents get divorced and years later share anecdotes no one else would understand.
Douglas and Damon turn in wonderful, perhaps career best performances as Liberace and Scott. Douglas completely vanishes within this extravagant man and in scenes where he isn’t being an entertainer reveals a pain that makes us understand why this man valued show business more than anything else.
Damon, on the other side, channels innocence with a curiosity for wickedness that only backfires. The usually restrained actor allows himself to become an object of desire who throws fits whenever he feels he needs to. Where both performances could’ve easily become caricatures or over the top jokes, the actors make them characters with personas we can recognize, who also happen to be “regular” human beings.
Behind the Candelabra isn’t only a wonderful acting showcase, it’s a reminder that Steven Soderbergh might be the finest American auteur of the past 20 years. The only person who could make something as strange as Schizopolis, as seductive as Out of Sight and as dark as Bubble, without losing any of his deep humanity.
Behind the Candelabra is presented by HBO in a simple DVD version which includes a behind the scenes featurette in which the actors and crew talk about the process of making the movie. It would have been interesting to see a documentary about Liberace himself, but the movie ought to inspire younger generations to seek out his performances and see how influential he actually was.