“Behind the Candelabra” is as dazzlingly entertaining as its flamboyant entertainer hero who ironically hid himself through the bold, colorful, and sparkling presentation of his personality on the stage. When we see one of Liberace’s stage performances full of glamour and sparkles along with the candelabra on his fancy piano, it is almost transparent that he is a homosexual, but, despite constant rumors about his sexuality, his fans and others mostly accepted his public denial, and that went on until his AIDS-related death in 1987(he tried to cover that fact from public even after his death, by the way).
Based on the book written by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, the movie focuses on a crucial romantic relationship during the later years of Liberace’s life. It is 1977, and Scott Thorson(Matt Damon), a good-looking 17-year-old boy hoping to be a veterinarian while working as an animal-trainer, happens to meet Liberace(Michael Douglas) through a Hollywood producer named Bob Black(Scott Bakula), who has been Thorson’s close friend after their incidental encounter at a local gay bar. After taking care of the eye problem of one of Liberace’s dogs, Thorson starts to win Liberace’s favor, and then he soon works as Liberace’s ‘assistant’ while living with him.
Thorson may be naive compared to others around him, but he is well aware of his new position as Liberace’s latest lover, and he gladly enjoys the excessive luxury inside Liberace’s mansion in Las Vegas, which looks like a big, wide royal palace filled with expensive furnitures, decorations, and clothes. He soon gets his own house and cars thanks to his lover’s generosity, and he also appears with him on the stage as a part of the show.
Despite their considerable age difference(Liberace was approaching 60 around that time), there is genuine mutual affection between Thorson and Liberace. From his lover, Thorson sees an aging man who always needs someone to stand by him(and sleep with him), and he willingly gives his lover whatever he wants while showered with the presents from him. In addition, because he grew up without his parents when he was young, Liberace becomes a father figure to him, and Liberace, who seems to really love him, even seriously considers legally adopting Thorson as his son – or his lifetime partner, shall we say.
But the story becomes weirder and darker as their relationship is developed further. In a hilariously cringe-inducing moment, Liberace has his shady plastic surgeon Dr. Startz(Rob Lowe, who looks nefarious as much as he can) do a plastic surgery on Thorson for making Thorson look more similar to him, and the movie has some fun with the unpleasant details of plastic surgery process. Thorson later becomes addicted to the diet drugs prescribed to him by Dr. Startz, and his addiction problem puts more conflict on their strained relationship along with Liberace’s frequent promiscuity.
While it has the inherent quality of campy show business melodrama considering its subject, the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese stays neutral with its balanced view on Liberace and Thorson’s relationship amid sumptuous set designs and flamboyant costumes, and the movie is constantly enjoyable to watch thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s slick, competent direction(as usual, he also worked as the editor and the cinematographer of his movie). The ambience of the 1970s is recreated well on the screen along with Liberace’s showy stage performances, and late Marvin Hamlisch’s score functions well with other songs on the soundtrack(this is his last work, by the way).
Michael Douglas has received lots of acclaims including an Emmy award for this movie, and he certainly deserves them for many reasons. It is always pleasure to see an actor showing unexpected sides through good performance, and, as he sometimes did, Douglas shows here something we have never expected from him. Gliding with wig and make-ups and those shiny capes like a peacock, he not only looks convincing as Liberace but also gives us the complex portrait of a colorful show business man who can be caring and generous as well as manipulative and egoistic. Douglas deftly moves around theatricality and sincerity while revealing an interesting human being behind the caricature persona created by himself, and he is always entertaining to watch on the screen.
Opposite to Douglas, Matt Damon naturally looks less showy, but his earnest performance holds the ground while having a good chemistry with Douglas’. He surely feels a bit awkward at first(after all, he plays the character who was a teenager boy at the beginning), but he quickly immerses himself into the role as the story develops with passing years, and he is effective as a young man who is easily impressed, influenced, and manipulated by a larger-than-life figure he loves and cares about. Thorson’s gradual transformation along the plot is believable thanks to Damon’s performance, and he and Douglas never flinch from their respective characters as convincingly presenting the unstable relationship dynamics between them.
The supporting actors surrounding Douglas and Damon also leave some impression as they revolve around them. While Rob Lowe and Scott Bakula are easily recognizable, Dan Aykroyd is nearly unrecognizable as Liberace’s trusted agent Seymour Heller, and Debbie Reynolds is Liberace’s old doting mother who has probably never imagined that her talented son is not very interested in finding the girl of his life.
The movie ultimately comes to us as a humorous and touching love story between two men who still care about each other despite the bitter end of their relationship. Their final meeting scene not long before Liberace’s death especially feels poignant, and it is soon followed by the beautiful closing scene Liberace himself would have fully approved of.
Steven Soderbergh recently announced that he will retire from his directing career, and it seems “Behind the Candelbra” will be his last movie(Produced as a TV movie, it was aired on HBO in this May while being released in theaters outside US). Considering that he is not that old yet, it is possible that he will make a comeback later, but, anyway, this is surely the fantastic swan song from one of the talented directors of our time.