Behind The Candelabra (2013) Review

Steven Soderbergh’s last film before his self-imposed ‘sabbatical’ from film making is a useful reminder that we should hope he doesn’t stay away too long. Produced by HBO for television in the United States (because Hollywood studios declined to produce the film for being ‘too gay’ for mainstream audiences) it nevertheless received a theatrical release here in the UK. And a good job too, because a TV screen, no matter how big, is always going to struggle to accommodate that many rhinestones.

I don’t remember anything about Liberace from when I was growing up, although I do remember when he died because it was on the news. Looking back to the mid-1970s from the weary, jaded 21st century, two things strike me straight away:: how could anyone not have known he was gay and how could a pianist have become such a megastar?

Fortunately, the film deals with these two issues quickly and efficiently and leaves itself free to explore its central themes of deception, pretence and control. Charting the last ten or so years of Liberace’s life, it covers his relationship with Scott Thorson and its subsequent breakdown. Throughout the film, it plays on Liberace’s dominant, controlling private persona which guarded and underpinned his exuberant, genial public persona and the lies upon lies needed to support the whole Liberace industry. Indeed, it’s only halfway through the film that we, and Scott Thorson, discover that Liberace wears a wig.

Soderbergh is unafraid to show the darker or more graphic aspects of Liberace’s life beginning with his selection and seduction of Thorson as his new companion. Flipping unpredictably from generous benefactor to controlling megalomaniac to callous serial seducer, the film shows the lengths to which Liberace went to control and shape what he saw as his, including a series of unnecessary cosmetic surgeries and a bizarre plan to adopt Thorson as his son. It’s testament to him and his two lead actors that this becomes the absorbing, tragic drama that it is. Both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are amazing in “Behind The Candelabra”, delivering powerful and brave performances which Hollywood A-listers generally shy away from. There’s none of the subtlety of “Brokeback Mountain” here. There is instead frequent nudity and sex but thanks to Soderbergh’s expertise behind the camera, they are neither gratuitous nor sensationalised.

Matt Damon, as the lesser-known of the characters arguably has the more difficult task but demonstrates his range as he goes from wide-eyed innocent, overawed by Liberace’s star power to loyal companion to strung-out hanger-on. Douglas gives his all in the title role, and although he lacks the real Liberace’s easy-going charisma, he more than makes up for it by matching the mannerisms and convivial lecherousness of the man himself with real commitment. Both actors’ jobs are made considerably easier by the fantastic work done by the hair and make-up team, repeatedly transforming both men as time, drugs and surgery take their toll. Rob Lowe also makes a powerful and hilarious impression as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz.

This glitzy, diamanté studded journey through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s shows a glimpse of a more naïve, innocent time where the reign of hedonism and excess was abruptly being brought to an end by the emergence of AIDS. Against this backdrop, we are granted a backstage pass into the life of a driven, flamboyant but deeply closeted entertainer who wrapped himself in furs and sequins and showmanship, surrounding himself with only those he could trust and paying off those he couldn’t to keep his most precious secret safe.