Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe
You may like this if you liked: Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004), Wilde (Brian Gilbert, 1997)
Based on an autobiographical novel, Behind the Candelabra tells the story of the six year relationship between superstar Las Vegas pianist Liberace (Douglas) and his young lover Scott Thorson (Damon). Thorson is a young dog handler brought up in a foster home and after first meeting Liberace the two of them strike up an immediate bond that is both passionate and genuinely intimate. At first Scott cannot get enough of the excess but after a while he finds it suffocating and Liberace’s unique way of living too much. Due to Liberace’s sexuality being a secret, Scott can never talk to anyone about the truth and he is even forced to lose weight and have plastic surgery to look a little more like his lover.
Branded as ‘too gay’ for a cinematic release in the states, Steven Soderbergh’s apparently (once again) final film as director is receiving a deserved theatrical release here in Europe. Credit has to go to HBO for funding this as what has been produced is a thoroughly entertaining, well made and extremely well acted film. There does not appear to be a huge budget and admittedly as most of the film is set in doors with very steady camerawork it does not feel particularly cinematic. The story itself also contains very few dramatic twists and turns and will hardly have anyone on the edge of their seat. However that for me is irrelevant as this a film about performances and indeed performance, and keeping the whole thing together and giving the film so much emotional depth are Damon and Douglas giving career best performances.
The role of Liberace would be so easy to get wrong, but yet Douglas seems to get it exactly right. Playing a gay man pretending to be straight but performing quite a camp show is most definitely not easy. It would be so easy to overact and make the character appear a clichéd caricature but Douglas captures perfectly all the unique characteristics of a deeply secretive man producing a naturally charismatic and very likeable character, despite all his obvious flaws and vanities. Admittedly the film could have dived deeper into Liberace’s mind and his back story but he is kept suitably enigmatic. The film is essentially presented throw Thorson’s eyes and we only know what Scott does about this very unique man.
Despite having less material and his character of Scott being less flamboyant than Liberace Matt Damon gives emotional substance to his role which was always going to be crucial for this film to work. It would be so easy to let the excesses of this lifestyle get the better of you when it is such a dramatic culture change and despite his character flaws, Scott is an extremely sympathetic character.
Behind the Candelabra also works as a commentary on the shallowness of the celebrity lifestyle and the whole culture itself and due to the repression of Liberace’s true sexuality does contain bigger themes. Dan Akroyd’s selfish manager and Rob Lowe’s sleazy plastic surgeon are very effective at depicting just how hollow and vain the whole culture is. However these are never overdone as this would distract from what is essentially a story of one man. The tone and style of the film is consistently kitsch and always fun, and certainly remains extremely watchable and entertaining throughout.
When the pressures of the lifestyle take the inevitable strains on Scott and Liberace’s relationship again the plot takes no dramatic twists, but both characters provide the emotional substance to keep us caring. Towards the end there is also a particular scene that contains genuine emotion and compassion giving the whole film an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Immensely enjoyable and watchable, Behind the Candelabra is held together by two superb performances providing a fascinating depiction of a genuinely fascinating character.