Liberace was one of the world’s highest paid entertainers from the 50-70’s and was highly regarded as a tenement of American popular culture, and music culture during his time in the limelight. It wasn’t until many years later, that the truth was let out about his lover and former chauffeur Scott Thorson, the ultimate evidence being Liberace’s aids related death during the 1980’s. Behind the Candelabra is based on Scott Thorson’s memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace (1988). It comes from Steven Soderberg, and as he claims is to be his last film for the time being, and it’s reported he’s recently become fed up with the means of production. Assuming that’s true, Behind the Candelabra (2013) is a good note to finish on, and it’s certainly a shame it wasn’t picked up by studios, and was relegated as a HBO TV Movie, regardless of it’s cinema release outside the states.
Taking up a more voyeuristic bio-pic style, the film focuses on one of Liberace’s lovers known as Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Scott is an adopted kid, under two very traditional, yet liberal parents who own a ranch. Scott goes with a friend to see one of Liberace’s performances. Scott is blown away by his talent, and thrilled to meet the star in the flesh as his friend takes him backstage. Liberace (Michael Douglas) takes a liking to Scott, as he hires him. Their business relationship soon becomes sexual, as the two move in together and are essentially married. All of this occurs as Liberace maintains a public facade that he’s straight, in fear of damaging his audience appeal. The relationship gradually derails as Scott becomes to loathe Liberace and his promiscuous ways, and his fabulous career slowly comes to an end.
Steven Soderberg’s steadily paced, and psychologically honed style is perfect for Behind the Candelabra, as an audience we slowly dissect the happyness, the glamour, and the opulence and see this ribald, and unseen side of Liberace. He’s crude, promiscuous, and clearly lures young men in with promises of riches, and security. An incredible touch is when we see Liberace’s protege Billy Leatherwood scornful, and regretful of his association with Liberace, and in his first meeting we see Scott wonder why Billy acts the way he does. Towards the end, we see a shot with Scott in the exact same position in the frame acting passively aggressively as Liberace grooms male members of a warm-up act. Soderberg has an incredible attention to detail, and excels at very subtle and effective mis-en-scene and shot compositions.
The performances are unmissable. Michael Douglas is a relatively type-cast actor, usually plays the villain or supporting character. Yet, he manages to play this center of attention, this contradictory egotistical and flamboyant star as well as anyone could. The speech, the psychology and body language of the character, even the fluidity of the movements are all clearly honed in order to make the performance convincing. Matt Damon was also fairly commendable. There are also notable cameos by Dan Aykroyd as manager Seymour Heller, and an amusing and also disturbing supporting role by Robe Lowe as the clearly inept Dr. Jack Startz.
Soderberg’s apparent retirement has a lot to do with the general unwillingness to fund his often unorthodox and controversial films. Several producers were quoted on claiming Behind the Candelabra was ‘too gay’. How ironic, considering the film’s topic matter of Liberace’s hidden sexuality. I thought we’d already gotten to the point where sexuality in cinema was pretty much open turf? Especially considering lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) just won the Palme D’or. The film presented some fantastic performances, offered a truly alternative function to the bio-pic, whilst being very entertaining. I’m a 19 year-old straight male, and I found the film interesting even though I don’t have a huge understanding of the cult following of Liberace, or an interest in gay culture, understandably.
Behind the Candelabra is a masterclass of direction, acting, and set-design and costuming. I’d highly recommend it. Thanks for reading, and follow me @Sams_Reel_Views