Steven Soderberg directs Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in the Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” in a movie reportedly too “gay” for the studios and the only way it could be made and released was by the premiere cable channel HBO. Also reportedly Behind the Candelabra is Soderberg’s last film as he is taking a retirement.
Liberace was such a massive figure that his name has become an adjective to anything that is glossy glitzy and adorned with Rhinestones because he loved his excesses and lived life as European royalty with all his jewelry, his Art Nouveau palatial residence and his fur coats. He was also gay before it became acceptable for iconic entertainers to be openly gay, so his manager reportedly spent millions letting his adorning female fans know that he was very much straight and waiting for the right girl.
The story kicks off with a 17 year old Scott Thorson played by Matt Damon being picked up at a gay bar by Bob who takes him to a Liberace performance and then backstage to meet Liberace himself. Liberace instantly takes a shine to the soft spoken star-struck Scott and invites him over for brunch the following day. What ensues is a 6 year long relationship where Liberace takes in Scott and tries to mold him in his image what with the garish jewelry, the furs and plastic surgery. Scott who’s had a tumultuous childhood is so taken by the new lifestyle that he goes along with all of it to disastrous consequences.
As actors Michael Douglas is Liberace – his soft spoken, delicate mannerism the showmanship the extravagance it’s all very Liberace. Matt Damon is a fantastic actor and he does full justice to the role of Scott Thorson first as the wild eyed teenager and then as the jilted lover, the physical transformation of Damon is striking. The long conversations between Damon and Douglas as they develop their relationship are the core of the film and you feel like you know both Liberace and Thorson through these actors. Rob Lowe as the plastic surgeon who give Liberace his facelift and put Thorson on the “California Diet” at Liberace’s behest is almost unrecognizable but brilliant. The effects of plastic surgery on Lowe and the way it affects his mannerism is at once revolting and at the same time brilliantly funny.
The movie has that quintessential “Soderberg look” the muted colors the absolute absence of background score. I’d heard a lot about the buzz around this movie and to an extent it lived up to it. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are brilliant in their roles, but the pacing of the story and the overly simplistic nature of the story was a little lacking. Soderberg claims that the reason why Hollywood studios rejected the movie was because it was too gay , while that may be have been part of the problem I think the inherent TV-movie kind of pacing and lack of real talking points in the movie might have contributed to it being released on the Cable network rather than in the theatres .
There is genuine warmth to the way Douglas plays Liberace and the final scene is beautifully written. Watch it for because at least Soderberg keeps pushing the envelope and trying to make movies that are a little left of the center.