There’s something about the rarefied heights of superstardom in America that produces eccentricity bordering on craziness. From Elvis shooting the TV to Michael Jackson living in an amusement park with lamas, it seems that the power and fame bestowed upon stars irreparably warps their sense of reality. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the person of outrageously flamboyant piano man Liberace who is the subject of Steven Soderbergh’s terrific new film Behind the Candelabra.
Rather than a standard a biopic,Behind the Candelabra dramatises Liberace’s relationship with one of his many young male lovers, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a naive Wisconsin teen introduced to Liberace (Michael Douglas) in 1977. Liberace took an instant liking to Scott and soon ensconced him as his preferred lover at his gaudy, palatial Hollywood home. The film focuses almost entirely on their relationship so the story is limited but Soderbergh and the cast spin gold from it.
The early part of the film depicting Thorson’s immersion in Liberace’s bizarre alternate universe is mostly played for laughs with Soderbergh and his art direction team revelling in the outrageous extravagance of Liberace’s lifestyle, wardrobe and decor. Dripping in diamonds and furs, cruising around in Rolls Royces (including on stage) and decorating his home like an upmarket brothel, Liberace apparently lived by the creed that too much is never enough. The depiction of Liberace’s over the top lifestyle is hilarious but a little unnerving in the way it shows his detachment from taste and reality. This film is not just a freak show, however, as it portrays Liberace and Scott’s relationship as genuinely affectionate, at least in the beginning.
The film slowly adopts a darker tone as Liberace exerts increasing power over Scott’s life. He dresses him like a human doll in the same spangly, furry costumes he wears on stage and even insists that Scott have plastic surgery so he’ll look like Liberace. The surgery scenes will be confronting for the squeamish but nowhere near as disturbing as the sight of Rob Lowe as Liberace’s strange, cat-faced cosmetic surgeon whose blow-waved hair looks like an upturned ass. On top of the surgery and costumes, Liberace’s infidelity and Scott’s drug addiction turn the glittering celebrity dream world into a nightmare for Scott.
Michael Douglas delivers a remarkable performance as Liberace portraying him as a complex person who could be warm and sensitive but also creepy, manipulative and callous in his disregard for the young men he casts aside. Douglas inhabits the character of Liberace capturing the nuances of his body language, speech and facial expressions although, occasionally, when Liberace gets angry we see Gordon Gecko emerge from the make-up and the rhinestones.
Matt Damon always had a daunting task competing with Douglas’ much showier role, not to mention the fact that Damon is playing a character half his age but he delivers a typically fine performance that benefits from his established persona of good-natured naivety. It’s hardly surprising, though, that Scott Thorson comes across as a sympathetic figure given that the film was based on his book.
An impressive supporting cast includes Scott Bakula as Thorson’s hirsute confidante Bob Black, Dan Ackroyd as Liberace’s ball-breaking lawyer and an unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s harsh, disapproving mother.
Liberace wouldn’t have been such a big star if he hadn’t been genuinely talented and the film features some enjoyable on-stage segments that highlight Liberace’s virtuoso piano playing. The film’s soundtrack also features an enjoyably jaunty Marvin Hamlisch score.
Apparently, after shopping the idea of a Liberace film to major studios – who reportedly rejected it as being too gay – Soderbergh made the film for HBO television. Its telemovie roots occasionally show in its limited settings (most of the film takes place in two rooms) but Soderbergh, in what is reported to be his last film, has still fashioned an impressively strange and unforgettable world featuring one of the entertainment industries most memorable characters.
Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.
Director(s): Steven Soderbergh.
Release date: 25th July 2013.
Running time: 119 mins.
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