Behind the Candelabra
A tender portrayal of the bizarre relationship between Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and Liberace (Michael Douglas)
If this truly is Steven Soderbergh’s last film – and it feels like we said that for his pharmaceutical thriller Side Effects three months ago – then this time, he really is going out on a high. A glittery biopic of flamboyant pianist Liberace (played marvellously by a prosthetics-enhanced Michael Douglas), it’s told through the eyes of his much younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), whose autobiographical book Behind The Candelabra: My Life With Liberace forms the basis for the screenplay.
Adapted by Richard LaGravenese (whose credits include The Fisher King), Thorson’s tempestuous six-year relationship with Liberace – which began in 1977 – proves an ideal prism through which to view the life of this extroverted, extravagant entertainer. Thorson is portrayed as the naïve stud, seduced by Liberace’s lavish lifestyle – even becoming part of his Vegas stage act. Where it really gets creepy is when the pianist gently starts to remake Thorson in his own image – ushering him towards a specialised diet and bouts of plastic surgery.
There are some wonderful cameos along the way – a nip/tucked Rob Lowe as Liberace’s cosmetic surgeon, Debbie Reynolds as his Polish mother and Dan Aykroyd as his schlub manager – but it’s the two leads that stand-out. With Damon and Douglas offering unfettered commitment, not least in a series of between-the-sheets tumbles, rarely have two straight A-List actors so thoroughly convinced as a gay couple.
With the film sparklingly designed and costumed, Behind The Candelabra could so easily have been a superficial nostalgia-trip back to the 1970s. But amongst the sequins and sass, Soderbergh finds a tenderness that has sometimes been missing in his films. There are times when Thorson’s unravelling threatens to send us down a well-worn, drug-addled path – a Boogie ‘Woogie’ Nights, perhaps? – but a poignant third act ensures otherwise. That, as they say, is entertainment.
Limited release Fri 7 Jun.