List Film

Behind the Candelabra (4 stars)

A tender portrayal of the bizarre relationship between Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and Liberace (Michael Douglas)

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Behind the Candelabra

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.

Behind the Candelabra

  • 4 stars
  • 2013
  • US
  • 118 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
  • Cast: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe
  • UK release: 14 June 2013

Soderbergh goes for his sabbatical on a high, with this sparkling account of the relationship between flamboyant pianist Liberace (Douglas) and his much younger lover Scott Thorson (Damon). The two leads are outstanding, and with wonderful cameos from Lowe, Reynolds and Aykroyd it's a surprisingly tender and poignant film.

Behind the Candelabra

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