Upon hearing the news regarding Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ I, like a lot of the movie-going public, flocked to see Side Effects (2013) and was left utterly disappointed. For me Haywire (2011), Magic Mike (2012) and the afore-mentioned have not been, well, particularly good. However, any reluctance I felt about Behind the Candelabra quickly dissipated upon reading reviews from Cannes and seeing the odd TV spot/trailer – also general curiosity is hard to ignore.
The film is based upon the memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson, which recounts the tempestuous six year relationship between the blonde, animal handler Thorson and the pianist extraordinaire and showman, Liberace. The candelabra referring to the sparklingly opulent piece of tableware Liberace always had placed upon his piano. The interesting thing about the candle tree is that, literally, you cannot actually hide behind it, but arguably be seen through it, part of your features hidden from view. Soderbergh attempts to show the viewer what is behind it, a glimpse of a man who insisted on hiding his sexuality from view. Unable to secure a major Hollywood studio to back the film, the director believed that studio rejection was down to it being ‘too gay’, thankfully, HBO stepped into the breach and produced this biopic. As a result, there will be no cinema release in the States and any accolades that Douglas could be nominated, or indeed deserve, for his portrayal of the flamboyant entertainer, are limited to Europe.
It is 1977 and the opening scene introduces the viewer to Thorson (Matt Damon) and his simple lifestyle working with animals and living with his Foster parents Rose and Joe Carracappa (Jane Morris and Garrett M. Brown) on a ranch in California. He is picked up in a bar by Bob Black (Scott Bakula) who, upon next meeting, flies the teenager to Vegas to meet ‘Lee’. Thorson quickly finds himself in a relationship with the much older, closeted, devout Catholic star. Spanning ten years, each year displayed upon an intertitle, Scott and Lee’s six-year relationship is very much a give-and-take kind of liaison; Liberace heaps wealth, in the form of gold and diamond jewellery, clothes, cars and a fixed abode in one of the most ostentatious surroundings, and Scott gives him what he needs in the bedroom. The pianist lived the life he chose, believing that ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’. He, on countless occasions, denied his homosexuality and swiftly sued any tabloid/journalist who reported otherwise. The man purported on screen is one not completely removed from the lovable, warm, smiley entertainer the world seems to remember – perhaps a little darker. There is no denying the attraction to young men, however, the lonely star appeared to want a lover, friend, and son in Thorson and during one bizarre sequence ‘Lee’ and Scott meet with a lawyer to discuss the adoption process.
Their idyll becomes too comfortable with both surrendering to food during their extended ‘love-in’ and upon seeing himself on the Johnny Carson show, Liberace declares that he can no longer look so old. He enlists the surgical expertise of Dr Jack Startz (a ridiculous-looking Rob Lowe) and has a full face-lift, eye-lift…the whole shebang – the only side effect being that he cannot close his eyes, even when sleeping. Startz also sets out to recreate Scott too, into a young Liberace, complete with chin and cheek implants. The doctor then prescribes diet pills and Thorson’s spiralling unhappiness and claustrophobia from the reclusive living environment develops into an addiction with the ‘California Diet’ pills making way for cocaine. This then sees Scott sell off his possessions one by one, in order to support his increasing habit. Scott’s despondency, drug-induced mood swings and struggling with the concept of monogamy, Liberace begins to shut his lover out and they begin fighting amid jealous recriminations. It all comes to a head when Rose dies and Liberace insists on flying Scott home for his foster mother’s funeral. Upon return, Lee has already moved in Scott’s replacement and so begins a bitter battle when Scott attempts to sue for palimony – their life together, he insists, was a marriage.
In his first role since his cancer remission, Michael Douglas’ star has never shone quite so bright – not since Falling Down (1993, dir. Joel Schumacher) and Wonder Boys (2000, dir. Curtis Hanson) has he owned the screen in quite the same way – in fact, he is incandescent, sequins and glittering diamonds aside. It is hard to reconcile the virile, ladies man of the 80s and 90s, with this role; I would go as far as to say that this was the role he was born to play. Damon is, as ever, a strong presence as Thorson and the supporting cast including Debbie Reynolds as mother (Frances) Liberace, and Dan Aykroyd as Lee’s manager Seymour Heller is a joy, complete with a hairpiece to rival the showstopper himself. This feels like an HBO production and yet it still retains the richer, stylistic nuances which are associated with Soderbergh: lighting, colour washes, oblique camerawork and point-of-view. Whether his retirement or sabbatical from filmmaking is true, I am quite content for Behind the Candelabra (especially with that fabulously kitsch, blinging and camp dénouement) to be literally, albeit not technically, my last Soderbergh; at least for the time being.