Behind the Candelabra should be on your list of must-see films. Domestically this Liberace biopic plays on HBO (running now and throughout June) while getting a theatrical release abroad. BTC covers Liberace (Michael Douglas stunning in the role) during the late-70s to his death in 1987, with the emphasis on his affair with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) whose tell-all book is the film’s source material.
BTC has it all: behind the scenes shenanigans of the rich and famous and the manipulation of public personas by same. While Behind the Candelabra may be the gayest film you’ll see this year this particular story of romance, which literally includes a sobbing deathbed confession, would ring true with any gender. Like many great love affairs the relationship is based on one person having true admiration for the other, while the other lusts mightily at the other’s youthful beauty. In many ways Damon is a male Adonis and Douglas is an archetypal libertine. In fact, Liberace displays such a hyperactive sex drive in BTC that it’s easy to believe that in real life, just like Elvis, Liberace was born with a twin that died at birth.
Under the helm of Steven Soderbergh the proceedings bubble with eloquent sequences that establish characters like a rousing opening scene that has Thorson seeing Liberace in Vegas for the first time. We see the master showman that Liberace is, and the call and response he elicits from the crowd that includes his mother (Debbie Reynolds). But other scenes provide a horrific slant, such as a montage of plastic surgery procedures that are just downright graphically grizzly. Yet other scenes mock the pretention of celebrity and the media by observing it with an aloof glance. Liberace not only indulged in the nip-tuck, he also had his surgeon (Rob Lowe) reconfigure Thorson’s face so his lover/chauffeur would look more like him. Thorson laments to one of his friends how he’s too young to need facial surgery and his friend whips back: “Honey, in gay years you’re Judy during the Sid Luft obese period.”
Other players include Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Nicky Katt, and also the awesome production design (Howard Cummings) and costuming (Ellen Mirojnick) should be noted since these departments provide their own version of character elements. I swear Reynolds with her old lade Polish accent sounds just like the Andy Kaufman “Latka” character. And Lowe gives what may be BTC’s best scene stealing sequence as a plastic surgeon whose face is so tight he looks like either an Asian villain (Fu Manchu) or that lady in Brazil, her own face pulled back so tight it had its own ponytail.
Soderbergh always reveals a game face as a director; he knows how to make a movie yet he also knows how not to spread on the empathy. You can watch his characters in their various webs of deceit from a comfortable distance. They can’t threaten our way of life and still we get to judge them in theirs. Liberace no matter what he was offstage was one of the great entertainers of our time, and quite the classically trained pianist. Behind the Candelabra will make the viewer want to brush up on Sonja Henie or Mad King Ludwig just to keep up with BTC’s many cultural references.
- Michael Bergeron