Steven Soderbergh’s swansong film is a candid look at the life of the infamous gay pianist Liberace through the eyes of a young Scott Thorson, who was taken under Liberace’s wing as an assistant but soon succumbed to his irresistible charms and ended up becoming the latest in a long line of lovers. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are both incredible in their roles of Liberace and Thorson respectively, and whilst it may initially be disconcerting to see the two involved romantically, Soderbergh’s direction ensures the pair appear as an endearing match by avoiding the over the top homoeroticism of Brokeback Mountain and focusing on comedy to bring Liberace’s fascinating story to life on the big screen.
That is if you live in Europe, as Behind the Candelabra headed straight to the small screen in America when HBO decided to jettison the cinema in favour of a TV premiere, and viewers were treated to an airing of the film just days after its well-received debut at Cannes. Whilst it was in contention for the Palme d’Or at the esteemed festival, Behind the Candelabra was overlooked in favour of Blue is the warmest colour – another risque tale of homosexuality – but Michael Douglas will inevitably receive attention for his flamboyant performance come the main awards season early next year.
Alongside Douglas and Damon, appearances by actors such as Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds and Dan Aykroyd flesh out the colorful cast of characters that play a part in Liberace’s life. Lowe’s hilarious performance as plastic-surgeon Dr Startz is a joy to behold, his features becoming more misshapen as the film progresses, and Reynolds is suitably charming as Liberace’s lonely mother. Aykroyd builds on his ever bankable screen persona in his role as Liberace’s frustrated manager Seymour Heller, and as his attempts to reign in Liberace’s behaviour go unheeded, the talented but demanding pianist heads further into a hedonistic world of glamour and excess.
It is not long before Thorson begins to fear he will be replaced by an even younger model, and the conflicting needs of the couple start to take a strain on their relationship. Damon confidently takes on the role of a frustrated toyboy although it is here where Douglas shines; Liberace’s love for Scott is real but he struggles to subdue his desire for others, and the emotional range on show demonstrates an actor at the top of his game. This is an impressive feat for a veteran actor such as Douglas who is seen here against his usual typecast as he provides the film with a commanding and charismatic presence that never ceases to impress, from the moment Liberace makes his entrance up until his final appearance.
Behind the Candelabra is a fitting end to Soderbergh’s impressive career as a film director, and I just hope that his decision to leave the director’s chair is not a permanent one. Michael Douglas’ performance alone is worth the ticket price, but as a show of strength for Soderbergh, this is a film that deserves to do well at the box office, and it will certainly leave an impact on audiences who venture out to experience one of the more memorable and entertaining autobiographical pictures of recent times.