I’m too young to remember Liberace as he died the year after I was born, but thanks to pop culture I was vaguely aware of who he was, his flamboyant dress sense and life of excess. One of the most interesting things about Behind the Candelabra is its approach. Unlike most biopics, we don’t see Liberace work his way up from anonymity in small clubs to becoming world famous and selling out huge arenas and the like. We see his story through ex-lover Scott Thorson’s eyes. When the young and impressionable Thorson meets him, he’s a seasoned veteran, having already been in showbusiness for three decades. It’s a fresh and interesting approach and Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese make it feel like anything but your standard Hollywood biopic.
Based on the tell-all book of the same name, Behind the Candelabra tells of Scott Thorson’s (Matt Damon) secret relationship with world-famous entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas). The film takes us from Thorson’s humble beginnings to a life of luxury, followed by a vicious break up and a messy court case. Both leads are absolutely fantastic. I’ve not seen Michael Douglas this on form in years. He obviously has to camp things up to play Liberace (or “Lee” to his friends) but he keeps it measured and doesn’t turn into a cartoon character. Matt Damon is similarly fantastic as Thorson. Damon gets more stuff to work with as Scott and is just further proof he’s one of the best and most likeable actors working today. With two big personalities clashing, you’d think there wouldn’t be much room for anyone else, but Rob Lowe steals every scene he’s in as Dr. Startz, a plastic surgeon with a face as tight as a drum skin. Dan Aykroyd also makes a surprising appearance as Seymour, Lee’s manager, and he does well in a understated part as well as getting some choice lines.
Biopics tend to fall into the trap of unrelenting grimness. Behind the Candelabra is surprisingly funny, containing some real laugh out loud moments and well as some pitch black humour. It’s a fun film for the most part and that’s a rarity in this genre. The crucial thing the film gets right is the central relationship between Lee and Scott. It feels very real and anchors the film when some truly mad shit kicks off. The awkward silences and bickering really help you to buy into a questionable relationship and make you empathise with both sides. Liberace’s life is a fascinating tale of love, betrayal, excess and addiction and some of the things that happen in the film are truly bizarre. The one thing that will stick with me is when Scott is goaded into getting plastic surgery, including a nose job and cheek implants, to look like a younger version of Liberace himself! Freud would have had a field day.
The lesson I took away from Behind the Candelabra is that Liberace was always the showman, both on stage and off. He was always pretending to be something he wasn’t, be it heterosexual, faithful to his partner or whatever. Beyond the gem studded suits, the facelifts and the insane amount of jewelry, there was still a layer of artifice between Lee’s real feelings and emotions and the side he showed to Scott. When that mask finally slips, it’s heartbreaking stuff, make no mistake.
Behind the Candelabra is exactly the sort of thing I want from a biopic. It manages to convey just what was so special and great about its subject whilst being entertaining and informative. Despite being based on the writings on a scorned lover, the film has a real warmth and affection for Liberace and Douglas’ performance completely sells it. Steven Soderbergh is a goddamn genius who can take any genre and make a quality film out of it and this is no exception. Highly recommended.
BD/DVD Release Date:
14th October 2013 (UK)
Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Akroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe,Debbie Reynolds
Buy Behind The Candelabra: DVD or Blu-ray