A child prodigy who eventually became the highest-paid entertainer in the world, Liberace led an extraordinary life. However, Steven Soderbergh’s film Behind the Candelabra eschews biopic trappings in favour of a claustrophobic portrait of the deeply dysfunctional relationship between the famed pianist and ingénue Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
Introduced by a mutual friend (an impressively-moustachioed Scott Bakula), Michael Douglas’ Liberace seduces Scott not just with his opulence and fame but with sustained attention of a sort that the orphaned Scott is unaccustomed to. Based on Thorson’s tell-all book – published shortly after Liberace’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1987– the film follows their relationship as it is slowly corrupted by Liberace’s controlling nature and Scott’s spiralling drug abuse.
Forced to transform himself with plastic surgery into looking like a younger version of Liberace, Scott becomes addicted to “the California diet”, regularly imbibing a medicine cabinet’s worth of prescription drugs peddled by surgeon Rob Lowe (whose Afghan Hound haircut and surgery-ruined face steal the film entirely). As Scott turns to selling Liberace’s gifts to pay for his habit and his gentle nature is consumed by strung-out tetchiness and paranoia, Liberace’s quenchless thirst for sex and control leads him to increasingly dangerous trysts.
Soderbergh, an intellectually curious filmmaker who often marries his talents with a passion for experimentation, once again demonstrates that he can be at his strongest when giving the audience exactly what it expects. There is little that will surprise in the narrative – from the moment we see Liberace’s soon-to-be-former-boyfriend Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson) rolling his eyes and disconsolately picking at his dinner we’re aware that Scott is following a path where many other handsome, impressionable young men have already trod – but the unavoidable journey of seduction and disenchantment is given power by how well written and performed each scene is.
Scott and Liberace’s relationship is doomed from the start, and accordingly the film is a compelling exercise in horror as their love brings out each other’s worst qualities on the march to an inevitably painful conclusion, all while they destroy their bodies with plastic surgery and prescription drugs.
Even after an acting career of more than forty years, Douglas' performance is revelatory. Caring, creepy, needy, fatherly, and predatory, his portrayal is empathetic towards the character and yet uncompromisingly savage at the same time. He is equally matched by Matt Damon; despite being too old for the part (Scott started his five-year relationship with Liberace when he was 17), Damon is similarly as good as he’s ever been.
At the heart of their performances the pair conveys a genuine love that perseveres in spite of everything else. Both Scott and Liberace crave adoration and use the other to attain it, but even as their behaviour plumbs new depths the film has sympathy for them and the destructive cycles they’ve found themselves in.
Behind the Candelabra deftly veers between comedy and tragedy, but nestled within is an earnest argument about the legal rights of homosexuals in long-term relationships. Despite being ultimately damaging for both of them, Scott and Liberace’s relationship was a marriage for all intents and purposes, and yet Scott ends up with few legal rights at the end of it. More even than the plastic surgery or drug abuse, the inability to express their relationship openly is what truly mars their lives.
For all of Liberace’s wealth and success, he was unable to escape the experience shared by all gay men of his era. Forced to pretend he was straight, Liberace spent his life trapped in a lie, one perpetrated not just by himself but by everyone who knew him – from his manager concocting imaginary love affairs and suing gossiping journalists to his audience, deluding themselves about his sexuality in order to embrace his work at a time when the idea was unthinkable.
Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay doesn’t beat the audience over the head with the point, but builds it naturally into the story (a beautiful little scene where Scott sees Liberace’s autobiography in a bookshop years later and finds that it’s essentially a work of fiction.) In a film which features such gloriously flamboyant costume design and heavy prosthetics depicting the horrors of plastic surgery, its quiet moments are often the most powerful.