Shame on all you studios for passing and congratulations to smarter backers HBO, who picked this up. As if we didn’t need further evidence that we’re in a golden age of television, this lends even more dazzle to that credo. Here in the UK - where it has been granted a cinema release - Behind the Candelabra has been doing very respectable business. Possessing a lot of elements that Oscar so loves, it could also have basked in some awards glory. Like Tarantino, biopics are probably this reviewer’s least favourite genre but this particular one is a real riot. One thing it isn’t, as more than one Hollywood exec remarked, is “too gay”. You might equally argue that this look at Liberace is not gay enough.
Rather than attempting to show his entire life, or even career, the story focuses on the relationship with young lover, Hollywood animal trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It starts in 1977 and Liberace (Michael Douglas) is in the middle of a residency at Vegas. He twice-nightly wows straight crowds with his glittering showmanship. In his performance we see a supremely-honed talent giving the audience a lot more than just bright, shiny things (and there are a lot of bright, shiny things in this film). Following one of his shows Scott rapidly becomes his lover, is hired as an assistant and then moves in. He finds himself increasingly stifled and his trophy status becomes painfully clear when Liberace insists he undergo plastic surgery to resemble his younger self. All done under the careful tutelage of Dr Jack Startz (a hilariously-nipped-and-tucked Rob Lowe). So far so creepy. Other indulgences send Scott on a further downward spiral.
It shines a big, bright light on all of Liberace’s excesses and does so cleverly. It pokes gentle fun but never in a mean-spirited way. Even Liberace recognised the absurdity of his lifestyle (“Too much of a good thing…. is wonderful!”) and the film evokes that same attitude.
Douglas is incredible in the role. The performance could have descended into cliché in lesser hands but, drenched in high camp, he makes Liberace human and very real. Matt Damon delivers a performance so un-flashy it would be easy to start taking the man’s talent for granted. Neglecting to rely on any thespy tricks, he’s just brilliantly and quite simply there. Soderbergh’s direction is appropriately workmanlike. With so much gaudiness on screen there’s little need for directorial flare. Richard LaGravenese’s script (adapted from Scott Thorson’s book) is straightforwardly-plotted. Skipping through an entire life would have denied so much depth. The decision to focus on a specific era allows time and energy to be devoted to detail. It’s an effective and healthy trend and one that really works. This approach shows conventional ‘birth-to-death’ biopics up to be unrealistic in their ambition. It also avoids the need for multiple actors in roles and/or too much prosthetic make-up. Not only do we get a deeper experience it’s all the more realistic.
If you can still catch it on the big screen, I highly recommend it. Seeing it with an audience is a hoot and it’s the way Liberace would have wanted it.