Behind the Candelabra takes a sliver of the life of Valentino Liberace and expertly examines the notions of identity and privacy during a time when old conservative American values were dominant but waning.
Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) meets Liberace (Michael Douglas) after one of his Las Vegas shows and a romantic relationship develops that lasts until Liberace’s final days.
Behind the Candelabra appears like a standard film based on a famous personality. Douglas is your big name actor stepping into the shoes of an icon, the 1970s/80s setting is immaculately recreated and a talented director, Steven Soderbergh, is handling the material. What sets this film apart from other successful films about musicians (Walk the Line or Ray) is the impact of the couple’s story. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese is wise to not delve into the origins of Liberace’s talent and career progression, so the film immediately bucks the biopic label. The focus is kept entirely on Thorson and Liberace’s relationship with special emphasis placed on their conversations about everything from fame, faith and sexuality. Liberace and Thornson adore each, bicker and put on the contentment kilos (weight gain caused by not needing to impress anyone anymore). They are a regular couple until fame and the entertainment industry warp their perception of themselves. The overuse of plastic surgery and prescription medication alters their physical appearance and mood. The behaviour is almost essential to Liberace’s livelihood but it takes its toll on Thornson the most. Amidst the facial restructuring look out for Rob Lowe who is in spectacular form as a doctor who has been injecting too much of his own product into his face.
LaGravenese and Sodgerbergh lace the Behind the Candelabra with observations about the life of a homosexual in the 70s and 80s. Liberace speaks about the importance of “being yourself” and his fearless flamboyance certainly personifies this notion, but his manager feeds the media with spin about his sexuality saying he “hasn’t found the right woman yet”. There is an ache watching these characters miss out on the romantic freedom they deserve, and Soderbergh gives the film a claustrophobic feeling with each location set to interiors: backstage, bedrooms and backseats.
Douglas is fabulous executing every vocal and facial tic of Liberace perfectly; even through the horrifying plastic surgery years. Douglas’ portrayal does become a little stagnant because the character is a fully formed caricature. There is very little growth for Liberace, but that’s because he is the instigator to the emotional journey Thorson goes on, and Damon is sublime. In the beginning Damon gives Thornson purity due to his naivety as a young man searching for an identity and a family (Thronson is an orphan). The passionate evolution of Thornson through the excess of Liberace’s world is intriguing. There is a struggle for Thornson as he confuses romantic affection with the love he has always wanted from a family. There is even a moment where Liberace suggests adopting Thronson as his son. Throughout the highs and lows of the relationship Damon conveys the hardships associated with matters of the heart and a person just wanting to belong. Douglas may have the most fun with his role but Damon leaves the dramatic dent.
Behind the Candelabra is fearless and fabulous. It takes the snapshot approach to the life of the rich and famous and makes a big impact.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies