Produced by HBO, the network on which it aired in May shortly after its grand premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Behind the Candelabra is a biopic chronicling the final ten years in the life of flamboyant world-renowned entertainer, Liberace, and his secretive love affair with the much younger Scott Thorson. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike, Side Effects) and written by Richard LaGravenese, the story is adapted from Thorson’s memoir from 1988, Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, and features outstanding performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It is in 1977 that 17-year-old Scott Thorson (Damon), then working as an animal trainer for movies, is introduced to Valentino Liberace (Douglas), the extravagant glittery jacket-attired pianist and entertainer, who takes an immediate liking to the young man. Liberace invites Thorson, and his Hollywood producer friend Bob Black (Scott Bakula), backstage following one of his Vegas shows and then to his luxurious home. After offering to treat Liberace’s dog for temporary blindness, Thorson agrees to move inat his request, becoming his assistant-come-lover. Over time a rift begins to develop, brought on by Thorson’s difficulty in adapting to the lifestyle, including drug abuse and excessive plastic surgery, and Liberace’s selfish promiscuity, which causes the two to grow bitter and part.
The couple’s relationship is at the core of this biopic. We learn a little about Thorson before he meets Liberace, but we are introduced to the celebrated performer when he has already been in the business for decades. We learn about his death and his final days of suffering through Thorson, invited by Liberace to visit his bedside. There is never any confusion about whose perspective this film is from, and if a reader accepts the words in the memoir, a viewer should be content with the portrayal here. I imagine devoted fans would have been shocked to learn the secrets of his private life, kept from the media by his manager, Seymour Heller (portrayed by Dan Ackroyd). LaGravenese includes an interesting commentary about Liberace’s public persona and sexuality. He publicly denied being gay, though it must have been widely suspected. We learn of his life of excess, and how selfishly he remained in control of his “possessions.”
Soderbergh, who is also credited as cinematographer and editor, makes some familiar stylistic choices – including several lengthy single takes. The production is suitably lavish and the set, which has been transformed into Liberace’s house, is wonderfully adorned.The make-up work is also extraordinary. It is quite a feat to make both Damon and Douglas appear to be so much younger. I felt like their overweight stage lacked the conviction of some of the other work, but Damon’s facial features and figure change significantly throughout the film. Thorson underwent a serious amount of plastic surgery to render his appearance to resemble Liberace, including a requested dimple added to his chin. The work on Rob Lowe was also very amusing. He appears as Liberace and Thorson’s doctor, an administer of facial reconstructions and damaging diet pills, whose own Ken doll features are immobile as a result of extensive self work.
The film is initially very entertaining, but as the relationship begins to unravel and the pair becomes bitter and antagonistic, it takes a turn. This arc feels too familiar. An ordinary youngster seduced by the glitz and glamour of the celebrity high life, finds the rewards begin to melt away and finds himself trapped in his role - as 'the boyfriend', and desiring an escape not granted. The film is close to two hours, and considering the relatively concise focus, this is just too long. The episodic structure results in some drastic tonal shifts. With the drug binges and repetitive arguments, it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with these men.
Douglas and Damon deliver some of the finest acting we will likely see gracing our screens this year and worth the admission alone. Douglas is completely transformed; his introduction sure to provoke awe from an unsuspecting audience. The second half belongs to Damon and his volatile mood swings, drug-riddled twitching and heartbreaking self-contempt is the emotional peak of the film. Damon earns our respect, while Douglas has taken on this bold role full on and shows again why he is one of the finest actors in the business.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Behind the Candelabra is released on the 25th of July in Australia
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.