A surprising In Competition choice for Cannes at the time, Behind the Candelabra now feels like a no-brainer. After every studio passed on the $5 million budgeted feature for fear of being 'too gay' (really, are we still in the era of ‘too gay?’), HBO snatched up the rights, and bully for them because they’ve got a masterpiece on their hands that will stock their already filled shelves with even more Emmys come September.
Based on Scott Thorson’s book of the same name, the film details the time between 1977 when Thorson, then working in animal control for films, met Liberace to 1987 when the famed, flamboyant performer died of AIDS. Matt Damon’s Thorson is a young and quiet boy who has been in and out of the foster system for years due to his drug-addicted mother. Thorson’s friend Bob brings him to Las Vegas for a weekend trip and they take in Liberace’s show. Bob brings him backstage to meet the entertainer and their attraction is palpable. To be sure, each brings a different attraction though. Thorson is naïve and filled with wonder at the spectacle and Liberace is looking for his next boy toy. As Liberace salivates over the young boy, his protégé Billy (played with side-eye hilarity by Cheyenne Jackson) sits and laughs at the pageantry of the predator going for his prey. Michael Douglas as Liberace is a revelation of the highest caliber. He is not a satire or simply lampooning, he is invisible, imbedded. It’s the performance of his career, one of pure transcendence. Damon is no slouch either, delivering what is also probably his best performance to date and possibly even the more difficult role, covering the range of emotions and delivery from tender and sweet to demented and violent with believability and sympathy.
Once in Liberace’s home he offers Thorson a job, any job. “You can be my secretary,” he says. “I can’t type,” says Thorson. To which Liberace coyly replies, “Oh, I’ll hire people to type.” There is even a wonderfully funny moment that recalls “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” from Evita, where Billy is given his walking papers as Thorson takes his place. But what’s going on here is a deliberate agenda from both parties. Liberace wants a boy to love and Thorson is looking for the family he’s never had. It’s a cocktail of emotions and weight that isn’t underestimated by either of them, nor should it be for the audience. When Liberace says, “I want to be your father, your brother, your lover, your best friend,” there is no judgment, there is nothing but truth, because it’s what each of them needs the most.
There is a very careful tone at work in the film that presents the reality of this relationship with an honest eye, not parody, which would be an easy trap to fall into here. Make no mistake, Soderbergh traverses this material with such ease, such success. It should come as no surprise that he doesn’t shy away from material that is thematically difficult or super frivolous. That he treats them both equally is one of the keys to his brilliance. Also, the attention to detail in the film, from the cars to the production design, defies the $5M budget as the utter opulence looks like it cost the world.
Thorson provides a perfect viewpoint for the audience as in the first hour we are equally full of amazement at the cars, the furs, the jewels, everything. It’s an easy world to get wrapped up in and he does, almost too well. But a great build-up exists to provide a great fall. There are echoes of Boogie Nights in this for me, with a young and impressionable kid being taken in by an older man, where the kid begins to overstep and overreach.
While visiting his plastic surgeon, Jack Startz (a stunningly funny Rob Lowe, all pinched face and Jessica-Walter-meets-Wendy-Malick wig), Liberace suggests, nay, requests that Thorson lose weight and go under the knife to be made to look more like him: a nose job, a more pronounced chin, cheekbones. The aftermath has Thorson taking every kind of pill imaginable, with Startz calling it “the California diet” that has no chance of addiction. But we know that will not be the case, and Thorson’s addiction becomes a secret from Liberace as he moves on to massive amounts of cocaine and slowly turns into a paranoid and angry man. Palimony suits, payoffs, and a bitter breakup follow.
Behind the Candelabra is a bittersweet story that celebrates and understands the complicated relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson. It’s a towering achievement for Soderbergh (who has said this will be his last film) and a feather in his Austrian crystal-studded hat.