Liberace is a name known to many, but his story is often overlooked when it comes to Hollywood icons. Director Steven Soderbergh brings the classic performer and his story to the masses withBehind the Candelabra and goes big by recruiting both Matt Damon and Michael Douglas in what has undoubtedly been the most controversial roles of both of their impressive careers. After the movie was reportedly turned down by more than a few studios – labelled “too gay for Hollywood” – it was released to absolute critical acclaim and, unsurprisingly, has been seeing the Emmy nominations pile up to commend its exceptional acting and excellent direction.
Playing as both a very effective comedy and an involving drama, Behind the Candelabra achieves greatness by simply remaining entertaining and intriguing all from beginning to end. We start with Scott Thorson (Damon) seeing Liberace (Douglas) for the first time and being absolutely taken by his grandiose and playful performance. A chance encounter backstage and a couple of lingering glances later, and Liberace is playing the seduction game with Thorson from the get-go. Soon enough, Thorson is “working” for Liberace in his large Hollywood mansion and catering to his constant need for sex.
The love scenes in this movie are much more explicit than one would expect, without managing to show much nudity; taking these two established actors – who are known for characteristically masculine roles – and letting them sell the lustful gay couple extremely well. Both actors put on flawless performances, especially Douglas as he manipulates almost everyone he comes across.
Rob Lowe as Liberace’s personal plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz has the scene-stealing quality about him that comforts Thornson as he is disturbingly transformed into a younger version of Liberace himself. It’s this excellent selection of top grade actors to play peripheral characters that helps mould Behind the Candelabra into the impeccable story it is; even Dan Aykroyd is given ample opportunity to remind us what a fantastic actor he can be.
Liberace is portrayed as one extremely insecure and objectionable star, chewing Thorson up and spitting him out when he is no longer needed. The audience is emotionally tied to Damon’s character, as he remains gullible and fairly deluded throughout his entire tenure with Liberace. When things come to blows and the movie nears its conclusion, we are caught both feeling sorry for Liberace and despising him, while weeping at Thorson’s plight despite his frustrating naivety.
Liberace’s lavish life is illustrated with as much flamboyance and colour as the actual performer used to dominate Vegas showmanship; it is both a touching portrayal of a man’s desperate need for attention, and a brutal comment on the devastating effects of faux-love. Liberace had many contemptible flaws, but he left an endearing mark on those around him, as this movie will undoubtedly do to any film lover who watches.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Runtime: 118 Minutes.
Behind the Candelabra opens in Australia this Thursday, July 25th.