Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike, Ocean’s Eleven) has found a great subject for a film in Behind the Candelabra, a movie which recounts the last decade of famously flamboyant entertainer Liberace and his secret relationship with young bisexual Scott Thorson. Soderbergh’s swan song – at least for the foreseeable future – is a masterful effort that showcases the director’s trademark style and panache while managing to tap into the zeitgeist by tackling contemporary issues such as sexuality, drug addiction and cosmetic surgery. But this isn’t a drab and dreary slog, as Behind the Candelabra is a whole lot of kitsch fun, embracing its gayness and telling a compelling true story with joy and good spirit.
Michael Douglas gives one of his best performances and is simply incredible as Liberace, the pianist who hid his homosexuality from worldwide audiences for most of his life. How did he do this? Well, by hiding in plain sight! Wearing elaborate gowns and rolling up onto stage in a Rolls-Royce, Liberace performed with candelabra atop his piano and wowed audiences with showmanship and talent. Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson comments on such a show early in the film, wondering how people can love something that’s so openly gay (remember, this is the 1970s). The answer is simple: people see what they want to see.
Based on real-life Thorson’s memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, Soderbergh wastes little time bringing the two men together. It’s a remarkable and earnest relationship that ultimately came crashing down, initially made bizarre by Liberace’s extravagance and dual desires to adopt Thorson and have him as a secret lover. Both actors are terrific but I can’t stress enough how well Douglas nails the role in what’s surely a deserving Oscar-calibre performance. It’s a damn shame then that the film didn’t get a theatrical release in the US because it means that it isn’t eligible for any Oscars, and so is destined to fly under the radar thanks to its limited release.
What really makes it work however – stellar direction and acting notwithstanding – is that it really is fun. This is a laugh-out-loud film, a real hoot of a time. Special mention must go to Rob Lowe’s plastic surgeon, whose stretched face had the audience rolling whenever he tried (and failed) to express himself. Soderbergh knows when to pull punches though, as the glitz and glamour give way to more serious dramatic beats when the relationship slowly goes to pot. But it doesn’t end there as, despite the hypocrisy of Liberace’s lifestyle and affair with Thorson, the film contains an uplifting and heartfelt message about the promise of redemption.
Michael Douglas brings Liberace to life in this entertaining and revealing look into Mr Showmanship’s secret affair with Scott Thorson.