“BEHIND THE CANDELABRA”, Steve Soderbergh’s latest and (he says) last movie, is a biopic lite version of Liberace’s relationship with a young hunk, Scott Thorson. It follows their love life from Liberace’s first, flirtatious look of lust to his gaunt, AID’s corrupted death. We see Scott morph from a gauche, star-struck, love-besotted Adonis to an embittered, drugged out, washed-up wreck.
This is a move that comes with a huge wake of surrounding publicity: here are two of our most macho movie stars – Michael Douglas, recently returning to the screen after fighting stage four cancer, and Matt, Jason Bourne, Damon – making out convincingly on an oversized, plump-pillowed, satin-sheeted bed. Here is a movie that the self professed most fearless country in the world was too scared to air publicly (probably a good move as – judging from the audiences here in London – more people may have seen it on HBO). Here is a movie that seems to have garnered near universal praise from its recent premier at Cannes.
And was it all worth the fuss?
On the whole, definitely.
“…Candelabra” is an almost old fashioned outlet for a galaxy of stars turning in some stellar performances. We expect much of Matt; and he doesn’t disappoint. When we first meet him, the astonishing team of make-up artists Soderbergh has at his disposal (Kate Biscoe, BAFTA nominee for movies such as “Iron Man 3”. “Argo” and “Contagion” and heading a crew of twenty nine), ensures that he make a convincing eighteen year old. Damon, with blonde ‘big hair’, comes across as an absolute naïf – just the right kind of target for Douglas’ predatory, reptilian Liberace.
Michael Douglas himself gives us an uber camp Liberace, a man who, what with his glittering, fur swaddled flamboyance and his face lifts and wigs, has not only mastered his public image, but, even in private, has become it. This is not so much image management, it’s image dominance ! At one point, Liberace, sneaking a kiss with Scott in a public place tells him, “people see what they want to see”. Liberace knows exactly what he wants people – his fans, Scott, his queue of young lovers – to see.
Clearly people saw the rhinestones but never saw, could not imagine, that they showcased a randy, rapacious (homo) sexuality. Scott saw a glamorous, tender, generous lover, not the controlling egomaniac who even had his (Scott’s) face surgically altered to more closely resemble his own.
For at its heart, this is a story about self-deception. Liberace, seemingly just an overly sensitive, gregarious old queen, cultivates this harmless image to be able to insinuate himself into his willingly deceived fans, followers and fellaties.
Scott’s slow, reluctant acceptance that he’s been seduced away – from his foster parents, from a career he might have pursued, from actually earning his own money – drives him into drugs, paranoia and self-contempt (“I don’t even have my own face” he moans at one stage). There’s no deceiving himself though when the bubble bursts and this no longer beautiful man is heaved out onto the road and into the real world.
And even as we are repulsed by Scott’s physical and mental degeneration, Liberace remains unchanging. What with the wig and the face lifts, here is a man who seems to exist outside the pull of time. Douglas’ Liberace is a man who manages pretty much the same vocal inflection and emotional response for everything – from his mother’s death to his seduction of the many pretty boys around him. So it’s a shock when, seeing him through Scott’s eyes, we first see him without the wig – it’s a crack in his perfectly coiffured public image (he tells Scott that should be die, Scott’s first job would be to glue the wig on. Even in death the image must remain secure). And in the end, AIDS, the illness so beyond the control of this controlling man, reveals him for what he really is: an old, bald man, rotten to the core.
Douglas and Damon are at the center of the movie – it revolves entirely around them. But (and not unlike so many of Soderbergh’s movies) they’re surrounded by a who’s who of familiar faces: Dan Aykroyd is Liberace’s long-suffering, unsmiling agent, Seymour Heller, who tries even in Liberace’s death to protect the pianist’s public deception of his sexuality and project the image he’d so assiduously cultivated. Rob Lowe (where’s he been?) is a leering, creepy, predatory plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, the source of Scott’s drug habit.
And Paul Reiser comes in briefly as Scott’s Cassandra-esque attorney.
“Behind the Candelabra” doesn’t have the kind of resonance of some of Soderbergh’s other movies (“Side Effects”, “Contagion”), but it is certainly the work of a fine craftsman with a sure eye and a steady hand