Behind the Candelabra is Stephen Soderbergh’s film about Liberace, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, and already you will have heard two things which, naturally, you will need me to confirm so you can move on with your life. These two things are:
1. It is fabulous.
2. The film was ultimately funded by the television channel HBO, as Hollywood declared it ‘too gay’.
I will now deal with both:
1. Yes. It is fabulous. No other word for it, unless that word is ‘glorious’.
2. True and, if I had the time, I would go to Hollywood and knock their heads together. Saying this film is ‘too gay’ is like saying Citizen Kane was ‘too newspapery’ or Brief Encounter ‘too trainy’, as it’s human stories that audiences are interested in, and this is as powerful and universal and moving a human story as any. End of lecture. Next week, we’ll be discussing mise-en-scène in early French cinema, or at least we would be if I knew the first thing about it
This isn’t a regular, birth-to-death biopic as such. Instead, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese have, in the style of Peter Morgan, focused on a finite period in Liberace’s life: the five years he spent with one of his sexy younger boyfriends, Scott Thorson. And although the film is classically shaped — it charts the beginning, middle and end of a romance; journeys from giddy freshness and excitement to screaming fights — it is properly about love and, more than anything, feels as if it is, just as it also feels true.
Scott, played with a blond, hunky innocence by Matt Damon — at least initially; he will be like a wounded animal baring teeth by the end — is a boy who has been raised in foster homes, works as a dog handler on movie sets, and hopes to become a vet. He meets Liberace in Vegas, as we first do, during the late Seventies, when, as the furiously camp showman who can play the piano a fair bit, he is still the highest-paid performer in the world. Initially, you do have to get over the sheer Michael Douglas-ness of Michael Douglas, but that only takes about 42 seconds (45, at most). One of the great joys of this film is how fantastically immersive it is. I didn’t, for example, even realise Liberace’s agent is played by Dan Aykroyd until the final credits rolled. Alternatively, of course, I could just be a shmuck. (Depressing, on top of not being able to lecture on mise-en-scène in early French cinema, but there you have it.)
Anyway, Liberace, with his long furs trailing, sweeps Scott off his feet, and takes him home. This is a time when you couldn’t be openly gay, and all affairs had to be conducted behind closed doors and, my, how Liberace decorated behind those doors. This is mise-en-scène gone bananas. ‘I call this palatial kitsch,’ he tells Scott, as he casts a be-ringed hand over a room jam-packed with gold and mirrors. Every surface reflects, quite like Liberace himself. The two slip into a gold-tapped Jacuzzi to drink champagne amidst the bubbles, and Scott, who has been wary, is seduced and moves in, actually passing, in the hallway, Liberace’s previous young lover moving out. We are given to understand this is how he operates.
Although the film does not stint on grotesqueries — Liberace, for example, insists Scott has plastic surgery so he looks more like his younger self — he is never painted as a monster. Instead, there is always this sense that Liberace is hurting and searching for something he can’t even describe himself. Family? Are they, in fact, both searching for family? (When, post-surgery, Scott tells Liberace someone asked him if he were his son, Liberace is thrilled.) It goes belly up in the end, due to Liberace’s promiscuity and sexual appetite — huge! — and Scott’s drug addiction, and, although the end is bitter and wrenching, you will feel something genuine happened between them, and they saw something authentic in each other.
There are wryly comic moments: Scott asking the plastic surgeon (a sublimely creepy Rob Lowe) at the last minute if he might have a little dimple in his chin; Liberace, after his own facelift, not being able to close his eyes; Liberace protecting mainstream America by pretending he just hasn’t met the right woman yet. But it never jokes about with the central relationship, always takes that seriously, as well as the issues such a relationship at such a time would have thrown up: Liberace’s terror of being outed; Scott’s lack of legal protection when they part; the looming threat of Aids.
This is a terrific film, I was utterly engrossed, and found Douglas not just surprisingly charismatic but, weirdly, for the first time ever, even vaguely sexy, too. He gives us façade, but also the fear underneath. And one last thing: which you’ll know if you’ve been following Douglas in the news, and is kind of important: whatever he’s been eating? Don’t.