Fresh from Cannes where it competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or and its subsequent airing on American cable network HBO, Behind The Candelabra is presented as Steven Soderbergh’s final feature film. It’s undoubtedly a triumphant note for the director to end on, and will surely be celebrated – alongside Magic Mike and Side Effects – for its boldness as much as its authenticity and the emotional resonance it provokes.
Upon a chance encounter with the entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas), young bisexual animal trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) risks everything – his image and personality, in particular – to become a toy boy and secretary to the wildly celebrated star. However, as their relationship deteriorates, fuelled by both Liberace’s wandering eye and Scott’s increasing dependency on drugs, the bubble soon bursts.
Spanning the final ten years before Liberace’s death in 1987 and captured almost entirely through Scott’s perspective, Behind The Candelabra is one of Soderbergh’s finest pieces of work: a ludicrously camp, yet satisfyingly tender and captivating insight into Liberace’s opulent lifestyle and the tumultuous relationship he shared with Scott. It’s exactly as the title suggests: a peek into what Liberace’s life was like underneath the celebrity persona he so carefully orchestrated.
Adapted from Thorson’s own autobiography Behind The Candelabra: My Life With Liberace by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, the narrative unravels at a slow burning pace as the audience bare witness to the many ups and downs of Thorson and Liberace’s relationship, from the early days of playful flirting and frivolous sex, right through to the outbursts of hostility that erupt towards the end as Thorson’s drug habit causes his paranoia to intensify and Liberace begins to distance himself.
It’s an intense, melancholy watch that’s perhaps a smidgen too long, though there’s much-needed humour and brazen campiness sprinkled throughout. Whether it’s the 1970s style outfits, the tight sequinned thongs worn by Thorson (Damon has never looked so sexy) or Rob Lowe’s playful performance as Dr. Jack Startz, there’s plenty to entertain, no less guarantee Behind The Candelabra’s future labelling as fearless entry into the queer cinema canon.
At its core though, it remains Thorson and Liberace’s story, and the performances delivered by both leads are sensational. Damon emerges as a true talent, capturing Thorson’s naiveté and longing to be loved with striking conviction, while Douglas embodies every inch of Liberace, to the point where he’s no longer acting. It’ll be a real surprise if he isn’t awarded with a Golden Globe come next year’s award ceremony.
Behind The Candelabra provides a terrifically observed and performed portrait into the life of Liberace, a flamboyant showman whose personal life was remarkably kept a secret until after his death, and demonstrates the ease at which one man could become so infatuated with another that they’d do anything to please them. If this truly is Soderbergh’s last hurrah (and it’d be a real shame if it is), then it’s an exceptional way to bow out.