Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Lowe
Running Time: 118 mins
Release Date: June 7
The arrival of Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic in these parts has been boosted by the suggestion that it is a controversial movie. Hollywood A-listers Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are cast as lovers in a film that went straight to HBO stateside because, according to Soderbergh, it was ‘too gay’. When studio executives bristled at this suggestion he backtracked somewhat, claiming ‘it’s all economics’ and that the money men were simply unwilling to take a punt on a project with a less-than-conventional storyline.
And you can see what he means—Liberace is not exactly a household name in 2013, so Behind the Candelabra was never going to attract people in their droves. As for the ‘too gay’ argument, it doesn’t really stack up—the steamy scenes are few and far between, and they’re pretty tame to boot. Strip away the controversial elements and what you’re left with is an amusing tale that looks and feels impressive but isn’t particularly affecting.
Based on real events and set in the ’70s, Behind the Candelabra stars Michael Douglas as flamboyant pianist Liberace, who has a fondness for extravagance and a secret weakness for younger men. The showman strikes up a relationship with naive country-boy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who is quickly spellbound by the older man’s charm and seemingly glamorous lifestyle. It is not long before Scott ups sticks to become Liberace’s chauffeur and live-in lover. But the international superstar’s controlling nature gradually wears down Scott, whose feelings of isolation nudge him towards drug dependency. Trouble in paradise ensues, and things quickly deteriorate as both men scramble for some sort of relief from their destructive relationship.
Douglas puts in an excellent performance as Liberace, striking just the right note with his camp accent and mannerisms. He’s got plenty of catty one-liners too which—like a lot of the movie’s humour—will delight some viewers while washing over others. It seems strange for 42-year-old Damon to be portraying a much younger man, but clearly he put a lot of work into getting in shape physically for the role of Liberace’s ‘Blond Adonis’, and with his fresh-faced looks he manages to pull it off.
In some ways the film is reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, but it is far less in-depth as far as examining the psychology of its characters goes, and not quite as intense when things begin to unravel for the main protagonists. Often the indication of passage of time rather than depiction of shared experiences is used to bring the relationship between Liberace and Scott forward, which keeps things compact as it saves a lot of extra effort and screen minutes.
Soderbergh gets the sights, sounds, sets, costumes and pace bang on, much as you would expect. He shrewdly enlists Dan Aykroyd for a cameo role as Liberace’s manager, and Rob Lowe puts in a show-stealing performance as a drugged up plastic surgeon. All of these things make Behind the Candelabra an entertaining watch, but it falls down slightly in its handling of Liberace and Scott’s relationship. They’re served up to us as novel characters to such an extent that when things take a turn for the worse, it is difficult to take their inner emotional lives and the fate that befalls them all that seriously—a deficiency that cannot be overlooked in a movie with a relationship as its core element.