Behind the Candelabra

The private life of Liberace

Behind the Candelabra



Rating

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Debbie Reynolds, Paul Reiser, Cheyenne Jackson, Eddie Jemison, Johnny Yong Bosch, Bruce Ramsay, Nellie Sciutto, Thure Riefenstein, David Koechner, Nicky Katt. Written by Richard LaGravenese.

Towards the beginning of Behind the Candelabra, director Steven Soderbergh’s behind-the-scenes look at the private life of Liberace, the pianist is entertaining a Las Vegas crowd in a full silver-sequined costume. His “protégé” Billy is soon wheeled out, in matching costume, behind a matching piano with candelabra, to the crowd’s emphatic applause. 

“I can’t believe they’re into something this gay,” remarks Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), referring to the mostly-older, mostly-female audience. 

“Oh, they don’t know he’s gay,” replies friend Bob Black (Scott Bakula).

That was the ironic duality of Liberace, the flamboyant entertainer whose stage act was an inadvertent window into his private life, a life he kept so secret that he sued the Daily Mirror (and won!) for implying that he was gay, and maintained public (and fictional) romances with numerous famous women, including Sonja Henie. 

The secret continued posthumously in 1986 when Liberace’s entourage attempted to obfuscate the cause of his death; only after an autopsy was ordered was it revealed that he had died of complications resulting from the AIDS virus. 

Soderbergh’s film, from a script by Richard LaGravenese, nicely captures this balance, between an ambiguous, deceitful public persona, and a private life that was anything but. It also offers a surprisingly sympathetic, well-balanced portrayal of the pianist; surprising, because it’s based on the memoirs of lover Thorson, who sued Liberace for $113 million in palimony in 1982. 

In the film, Damon’s Thorson is introduced to Liberace backstage at the Las Vegas concert. Thorson works with animals; Liberace has a sick poodle at his Nevada estate. This is used to initiate a relationship between the two that begins as sexual and evolves into something of a father-son dynamic (given the 40-year age difference between the two).

Liberace is played by Michael Douglas as a soft-spoken, mild-mannered gentleman; far from the over-the-top persona that his stage presence and luxurious lifestyle might indicate. Underneath it all, Liberace’s actions shouldn’t exactly endear us to the entertainer, but Douglas’ even-handed performance manages to win us over anyway. 

Behind the Candelabra presents a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into the pianist’s later years and his relationship with Thorson, and Soderbergh is content to let LaGravenese’s script and the performances speak for themselves with little behind-the-camera influence. The living, breathing irony that was Liberace (or ‘Lee’, as his friends knew him) is perfectly captured: the film knowingly moves into dark comedy territory when, for example, Lee requests that Thorson undergo plastic surgery to look more like the pianist in his prime.

Rob Lowe, by the way, absolutely steals his scenes as the dazed, (literally) plastic surgeon who performs the operation. The outstanding supporting cast also includes Bakula as Thorson’s friend who introduces him to Liberace, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager, Debbie Reynolds as his mother, and Paul Reiser as Thorson’s ‘divorce’ attorney. 

Despite competing for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes festival, Behind the Candelabra premiered on HBO in the US before receiving a cinematic release in most foreign countries.


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