The cult of celebrity appears to be dying. We are now at the stage where fame hungry individuals now have a lot less than the prophesied fifteen minutes of fame. Through the swamp of reality television programmes and twenty-four seven gossip web sites the allure and mystique of performers is now lost. This is one reason why film makers look to the past for their inspiration and the possibility of finding a story that has not yet been told.
Behind the Candelabra tells the warts and all story of the relationship between Scott Thorson and the flamboyant piano tickling legend that was Liberace. Scott (Matt Damon) a dog groomer and part-time animal wrangler for the movie industry is introduced to Liberace (Michael Douglas) by a friend after they see his show in a Las Vegas Casino. Lee, as he is known to his friends, is immediately smitten with the fresh-faced young man sporting a full head of lush blonde hair. Very quickly he becomes a major part of Liberace’s life in both a professional capacity and his live in boyfriend. After the initial burst of passion they settle into a cosy domestic arrangement where Scott is treated as an equal by Liberace. Scott now acts as a buffer between Lee and his adoring public. He acts as The Chauffeur during Liberace’s extravagant stage act.
Things start to change as more pressure is heaped upon Liberace in the form of touring commitments made by his manager (Dan Aykroyd), his needy mother (Debbie Reynolds) and the fact that his age is catching up with him. The answer for Liberace appears to be Cosmetic Surgery. Cue the arrival of alcoholic coke head plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) who is only too willing to help as long as the money flows. This is no problem for Lee. His plan for youthfulness extend to Scott who he wants to mould in his own image. Scott reluctantly agrees which turns out to be a relationship changing decision. Hooked on diet pills and abusing alcohol and drugs there is only one way that the relationship is going to go.
The danger in any biopic, especially one of a larger than life character, is the central performance leaning towards caricature and dominating the entire film. Thankfully this is avoided here. Initially you get the feeling it could go down that road as you see Liberace on stage in all his pomp but as the drama unfolds the real character behind the stage performer emerges. Michael Douglas gives a career best performance in the role of Liberace. While recovering from his much publicised fight with cancer he was able to spend a great deal of time preparing the character including learning to play the piano in a convincingly flamboyant fashion. Fitting in with the title his performance brings out the man behind the public facade. He longs for companionship and belonging and an acceptance of who he truly is. He sees his sexual preferences as a sin in the eyes of god (his own words) for which he tries to repent in other ways and as a curse as he cannot reveal the true man to his legion of adoring fans. This performance of a troubled and vulnerable man is superbly portrayed by Douglas.
Matt Damon is no less impressive. For parts of the film his performance has to be measured to provide a counter balance to Douglas’s larger than life character. He more than hold his own. Later as his character changes he gets the chance to ramp it up and Damon is able to handle the transition with ease. He is effortlessly convincing playing the part of a man who is a natural addict. First it is Lee that he cannot get enough of then moving on to wealth, glamour and narcotics. By the end he doesn’t even have his own face. The one staring back at him looks more like Gordon Ramsay than his own. That’s a scary prospect for anyone.
Soderbergh is going out on a high note. He handles this film superbly. The movie in turns presents the glitz and glamour and abruptly switches to the stark reality of hair pieces, gaudy and tacky mansions and unpleasant people. The Vegas set pieces look superb with wide shots showing off the stage show in all in sparkling glory. The camera never interferes with the story. There are few unusually staged shots which in the wrong setting can take you out of the moment. These shots are reserved for dramatic, tension heightening moments here. A note of appreciation for the final set piece. Without going into details it rounds off the film quite nicely.
If indeed his swan song then thank you Mr Soderbergh. You have provided a large and varied body of work with a fitting and triumphant finale. Highly recommended.