Behind the Candelabra is fabulous -- so much so that, were it not for the fact that it reveals everything about his private life that he worked so hard to conceal, Liberace himself might well have loved it. The big screen’s loss is HBO’s gain in what is billed as Steven Soderbergh’s farewell to the cinema, at least for the time being. Superbly scripted, brilliantly directed, smart but never smarmy and led by a lead performance by Michael Douglas so good you often forget you’re watching an actor rather than the famous character he’s playing, this is a rarity, a fully realized biographical drama shot through with real feeling and an abundance of sly humor. It’s a winner all around.
Ironically, despite being the most bigscreen-worthy film that director Steven Soderbergh has made since “Che,” this eye-popping biopic will unspool Stateside on HBO, while receiving theatrical treatment abroad, where the star power of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon will draw masses to performances unlike any in their careers.
Behind The Candelabra tells Thorson’s story of that five-year relationship and the fallout from it, and Soderbergh treats this source material with his usual piercing intelligence. In his hands it becomes a gay Pygmalion myth: call it My Fair Laddie.
The film is mesmeric, riskily incorrect, outrageously watchable and simply outrageous. Unlike ITV's Vicious, which stars two famously gay actors, Behind the Candelabra does not offer any extra-textual liberal assurances in its casting. Michael Douglas is very funny as the great man himself, a primped and toupéed peacock of the ivories whose undoubted technical genius at the keyboard means he does not need to rehearse, and whose excess energy and artistry is channelled into chasing after young men. Matt Damon is Scott, the pert animal trainer and would-be veterinarian who wins Liberace's heart by artlessly offering to treat his blind poodle, Babyboy.
But the movie is at heart a two-hander, an intimate love story between older flamboyant pianist showman (Michael Douglas) and his younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It is neither too big nor too small. It feels just right. It was shot in 30 days--five fewer than "sex lies and videotape."
Douglas, who goes from preening in front of a theater full of people to being stumbled upon, bald and sagging, fresh out of the shower, plays Liberace as pulled between his need for control and his desire to care and be cared for by someone not just there to freeload. It's a terrific and vanity-free performance, one that finds the conflicted, aging person underneath the self-embraced caricature while also making it clear that caricature is where Liberace is most comfortable. And Damon matches him by portraying Scott as someone aware that he's leaping onto a gravy train but who can't help but take seriously Liberace's insistence that he's the family Scott never had, his yearning and mild avarice inseparable.
Both hilarious and heartrending too, "Behind The Candelabra" is decadently entertaining, even if its basic rise-and-fall structure is nothing new. Soderbergh finds the hollowness lying beneath the "palatial kitsch" Liberace indulges in and takes viewers into a world where love is the only escape from a life that is pure fiction.