If Steven Soderbergh is truly done with feature films we should be thankful he left us with three great films, one after another, before his departure. With Magic Mike, Side Effects and now Behind the Candelabra that’s three films in a row that most directors could not achieve the likes of over the course of a career, let alone the rest of Soderbergh’s oeuvre from Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Traffic.
Behind the Candelabra says as much about us as a society as it does about its two protagonists in a story that’s surprisingly dark at times, just as it is emotionally rewarding, entertaining and even humorous.
Tracing events from 1977-1986, the story follows the life of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) as he goes from being a Hollywood animal handler to the dazzling lifestyle and palatial estate of famed Las Vegas entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas).
Growing up an orphan, moving from house to house, Scott is looking for someone he can depend on and he wants desperately to feel loved. When Liberace offers him the opportunity to live with him as his personal assistant he doesn’t hesitate, knowing full well it’s less a job than it is a ruse for the relationship that would eventually blossom and span five years, which is believed to be the longest, loving relationship Liberace ever had with anyone.
Conversely, Scott also fulfills Liberace’s needs as a loving partner in a relationship he can successfully keep private under the guise of Scott being an employee and, at one point, even being confused for Liberace’s son. Equally perverse and telling, the moment that summed up their relationship for me came as Liberace tells Scott he wants to be his “father, brother, lover and best friend.” The idea of such a relationship is absurd, but the way the film treats it seriously and without false or mocking behavior makes it easier for the audience to relate, and enter the world rather than look at it as a curiosity.
Douglas and Damon are extraordinary. Douglas is charming, captivating, perverse and sad as a character whose image is everything and the desire to never grow old has him constantly searching for the Fountain of Youth, be it those around him or a plastic surgeon’s knife. Damon, as Thorson, must first play the wide-eyed school boy and slowly transform into the paranoid lover, a role both men play to some great effect.
Soderbergh has surrounded his two leads with a strong supporting cast, the best of which include Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager Seymour Heller and the most entertaining being Rob Lowe as his plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz. Lowe’s performance and character is a great example of how Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, adapting the story from the book written by Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, manage to tell both a touching and emotionally rewarding story, but also one that entertains.
Lowe’s performance was just as much his own doing as it was that of the film’s makeup department. Startz is every bit dependent on his image as Liberace to the point his endless plastic procedures have him looking more like Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshall Bill than how his mother would remember him.
The film also benefits from wonderful costumes and striking set design. Liberace’s stage glows as thousands of lights beam off the showman’s sparkling attire, his sequined red cape glowing amid the yellow bulbs in the background and his signature candelabra atop his mirrored piano. A Las Vegas showroom was reconstructed to mimic those Liberace played on just as was Liberace’s Los Angeles penthouse with some of his actual decor finding its way into the film.
The attention to detail and extravagance doesn’t go unnoticed, but it also allows for the story to live and breathe in the world from which it’s from. This is a film about two lost souls looking for something. Both men found in each other what they thought they were looking for, but it was false and could never work considering the circumstances. It speaks of these two men as much as it speaks of the celebrity lifestyle and a bygone era, which our society is slowly growing out of where people can be proud of who they are and not have to hide certain aspects of their personal lives from the world.
Yet, Behind the Candelabra exhibits the fact that even Hollywood isn’t ready for a film of this sort, Soderbergh openly saying in interviews it was thought to be “too gay” for the major studios. Lucky for HBO, because they have found themselves a real winner and a film that may find itself taking home an award or two from the Cannes Film Festival.