Behind The Candelabra (15)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, Dan Ackroyd
On general release from June 7th 2013

Reviewed by Tom Bottle

Liberace, the world’s greatest, most flamboyant, and highest earning showman famously said he “cried all the way to the bank” whenever critics dismissed his act or questioned his piano playing. He had real aspirations of becoming a classical musician before trail blazing many of the ideas of image (rhinestone suits, gold, opal, and emerald rings on every finger, fox fur coats with 16 foot trails…) commonplace today. He was also pretty witty, popular as hell, and good to his mother.

Liberace, however, does not come out of Behind The Candelabra smelling so sweet. Here we get the controlling sexual predator, desperate to preserve the myth he is as straight as everyone else (the times – no gay people then, of course), and the magnificent grotesque egotist who does not just want a facelift for himself but orders one for his lover, too. “I want him to look like this”, coo’s Liberace (Michael Douglas) holding a giant painting of himself.

Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is 17 when he runs into 57 year old Liberace, and the film is based on Thorson’s book of the title, and the five years they spend living together. Though it all ends in tears when Thorson is brutally turfed out for the next young thing, this is an intimate and loving portrayal until the great showman becomes too possessive. Now they could be any couple going through a rough patch except Liberace is American materialism personified – why fix what’s broken when you can just buy a new one? Similarities here to the other ‘Great American Dream’ film of the summer, The Great Gatsby.

Michael Douglas is relentlessly Liberace throughout, especially in that easy elevator voice that levels off at the 75th floor which stays with you whether he’s playing to his fans or pleading, “What do you want, Scott? Haven’t I given you everything?” Performances from both leads are convincing, and given that half the film is domestic fallout under the chandeliers it’s entertaining, too. Matt Damon’s character goes through the mill and would have me sniffling at the end if I am not already occupied thinking what a bastard Liberace is.

Still these monsters only get away with it because of the lowlifes they attract and Liberace’s entourage are no different. Rob Lowe’s pill popping plastic surgeon Dr. Startz is on some planet 10 million light years beyond morality and care, and got me thinking, did he get so far out all by himself? Do Hollywood actors have that kind of leeway or did the writers and director help him get there?

Either way, that’s fiction. In real life Liberace got there all by himself.

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