Director: Steven Soderbergh
Based on the memoir by Scott Thorson, Liberace’s live-in teen lover, this TV film totally sparkles on the big-screen. Well, it sparkles and then there’s that amber-orange hue that Steven Soderbergh films all have, not so much blunted and dull, more a movie-world setting, an almost hyper-realism. You’re right there in the scene – or so close to it. And then there’s a mark of detachment, a reminder that all of this is being framed for your perusal, rather than plunging headlong in.
Matt Damon plays Thorson, though you can be forgiven for thinking he is playing Mark Wahlberg for most of the flick. Michael Douglas is Liberace – or Lee, as he liked to be called. And Rob Lowe is wonderful as a plastic surgeon – but you could be forgiven for thinking he’s actually playing Steven Tyler in the downtime between Aerosmith shows.
Conservative America’s studios wouldn’t back this – HBO threw up the cash to have this story told, a part-biopic (it only focuses on the last 10 years of Liberace’s life – his time with Thorson); a tale that Soderbergh has been wanting to tell for some time.
It’s a grim love story, a cautionary tale regarding the trappings of fame, the fragility of egos and the cruelness of addictions.
Thorson moved in with Lee when he was 17, the relationship – clandestine in a sense, despite Liberace’s extravagant gowns, mincing and knowing wink-wink banter he was never fully out in his lifetime; he would sue anyone who printed that he was gay. He’d win too. He defended his not-so-secret secret to the grave. Anyone not familiar with this legend/circus-act would think it comical seeing authentic footage now or this filmed version of events and trying to believe, straight-faced, that his female fans sincerely figured he just hadn’t quite found the right woman to make happy.
Liberace was a strange construct. He had talent – was a showman, certainly. But his masterstroke was in turning himself into a grotesquery, he had the same plans for Thorson too, paying to have him made over by his surgeon-on-speed-dial to look like a younger version of Lee. Strange but true. Later he’d try to adopt him, have him as his son even though they were in a full sexual relationship.
The love story takes a turn for the ugly rather quickly as Thorson becomes just another of Liberace’s prizes; from pet-project to just another of his pets. Thorson too, quickly drops the dumb farm-boy shtick and starts appreciating the more garish things in life, quickly he becomes the owner of a prodigious drug habit too.
The film shies away, mostly, from Liberace’s own drug use, but it’s using Thorson’s book as its source and Soderbergh loves to play his films just to the side, his camera capturing the action from just enough of a distance rather than probing right in; he’s a documentarian that just happens to make feature films, whether popcorn or art house. Beyond The Candelabra is somehow both.
If Damon is decent, acceptable, quite good then Michael Douglas is something of a revelation. He dives into the character so as to disappear, just a trace of that trademark smirk – so you know, clearly, he relished this role. Actually, Douglas’ best roles have him disappearing into the character, and this is – after all – just another meditation on the Greed is Good theme that Douglas’ most famous character made a mantra. In both cases – especially with this Liberace film – the aim of course is to show precisely that greed is in fact not good. Greed is combustible, exhausting, destructive
There’s a nice – subtle – hint that Las Vegas is a strange place too.
Douglas isn’t quite the total mince and though his piano playing scenes were believable the stage banter is a bit disappointing. Liberace really hammed it up when he stepped out beyond the candelabra. Douglas doesn’t quite achieve the high-camp-as-attempted-high-art that Liberace tossed out from the stage.
But it’s a fitting swansong of a film for Soderbergh – if the rumours of his retirement turn out to have any substance. And it would be the best swansong Douglas could offer.
It’s also a reminder of the ugliness of fame, of the difficulty attached to having it all – or at least to being so sure you do and to the evils of drug-fuelled, ego-driven narcissism.
Liberace died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987 – which is where this film stops. His manager and lawyer did their best to cover that up too. The body had to be exhumed, a new autopsy conducted. The heart failure press-release just didn’t wash.
There’s something in that that’s relevant to Liberace’s entire professional career – that the secret, the real Lee, was always so close to the surface. So close that some people didn’t see it. Chose not to most likely. Soderbergh takes us along for the ride so sure he wants us to see this – so close to the surface but with just enough distance, clarity.
It’s close to virtuoso filmmaking, close to a tour-de-force from Douglas. Strong support from Scott Bakula, Damon, Debbie Reynolds (wonderful in her cameo as Lee’s mother) and a sublime comic turn from Lowe.
Behind The Candelabra is wonderful. And it’s playing here as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.