Going into Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra I have to admit to not having a huge amount of knowledge of its subject. Certainly I had heard of Liberace and was aware of his presence as something of a camp pop-culture icon of the mid to late 20th Century, and that he appeared at the first Wrestlemania as the guest time-keeper for the main event. Beyond that though, I knew no more specific detail.
From the start its clear that this is Scott Thorson’s story, rather than Liberace’s, and this does raise some questions as we very much see things through Thorson’s eyes, so there are moments where I was left wondering how fair a view of the people being portrayed it is. For the most part though this concern was easily set aside as we see two sides of both the film’s leads with Thorson certainly not coming across as a saint by any means either.
The plot deals with the relationship between the pair that starts in 1977 and goes on to “Lee’s” death in 1986, but mostly focusing on the period from ’77 to ’81. In this time the pair fall in what they term as love, though its clear that ‘love’ may not be the best word, and through this a portrait is painted of how fame and fortune can affect people and those around them, and how others exploit this.
Aside from a genuinely gripping story that, while its one we’ve heard before, feels remarkably genuine, it is the performances that really stand out.
Highest amongst these is Michael Douglas as Liberace and, really, Douglas vanishes into the role and is so convincing that in the few moments when Douglas does peek through it is almost shocking. The other spectacular thing about Liberace in the film is that he seems to get younger as the film goes on and the make up effects used are some of the best I’ve seen as they do the thing the best of special effects do of being both clearly a work of art, but never distracting from the story as the film goes on.
Matt Damon as Thorson is not far behind in vanishing into the role and it is in him we see the descent into, at times, the horror and madness that the overall story references and he seems to give up his life for… well, we’re never sure what.
All this probably makes it sound like it’s quite a heavy and ponderous movie but, while it certainly has its dark side, much like Liberace himself there is something of the entertainer in the film as it is at times very darkly comic and, at other times, comic in its ridiculousness and throughout there is a wry sense of the kitsch and camp that was the very essence of Liberace’s on stage persona.
Before the credits roll the film comes full circle and ends on a somber note that is brilliantly offset by it’s final lines and comes out the other end surprisingly non-judgmental of anyone involved in the story, despite the fact there are some seriously dastardly goings on, and leaves the audience to take from it what they want, which, in films with big name stars like Douglas and Damon, is always something to relish.