From the 1950s to 1970s, Liberace was the world’s highest paid entertainer, even higher than, they said, Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra. His legacy, though, doesn’t live on as strongly as those two names but ask your parents about him, and they most probably remember the numerous rings adorning his fingers as they danced on top of the piano keys, and all the flashy costumes with all the sequins and fur. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra takes a look at Liberace’s 5-year relationship with Scott Thorson, a simple country boy working as an animal wrangler who is introduced to Liberace by their mutual friend. Some flirting at the back stage on one of Liberace’s shows leads to Scott being invited to his gaudy, outrageously-decorated house, and Scott is soon taken in, becoming a part of Liberace’s inner circle. Having been tossed from one foster home to another when he was a child, Scott is overwhelmed by all the attention—and jewelry—Lee (as his friends call him) lavishes on him. But before long, the relationship turns toxic. Scott can’t help feeling that he’s just one of Lee’s toys that can easily be discarded and replaced by a newer, shinier, younger toy. And his falling deeper into drug addiction doesn’t help things either.
The film is based on Thorson’s memoir of the same title, published in 1988, a year after Liberace’s death. So, of course, the film focuses on Liberace’s relationship with him and not Liberace’s life as a whole and since it’s all Thorson’s words, he is seen as the… well, naïve victim. Liberace did settle a palimony lawsuit and Thorson did get away with $95,000, but the dude is currently awaiting sentencing for burglary charges and was bailed out by a brothel owner earlier this month. He also recently claimed that he once had a 6-year romance with Michael Jackson. Yes. This makes it a little hard to see the film as a real biopic but if you don’t focus yourself on the current Thorson tabloid issues, the film is… fun. The relationship depicted between the two men is nothing new, but the film actually is a fun watch.
The center of the film is definitely the story between the two main characters, how Lee ‘harmlessly’ starts out as Scott’s sugar daddy, but then their possessiveness and jealousy begins to tear the relationship apart. Not to mention Lee’s quirks and somehow predatory fondness of Scott, wanting to be Scott’s everything—his lover, his best friend, his father. One of the most disturbing things is when Lee asks Scott to go under the knife to make him look more like Lee himself. Scott wholly becomes his property. Heck, he doesn’t even have his own face anymore. Sometimes there seems to be real love and affection between them, but with all the things going on, it falls apart quite fast.
Casting Michael Douglas as Liberace might be the movie’s best decision. The 68 year-old hasn’t got a role this good in so long and it’s fantastic to see him go all-out this time. He struts confidently as the camp, flamboyant Mr. Showmanship with his big creepy grin and yet gives the role his moments of vulnerability. Matt Damon, though, probably has a bigger challenge. Scott Thorson is supposed to be 16, 26 years younger than Damon himself. But hell, did Damon do a great job. With his blue-eyed naiveness, his emotional and physical transformations, Damon delivered. However, it could have been better if the role was given to a younger, probably newer actor. Not that Damon did anything wrong (he didn’t), but having a fresher (and maybe prettier) face could have been more fun. Ex-model Boyd Holbrook plays Thorson’s successor, a young actor who catches Lee’s attention and makes his way into his bed while Thorson is forced out. Now, Holbrook could have been an interesting pick for Scott. Granted, he has never had a big role and who knows if he could pull it off, but well, you get the idea. But putting all that aside, make up and camera angles (and probably a few touches of special effects?) successfully shows the actors in the right phases of their characters. Be it a smooth, free-of-lines face of a young Scott or a firm, newly-face-lifted Lee.
Apart from the story of the main characters, what makes the film fun for me is all the peripherals. Beginning with the aforementioned make-up, how it works not only for Douglas and Damon, but also for the other characters, especially Rob Lowe and Debbie Reynolds. Lowe plays a plastic surgeon who seems to be high on drugs all of the time and has probably had one too many facelifts that his eyes are constantly squinting and he can barely swallow. Reynolds plays Liberace’s heavily Polish-accented mother, utterly unrecognizable in prosthetics. Aside from the make-up, there’s also the production design. The sets involving Liberace are all so tacky and outrageous and over the top, the houses so full of crazy decorations, countless mirrors and Grecian figures in frosted glass, you can’t help but pay attention to all those details. So. Much. Bling. And the flashy, extravagant costumes? Even. More. Bling. Sequins, crystals, ostrich feathers, furs, a cape with a 16-foot train, you name it.
If this really turns out to be Steven Soderbergh’s last hurrah, even though it’s not his best, it’s still a well-made, fun film, one of his most enjoyable works.