If the story took place today, in 2013, one imagines a different dynamic. The flamboyant Las Vegas fixture known as Liberace wouldn’t have to hide his sexual preference, nor would he have to hire on his boyfriends as sham help just to keep them close. He would flaunt his plastic surgery like Joan Rivers and court the very community he sought to distance himself from for decades. They’d love him, and he’s act as spokesman and symbol.
There’d be no false engagements, no TMZ stories about his failed relationship with “love of this life” Sonia Henie. He’d be celebrated as a champion of gay rights, ridiculed and/or revered for his campy, kitsch facade, and upon his death, declared a national treasure, not a sequined and rhinestoned laughing stock.
But Vladziu Valentino Liberace was born in 1919, and lived for decades under the shadow of his unmentionable sexuality. We may think we live in tolerant times, but sexual orientation was a pitched pariah throughout most of the 20th century. Hiding in plain sight, so to speak, Liberace took umbrage with anyone who dared slander his gender preference (he even sued journalists, and won) and amplified his outrageous lifestyle to cover up the truth. But when a young man named Scott Thorson entered the entertainer’s life, something sparked. The two spent five years together, their contentious break-up leading to the spurned lover/assistant’s allegation of cohabitation, and as a result, controversy. While Thorson failed to get the millions his unheard of palimony suit demanded, his outing of Liberace via his tell all book (and the basis for the HBO film) became his real lasting legacy.
For his final “film” before taking a self-imposed hiatus (though he’s already plotting a reappearance in episodic TV), Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh gives us ‘Behind the Candelabra,’ a glitzy, glamorous pseudo biopic which plays like a legitimate love story more than a tantalizing tell all, and as swansongs go, it’s sensational.
The filmmaker finds kindred spirits in both Michael Douglas (who is sensational as the pixie-like pianist and deserves every award that will be thrown his way) and Matt Damon (as the lovelorn Thorson) and both men provide the kind of inspired, unconscious performances that turn this gay-themed romance into a masterwork of man-on-man emotion.
We first meet Liberace where many know him from-a lavish Las Vegas showroom. As he introduces a clearly cranky protege (Cheyenne Jackson) to join him in a duet, we can already see the eccentric elements at work. An old lady in the audience balks when Thorson and his buddy Bob Black (Scott Bakula) wonder aloud about their blindness to Liberace’s homosexuality. Then, as they meet with the artist backstage, the instant chemistry between future paramours clouds everything else. As we will see throughout the course of this compelling two hour effort, Thorson will fall head over heels, while his much older partner is just pleased to have a new hunk in the harem.
Over time, of course, Liberace grows incredibly fond of his new boy toy, and this falling makes up the majority of ‘Behind the Candelabra”s running time. We see them talk, make love, shop, snip at each other, and, on occasion, backtrack through the musician’s many milestones. Liberace talks about losing his virginity to a Green Bay Packer. He tells of how his brother George pushed him to play, and play, and play-anywhere and anytime he could. He discusses his devout religious beliefs, even hinting that divine intervention during a bout of kidney failure confirmed his place in God’s good graces, his gayness aside. There’s even a scene or two when the unnaturally vain man is shown sans wig and figure conforming wardrobe.
In fact, it’s the superficial that turns the tide in this film. When Liberace sees himself on The Tonight Show he screams “I look like my father in drag” and immediately sets up an appointment with Dr. Jack Startz (a terrific-and tight-faced-Rob Lowe), a plastic surgeon with some strange ideas about other people’s body issues. He gets Thorson to try “The California Diet” (read: a crazy cocktail of prescription pills) and within months, he is an addict. This pisses off Liberace, whose already been looking for an excuse to let his eye wander.
A trip to a porno establishment confirms the trouble in paradise. Those hoping for less sexual politics and more biographical history need to look elsewhere. There’s a mention of the movies Liberace made in his youth (including ‘Sincerely Yours’) as well as his famed ’50s TV show. But all other nods to the man’s music, his multimillionaire status, even his doting love for his mother (an underused Debbie Reynolds) takes a backseat to all things boy.
For his part, Soderbergh stays in familiar aesthetic territory. This is a movie draped in the yellows of a Nevada sun, of the whites of Liberace’s teeth and the toned, tanned skin of Thorson. Tweaked to the point of distraction, this pallet prevents us from getting too deep into reality. Instead, it turns everything into a kind of kooky fairytale, with Liberace the self-important Snow White and Thorson his well-hung knight in skin tight Speedos. Toward the end, when our little man lost is completely controlled by his addictions, Soderbergh uses a technique to show his unstable nature. As the camera sways back and forth and the focus pulls in and out, we expect the inevitable fall from grace.
Instead, like most lovers, Liberace and Thorson part in a relatively pragmatic way. Sure, the latter has a diva-moment hissy fit, but then once he calms down, we see how they separate and how life starts to fall back into place. At the end, when Liberace was dying of AIDS, he reconciled with his former fling, and you get the impression that the two made their piece before fame fleeted away for the very last time.
As a look behind the scrim at what a closeted celebrity and his bedmate did in the privacy of their palatial surroundings, ‘Behind the Candelabra’ is exceptional. If you want to know more about Liberace himself…well, that’s another story for another filmmaker to tackle. For his final statement (or so we’re told), Soderbergh goes out on top.