Steven Soderbergh directs the story of the tempestuous relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his much younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

Soderbergh back on form with tale of sex, lies, and rhinestones

Now streaming at SBS On Demand 

2013 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL / SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra is a kitschy chiaroscuro of addiction, denial and desire, which spills the beans about late-life Liberace (Michael Douglas)’s toxic relationship with his much younger partner, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

Soderbergh’s glitzy, gruesome fairytale depicts the peaks and troughs of the five-year liaison – which ended in a palimony suit a few years before Liberace’s death – and shatters the illusions that the entertainer spent a lifetime cultivating.

The flamboyant piano man famously kept the matter of his homosexuality a fiercely guarded —and even-more fiercely litigated— secret, in a text-book case of protesting much too much. But his predominantly female fans bought the "confirmed bachelor" fiction, and were sufficiently distracted by the glare of the diamonds on his tuxedoes to not wonder aloud what else he kept in the closet.

Behind The Candelabra is as camp as a row of tents, but the many 'tells’ of its period setting (a decade that bridges the '70s/’80s) reinforce the mainstream homophobic and sex-negative mindset that trapped Lee in his life of contradiction. Richard LaGravenese’s excellent script has him solemnly reveal to Scott that his greatest fear is of being remembered simply as "a crazy old queen". Time-capsule authenticity aside, the revelation is tacit acknowledgement that the film’s ribald handling of his private life would surely mortify its chief antagonist. But Soderbergh exposes Liberace’s subterfuge with knowing winks to the fact that if the performer were alive today, he’d be here, he’d be queer and we’d all be well and truly used to it.

There is much more to this story than the salacious outing of a celebrity.

There is much more to this story than the salacious outing of a celebrity. The stitches-and-all exposé is far more concerned with the darker details of duplicity; its focus is firmly on the two central characters who shared the notion that there’s merit to sacrificing both your face and identity, once you’re accustomed to being adored. Tonally, it shares a thing or two with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, in the way it charts a young stud’s arc of disenchantment, when he tries to shift the power dynamic that he shares with a sex-centric Svengali.

Teen dream Scott is swept off his feet in a whirlwind courtship, spawned from flirtatious small talk in the superstar’s dressing room, orchestrated by a mutual friend (Scott Bakula). Lee’s overtures are laden with well-worn innuendo, overheard by his weary protégé, Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), who very nearly chokes on the chicken dinner he scoffs in the foreground; such is his unbridled loathing of Lee.

Scott’s background in animal wrangling appeals to Lee, and a random act of kindness to the cataract-afflicted poodle Baby Boy wins the superstar’s heart. Spa-side revelations show the celebrity’s vulnerability, and before long, Leatherwood gets his marching orders from Seymour Heller, Lee’s manager and chief enabler (played with scornful efficiency by Dan Ackroyd). Scott takes his place at palazzo Liberace, as its namesake’s lover, confidante, and employee, determined to outlast the implied expiry date of the union.

The honeymoon period is indeed idyllic, with marathon sex sessions, shopping expeditions and champagne-soaked heart-to-hearts in the Jacuzzi. When Scott gets skittish about frolicking in front of the help, Lee makes the well-informed, (loaded) observation that people "only see what they want to see".

Domestic bliss/co-dependence causes the lovebirds to pile on the pounds, and Lee decides that some nipping and tucking is in order. He also takes the opportunity to suggest some tweaks to Scott’s facial features, so that his partner more closely resembles himself. Scott demurs but figures it’s a small price to pay for his happiness, so commits to the knife of the permanently smiling Dr Startz (Rob Lowe), and emerges with chiselled chin/cheekbones and a diet pill addiction.

When the newly svelte and sculpted Scott is mistaken for Liberace’s son by a fan at the merchandise counter of one of the famed Vegas shows, Scott doesn’t exactly share Lee’s enthusiasm. There’s perhaps no better barometer of the underlying dysfunction, than the latter's bid to *adopt* his much-younger love.

The ages of Liberace’s romantic fixations are a crucial aspect of the story, and on paper at least, the casting of 40-something (and straight) Damon as 18 year-old Scott seems an attempt to sidestep the issue. But Damon convincingly portrays the baby-faced teen with the aid of clever prosthetics and make-up, in an equally curious but altogether more fabulous, case of Benjamin Button-like reverse ageing. (And that’s even before the cheek and chin implants get inserted, in some wincing surgical scenes.)

As Liberace/Lee, Douglas is phenomenal, bringing his own baggage of Old Hollywood and a string of career-making lotharios to the role of a celebrity addicted to diamonds, pianos and young men. 

Though Rob Lowe’s squinty surgeon chews the scenery (more than coked-up Damon chews his teeth), support performances are elsewhere excellent. Ackroyd, in particular, is outstanding as the brusque PR-man controlling the message in a time that predates Twitter and TMZ (when a celebrity could visit a glory hole in Vegas and run no risk of being caught with his pants down). Debbie Reynolds too, lends a touch of authenticity to the role of (her own good friend) Liberace’s beloved, controlling mama.

The inevitable demise takes a familiar path, when Lee feels so secure in the relationship that he wants to 'open it up’. Soderbergh pitches the drama of Scott’s drug-addled breakdown at the level of how you pretty much expect a drug-addled breakdown to play out. In a welcome departure from some of his recent works, Soderbergh gives this story a satisfying ending; in deference to the title’s promise of a peek behind a flimsy piano ornament to reveal what was hiding in plain sight all along.

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Watch 'Behind the Candelabra'

Tuesday 17 May, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies / Now streaming at SBS On Demand

USA, 2013
Genre: Drama, Biography
Language: English
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Paul Reiser, Rob Lowe

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