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Behind the Candelabra is fabulous — so much so that, were it not for the fact that it reveals everything about his private life that he worked so hard to conceal, Liberace himself might well have loved it. The big screen’s loss is HBO’s gain in what is billed as Steven Soderbergh’s farewell to the cinema, at least for the time being. Superbly scripted, brilliantly directed, smart but never smarmy and led by a lead performance by Michael Douglas so good you often forget you’re watching an actor rather than the famous character he’s playing, this is a rarity, a fully realized biographical drama shot through with real feeling and an abundance of sly humor. It’s a winner all around.
Playing in competition in Cannes despite having been made for HBO, where it will debut in the U.S. on May 26, the film will go out theatrically in some foreign markets, including the U.K. and France. It’s got a full-sized movie look in every way, the only difference being that it’s far better than most of what plays in cinemas these days.
The story spans the final decade of Liberace’s life, from his meeting young Scott Thorson in 1977 to his death from an AIDS-related illness, which he tried to keep a secret, as he always had his sexual persuasion.
“Oh, they have no idea he’s gay,” Thorson’s buddy informs him when they attend a Liberace show in Las Vegas heavily attended by adoring female fans of a certain age. No matter the performer’s outrageous fur coats, sequined garments, bejeweled fingers, immaculately coiffed hair and unbridled swish manner, anyone old enough to remember Liberace’s TV show and live appearances can testify to the sincere and unquestioned appeal he held for women in America as well as Britain. It really was another time.
Little did anyone suspect, then, that the handsome young chauffeur who nightly “drove” Liberace onstage in a gaudy Rolls-Royce actually was his bedmate in his celebrated Vegas mansion. The two come together at a fateful backstage meeting: out goes Liberace’s “protoge” — another pianist with whom he shares an on-stage duet — and in comes Scott (Matt Damon), a blond and beefy teenager from a succession of foster families. “I promise to stay on my side of the bed,” Liberace says upon encouraging him to sleep over, a promise kept until daybreak.
There is a slightly creepy predatory aspect to the behavior of “Lee,” as the pianist is known to his friends, in his initial overtures to the kid; he’s 58 to Scott’s 18 and was, for many years, the best-paid entertainer in show business. But in Douglas’ fulsome, wonderfully shaded performance, there is also a sweetness and seemingly genuine concern for the deprived, difficult life his hunky companion has led up to now, as will as an impulse to open up about some of his own trials and private issues (not to mention how he was initiated sexually in his native Wisconsin by a member of the Green Bay Packers).
Insisting at first that he’s bisexual (as Lee later notes, there’s never any evidence of this), Scott bristles at certain aspects of being a kept boy but offers little resistance to life at Liberace’s monument to “palatial kitsch,” a modern mansion stuffed with the most expensive gaudiness production designer Howard Cummings and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick can deliver: endless mirrors, chandeliers, marble, chintzy furniture, glittering tuxedos and shining and shimmering objects of all kinds, as well as those key sites of their relationship, the indoor marble Jacuzzi and ample bed.
After a couple of years, however, Lee persuades Scott to have extensive plastic surgery, including adding a dimple in his chin to make the young man more closely resemble him. This is all supervised by a suspicious Dr. Feelgood-type played by Rob Lowe in a hilariously squint-eyed performance, and Behind the Candelabra must rank as the first film to feature explicit plastic surgery montages to the accompaniment of upbeat, jaunty music, just one of Soderbergh’s many inspired touches.
Within another couple of years, Lee’s mother (an excellent and essentially unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds) dies, the couple has added heavy cocaine use to their steady champagne diet, Lee develops a porn addiction and soon proposes that he and Scott should be free to see other men. Although he has long stated that he regards Scott as a son he would adopt and inherit his holdings, the writing is very clearly on the wall, leading to Scott’s eviction and his retaliatory $113 million palimony suit that brought the entertainer unwanted tabloid notoriety shortly before his death.
LaGravanese’s screenplay is outstanding both in its dramatic structure and line-by-line writing, particularly in the intimate scenes that are mainly chatter but glancingly reveal both men’s needs and even sexual tastes. He and Soderbergh also know how to darken the mood as gently as one might imperceptibly dial down a light dimmer, which underlines the gradual rather than sudden unraveling of the pair’s relationship. And there are moments that are downright hilarious, some of it in a camp way and elsewhere just for the sheer spectacle of such an outlandish lifestyle.
Yes, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton played a couple of old queens in the best-forgotten Staircase in 1969, but to see two major stars like Douglas and Damon go at it physically the way they do here periodically is quite something. And impressive. Having from all appearances bounced back from his serious bout with cancer a couple of years back, Douglas looks great and acts it too in one of the two or three most electric and dialed-in performances he’s ever given onscreen. He catches Liberace’s humor, self-regard and mocking self-deprecation, work ethic, iron whim, generosity, spitefulness and ultimate aloneness. The actor’s accurate and speedy fingering in the piano-playing sequences is also dazzling.
Far older than the real Scott Thorson but radiating an agelessness that makes the discrepancy a non-issue, Damon is also wonderful, expressing the lack of willpower that allows him go along with his mate’s wishes but eventually the festering resentment and rage that builds up as he realizes he’s about to be discarded. Both actors, but particularly Damon, look convincingly younger after their characters have had work done; the makeup department deserves major kudos for its work here.
As with Reynolds playing Lee’s old Polish-accented mother, you can barely tell it’s Dan Aykroyd in the role of the entertainer’s longtime attorney and fixer. Scott Bakula is enjoyably relaxed as Scott’s old pal from pre-Lee days.
Shot by Soderbergh under his longtime DP moniker Peter Andrews mostly in bright, vivid compositions (he also edited under the name Mary Ann Bernard), the film also benefits from the musical contributions of the late Marvin Hamlisch, in what was presumably his final film work.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Production: Jerry Weintraub Productions for HBO Films (Airs May 26)
Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, Debbie Reynolds
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
Producers: Gregory Jacobs, Susan Elkins, Michael Polaire
Executive producer: Jerry Weintraub
Director of photography: Peter Andrews
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
Music adaptor: Marvin Hamlisch
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