Behind the Candelabra tells the life story of fabulous pianist and entertainer, (Lee) Liberace, a closet homosexual. The star maintained that he was not gay for his entire lifetime, hiring his lovers as employees so they could be close to him. One such lover is Scott Thorson, played by action hero favourite, Matt Damon, and this is how we meet Liberace.
Thorson is seduced by Liberace’s talent, money and lavish lifestyle at a mere eighteen years of age, and theirs is a relationship that blossoms and indeed, withers over five turbulent years. What you expect from this movie is the overt campness of the onstage Liberace (how did the fans not know he was gay in sparkles and fur coats?) and the background behind the glistening smile. What you get is all that, and a lot more. The movie is full of tongue in cheek gay humour, but without the crassness that could have easily been portrayed. It is also full of the tender moments between a loving couple as well as the eventual tetchy paranoia and manipulation of each other as the relationship breaks down.
Douglas, rarely seen these days in a lead role, is outstanding as Liberace, and nails it. He is vain, generous and calculating. He presents Liberace as a man who knows what he is doing, but is so sweet you just cannot be mad at him. He openly mocks his own extravagant tastes such as when he reveals, “I personally support the Austrian rhinestone business,” while giving Thorson a tour of his house.
Damon is convincing as the fresh-faced Scotty, who learns to get his own way with Liberace to the level of spoilt brat and entitled plaything. After multiple roles as an action hero, it’s refreshing to see the star as a vulnerable youngster and eventual paranoid drug addict. There are a few moments when both actors don thongs or speedos and you wonder how they managed to keep a straight face throughout the scene. But you soon realises that this flamboyance was just part of daily life at the Liberace household and it becomes the norm.
The supporting cast includes Dan Akroyd, who unfortunately doesn't do a whole lot. In fact he probably only has about ten lines of dialogue in the entire film, which is disappointing. Scott Bakula (Sam from Quantum Leap) plays Bob, the man who introduces Scott to Liberace and dons a handlebar moustache and denim as he pops in and out of the movie to support Scott and assist Liberace.
But the appearance of Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon almost entirely makes the movie. Every scene Lowe is in, he steals. With facial nuances afforded by his own ‘plastic’ face and his persuasive manner, it is clear to see that Lowe has found his niche in comedy, thanks to a similar comedic role such as in Californication.
You may be surprised to hear that Behind the Candelabra was directed by Steven Soderbergh, the man responsible for last year’s intense medical thriller, Side Effects, and the sadly dismal stripper movie, Magic Mike from 2011. It is, despite the title, Scott’s story, not Liberace’s. It is at times a great romance, however equally so at times, a very creepy story – Liberace wishes to adopt his lover Scott, and later get plastic surgery to look more like him. Soderbergh manages to avoid the pitfall of stereotyping the characters, while allowing them to appear as flawed and only human, with problems like anybody else (despite the buckets of money).
The make up is the real star in this movie though. Any female noticing wrinkles approaching will want the secret to Matt Damon’s teenage face. So smooth, fresh and glowing it is that you’d be forgiven forgetting the actor is in his early forties. The sets too, show the lavish home and costumes Lee surrounded himself with and are understandably epic. Behind the Candelabra may a touch too long (maybe by twenty minutes), but such is the case with biography movies.
If you want a movie that both surprises and entertains you, Behind the Candelabra is it. Douglas and Damon have you laughing with well-executed tongue in cheek humour while managing to make you care deeply about their characters and their touching (albeit strange) relationship. It is unexpectedly wonderful and possibly the new Brokeback Mountain set in Vegas with drugs, but no tents or cows.
Behind the Candelebra is in cinemas June 7.