Release Date: 7th June 2013
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, Dan Akroyd
Back in 1997, Austin Powers said the following after being unfrozen: “I can’t believe Liberace was gay… I didn’t see that one coming, no. I mean women loved him!” It was a joke that wasn’t actually far from the reaction of many of his fans after it was revealed he passed away due to AIDS related complications. And now in a most Austin Powers style move, Michael Douglas announces that he got throat cancer after a life-time of performing cunnilingus on women, and was subsequently cured by, well, continuing to dole out more constant pleasure. How fitting that he should announce this right now, just as he’s playing one of the most flamboyantly camp men in entertainment history. It is, however, an outstanding performance. On his oral sex prowess I sadly cannot comment.
Based on the autobiographical book of the same name by former partner Scott Thorson (played here by Matt Damon), Behind the Candelabra traces his love affair with Liberace from the late 70s to the mid 80s, and eventually his death in 1987. Thorson is at once Liberace’s lover, surrogate son and emotional play thing; he is controlled and later on literally shaped into his perfect image. Liberace uses Thorson as a canvas onto which he projects his own idealised version of himself, then casts him out once he outgrows his use. However there is a tenderness between them that never really diminishes, which adds real emotion heft to a story that could quite easily have become a throwaway novelty. Despite Liberace’s obvious and often extremely hurtful personality flaws, we remain endeared to him, which is in part what makes the film so successful. This is also down to Douglas’ performance, which is arguably the best of his entire career, and Matt Damon’s nuanced portrayal of a naive young man becoming slowly aware of his relationship’s impending doom is brilliantly underplayed. It’s a shame that despite it getting a cinema release in Europe, it will be a TV movie in the states; Douglas would surely have been nominated for an Oscar if Soderbergh had found financing outside of HBO.
Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh claims, will be his final film. His recent output has been varied, intriguing, and near enough constant; averaging on two films a year since 2008. Candelabra sees Soderbergh ending on a high note, and not least because this, along with Magic Mike, has seen through one of the most satisfying stretches of his career. The sheer candidness of both these films challenge pre-conceived notions of masculinity in a way that feels fluid, natural and refreshingly unforced. At the end of the day, Soderbergh likes to celebrate people in all their mundane glory. Even when we see Liberace at his most ridiculously flamboyant, there’s an element of domesticity to the whole affair that lends it an endearingly banal quality. Seeing both characters act like a reasonably normal married couple is what makes later events seem all the more upsetting. The plastic surgery debacle and Liberace’s sudden coldness thereafter brings with it a reminder of the consequences of fame and bottled up emotion. He is, at the core, an extremely lonely and insecure man; something which the naive Thorson slowly begins to realise as their relationship goes South.
There are times when the whole thing feels a bit rushed, especially towards the end, but these are minor flaws in what remains an otherwise thoroughly entertaining affair. A touching relationship drama with sublime performances and some good-natured humour thrown in, you could do much worse than see Behind the Candelabra this weekend. Much, much worse. Also, Dan Akroyd is in it! And Soderbergh, if you’re reading this: PLEEEAAASSEEEE, DON’T LEAVE US!