Much has been written about Steven Soderbergh’s decision to quit directing films after a career spanning 26 features, including Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, The Informant and Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen. Soderbergh has lamented the state of contemporary cinema, while maintaing that he will direct plays and perhaps TV as well, in the future.
So, it is surprising and perhaps ironic his final film is actually a made for television feature. Behind The Candelabra premiered at Cannes, but was in fact a HBO Films production which debuted on the US cable network, before seeing cinematic release internationally. In many ways Behind The Candelabra is an amazing success for Soderbergh. What appears on paper to be potentially straightforward biopic turns out to be one of the best films of the year.
Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, a young, good-looking animal handler, who meets Bob Black (an almost unrecognisable Scott Bakula) in a bar and in time Black introduces Thorson to Liberace, a famous Las Vegas entertainer and Hollywood celebrity, known for his dazzling, over the top stage shows.. Soon Thorson takes a central role in Liberace’s life, as both his live in lover and personal assistant. Along the way we also meet an almost unrecognisable Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s stern manager Seymour Heller, an equally unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother Frances and an alarmingly angular and unrecognisable Rob Lowe as Liberace’s favoured cosmetic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz.
In fact, this issue of unrecognisablility is something of a motif in Behind The Candelabra. After a poor TV performance, Liberace hires Dr. Startz to give him a facelift and at the same time asks the doctor to make Thorson look more like a younger version of Liberace himself. The consequence of fame is that everyone in this drama is twisted, changed and in order to make those fleeting moments of on stage magic possible
Behind The Candelabra was adapted by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County) from a memoir by Thorson himself, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. The focus stays mostly on Thorson, as he transitions from a being a relatively simple young man who falls in love a celebrity and, at the same time, with the trappings of celebrity until finally, circumstances change and things become darker and more bitter for him.
If unrecognisability is a key motif, then so is bitterness as well. Both are wrapped up in Michael Douglas’ transformative performance as Liberace. Douglas captures the full range of Liberace, from the measured banter of his stage show persona to the predatory nature of his sex life, all while embodying the contradictions of being devoutly catholic yet wildly promiscuous, having a young man’s face on an old man’s body, of living a life of extreme homosexual hedonism while managing to convince middle America he was just a slightly flamboyant version of the kid next door.
And, Matt Damon’s turn as Thorson is equally stunning, a display full of haunting lostness, in equal measure tender and tragic. Damon allows Thorson a rage at lost innocence which mirrors the cultural innocence we all lost in the 80s. Before AIDS and papparazzi, the world could believe the myths PR men spun about stars like Liberace; we could choose to ignore the facts for the sake of being entertained, or at least diverted on late night TV. But, in our 24/7 spin cycle of gossip, every foible and failure is more real than real. Like Thorson we could see this coming yet we were powerless to stop it. Now, finally left face to face with the tragedy of our favourite stars real darkness we can do nothing but pine, nostalgically, for a simpler time.