Sex, Lies, & Biopic: Soderbergh Bids Adieu With Sincere, Compelling Flair
In what will reportedly be director Steven Soderbergh’s last directorial effort in the film realm, Behind the Candelabra stands as a superb high note. Premiering at Cannes in the Main Competition, the HBO Films production was actually made for the affluent cable channel, where it will see its worldwide release shortly after. While tongues will initially ponder its position in the illustrious auteur’s impressive filmography, Soderbergh’s swan song (we’ll have to wait and see if it indeed remains so) will come to be remembered as something so much more than just that in the annals of cinema. An intriguing and recuperative tell-all about one of the world’s most famous entertainers and his not very well concealed sexuality, this lavishly and wonderfully mounted film is of a higher caliber than a majority of mainstream American theatrical releases, and it is, of course, telling that the generous backing of HBO helped get this project off the ground. Refreshingly frank and undoubtedly entertaining, it doesn’t even matter that it follows the general rhythm of many a biopic, as it features two fascinating and unforgettable lead performances.
Opening to the hypnotic beat of Donna Summers’ “I Feel Love,” we enter the world of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) in 1977, a golden haired all American type with aspirations of being a veterinarian. Scott lives with his foster parents in Los Angeles, but when a West Hollywood friend, Bob Black (Scott Bakula) takes Scott to see Liberace in Las Vegas and introduces him to the fabulous performer, the famous singer quickly begins a heavy flirtation with the decades younger Thorson. At that time, Liberace was at the end of a toxic relationship with Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), who swiftly gets the boot when Scott comes to live with Liberace as his personal secretary. The relationship quickly becomes sexual, and Scott finds himself having feelings for his father figure employer. Wills are changed, property is acquired, cars are purchased, and then there’s all the fur, jewels, and eventually, drugs. At one point, a plan is made for Liberace to adopt the adult Thorson as his son so that he may be provided for if anything were to happen. But when the honeymoon period starts to wane, Liberace’s wandering fingers tickle more than just the ivories, and paired with the self-loathing Scott (who staunchly maintains that he’s bisexual throughout their time together—not to mention he refuses the passive role in their lovemaking) the melodrama begins. Liberace has aims to physically fashion his boyfriend into a mini version of himself, bringing in plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) to remodel Scott’s face. But like all those that came before him, Scott has a hard time dealing with the process of falling out of favor with the manipulative diva, whose pet phrase, as everyone knows, was “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”
If there’s any complaint to be launched at Behind the Candelabra it’s the amount of time Soderbergh spends on the episodic domestic squabbles surrounding the eventual demise of their relationship. But six years between two people that seemingly spent nearly every moment together surely doesn’t even receive its true due even here, where Soderbergh only begins to hint at the hellish trap Scott Thorson backed himself into. In 2013, at a time where most LGBT citizens in the US are still denied access to the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts, Candelabra is a fascinating (though, of course, highly sensational) look at the loopholes that were historically pursued by gay couples to achieve a semblance of these rights, such as one partner adopting the other. Richard LaGravanese’s smartly written script compellingly charts the gamut of the predicaments many gay couples face, forced to reside outside the heternormative mainstream and struggling to dictate their own set of rules and values.
But what will stick out for most people are two wickedly good performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Douglas is astoundingly vibrant, and you’d be hard pressed to find the actor in a more charismatic mode in his extensive filmography. He becomes Liberace, the affectations, the subtle manipulations, and down to such perfection that he achieves the ultimate transcendence so hard to find in the biopic—he makes you forget he’s Michael Douglas. The same can be said for the less sensational role for Matt Damon, a passive young man swept away in Liberace’s whirlwind. Likewise, Rob Lowe is downright hilarious as plastic surgeon who also becomes responsible for Thorson’s addiction to prescription weight loss meds. An unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s elderly mother and Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s attorney (his one constant) also add to the heady names in the supporting lineup, all serving to add exceptional texture rather than blatantly disrupting the film’s tone.
After the end of their considerably toxic six year relationship, Scott Thorson is shown to thumb through Liberace’s published autobiography which falsely details a heterosexual history for the fabulous entertainer, which proclaimed his one true love to be ice skater Sonja Henie. It’s a brief and small moment that succinctly highlights the importance of Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, an insistent (though overtly obvious) reclamation of queer history. Douglas’ Liberace comments early on that “people only see what they want to see,” so perhaps it is with a touch of irony that with its premiere on HBO, many more will have the opportunity to see two A list stars turn in career high performances in roles only a decade before we probably could never envision seeing them in.
Reviewed on May 21 at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival — MAIN COMPETITION.