Film review: Behind the Candelabra - Michael Douglas brings star wattage so bright you'll need shades



Here is something pretty remarkable, a showbiz biopic that manages to be incisive without being judgemental, and sexually candid without being prurient. Where Liberace is concerned there would always be a temptation to play it as a chronicle of excess, and the director Steven Soderbergh doesn't stint on the tawdriness, the tackiness, the eye-popping vulgarity and the pill-popping squalor.

And yet if Behind the Candelabra were a mere cautionary tale, its effect would fade very quickly. In fact, it's an intricately detailed study of social and psychological dependence, as grand and tragic in its way as Sunset Boulevard, and sometimes as funny. It was made in the US by HBO and shown on American television because no major Hollywood studio would touch it. That tells a story in itself.

The film also illustrates as never before the power of a celebrity to hide in plain sight. When 18-year-old country boy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) first sees Liberace (Michael Douglas) on stage in 1977, he's enchanted by the showmanship and bemused by the preponderance of middle-aged ladies in the audience.

"They have no idea he's gay," says Scott's older friend Bob (Scott Bakula), who later introduces the starstruck kid to the maestro backstage, lighting the blue touch paper to an attraction that will eventually find both of them out. In short order, the star's current protégé is ejected from the Vegas mansion and Scott, whose professed ambition was to be a vet, is moved in as his new personal assistant. Liberace – or "Lee", as he's known to intimates – at first takes a benign interest in the boy, and is visibly moved by the tale of his life in foster care. "What a story," says Lee, "everything but a fire in the orphanage", a line that nods to Thelma Ritter's similarly tough sympathy in All about Eve ("everything but the hounds snapping at her behind").

The courtship that ensues has a predatory creepiness that nevertheless tweaks the funny bone. Scott agrees to sleep over one night. "I promise to stay on my side of the bed," says Liberace. Cut to the morning, and Scott wakes to find his host's saurian face leering over him, a velociraptor at feeding time. Soon discussions move on to a gold-plated jacuzzi with champagne on tap. There will be no more occasion for coyness.

As in a fairytale Scott finds himself the pampered pet, and, by degrees, the prisoner of his needy master. The audience looks on in slightly appalled wonder. The Liberace mansion is a narcissist's paradise of mirrors, a place of Babylonian opulence where no surface can be free of chintz or marble or gold. The chandeliers outdo Versailles; the trinkets outnumber a Pharaoh's tomb. Production designer Howard Cummings clearly had a ball. So, too, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, who kits out Scott in the image of his extravagant mentor; you almost have to shield your eyes from the dazzle of their white suits and fur coats.

But, appropriately for a film about performance, the heart of it belongs to Douglas and Damon. Beneath the capes and the smile, Douglas locates all sorts of warring impulses: generosity, humour, playfulness – and also grotesque manipulation and overweening vanity, expressed in a scene when Liberace proposes a bout of plastic surgery for Scott. What sort of face should he have? Liberace shows him the blueprint – a portrait of himself as a young man. The montages of the nip-and-tuck routines both men undergo contain a queasy horror, as does the surgeon played, with sinister masklike smoothness, by Rob Lowe. He also supplies Scott with the slimming pills ("the California diet") that will launch him on a pathetic slide into addiction.

Douglas's star wattage is tremendous, though in the more passive role Damon is not outshone. Even at 42, he makes light of Scott's youth, expertly tracing an arc from innocent abroad through spoilt princeling to sad loner. His skin becomes nearly as shiny as the bling on his fingers. On realising that he will be discarded like others before him, Scott descends into helpless, almost childish rage. (He would later attempt to sue his lover/employer for $113m, without success.) Damon nevertheless finds the decency in this forlorn character. Late on, in a bookshop, Scott happens upon Liberace's autobiography, which trots out the old falsehoods of his life – that he's straight, that he nearly got married – but instead of hurling down the book in disgust Damon presents a look of quiet pain that says so much more.

Richard LaGravenese's screenplay works in fine little dabs of detail, and serves up one or two aces. When Liberace's ageing mother (Debbie Reynolds, also terrific) hits the jackpot on the mansion's one-armed bandit, the machine refuses to cough up its reward. (He's forgotten to fill it again.) Scott goes to fetch Liberace, who apologises to his mother for the lack of coins. Her reply: "I'll take a cheque."

The one aspect which LaGravenese skimps on is his subject's virtuoso talent as a pianist. There are early shots of those bejewelled hands skittering up and down the keys, but I would have welcomed a little more interplay between the music and the man. Did he worry about his talent, as he worried about his image? Was that amazing dexterity at the piano something he took for granted, or did he have to work at it? "Too much of a good thing is... wonderful," he tells his audience from the stage. And he won't be the last showbiz personality to regard the mass adulation of strangers as the most wonderful thing of all.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'