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
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album