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.