If, as the man himself has declared is the case, Steven Soderbergh retires from feature film making, Behind the Candelabra is certainly a fitting farewell. Soderbergh’s frustration with the industry is well documented and this film epitomises the struggles that filmmakers such as Soderbergh face in trying to bring their vision to the screen. Whilst Behind the Candelabra has secured a cinematic release in Australia, the Academy Award-winning Soderbergh was forced to turn to cable television giant HBO to ensure the project saw the light of day when the Hollywood studios deemed the film ‘too gay’ for American film audiences. Subsequently, the film screened on HBO in America rather than in cinemas, which is a shame. Fortunately, despite the continued refusal by politicians to heed public sentiment and embrace gay marriage with suitable legislation, Australia is obviously regarded as a much more enlightened audience and the film has secured a release in mainstream multiplexes.
The story covers a particular period in the life of flamboyant entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas), specifically his 6-year relationship with animal wrangler Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It seems almost impossible to believe that, despite his outrageous costumes and effeminate mannerisms, Liberace maintained a public persona as heterosexual and successfully sued those who dared suggest otherwise. This film explores Liberace’s life away from the spotlight and presents him as a man whose talent and wealth have failed to produce the contentment that he craves. When Thorson comes into his life, Liberace is smitten and the two embark on a love affair that ultimately proves a rollercoaster ride for all involved.
Having been raised in foster homes, the much younger Thorson is initially swept away by the wealth, excess and decadence of Liberace’s lifestyle but eventually begins to find it suffocating. Having submitted himself to extreme makeovers and even plastic surgery at the behest of his lover, Thorson eventually rebels and soon finds himself on the outer when Liberace acquires a new lover. Douglas is fabulous as Liberace, presenting the gifted piano player as someone who, despite seemingly having it all, is very unhappy with many aspects of his life. His penchant for younger men is an attempt to boost his own self-confidence – which seems abundant on the surface but is severely lacking away from the spotlight – and ward off the inevitability of aging.
As hard as it may seem to believe given the luxurious lifestyle that Liberace enjoyed – which was hard earned with a gruelling work schedule – and the way he treated many of the people who came into his life, you can’t help but feel sorry for him at times in his futile, and often misguided, attempts to find the love and happiness that he craved. Like so many true life narratives, there is no happy ending to be found as Liberace ultimately succumbs to an AIDS-related illness, one of several high profile celebrities to fall victim to HIV during this period.
Whilst Douglas is the standout in the lead role, he is well supported by Damon as the naïve Thorson and Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s greedy manager Seymour Heller. Meanwhile, Rob Lowe is hilarious as plastic surgeon Jack Startz and it is great to see Scott Bakula back on the big screen as Bob Black, the man responsible for bringing Thorson and Liberace together. Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s somewhat strange mother Frances, with Paul Reiser in a small role as the lawyer engaged by Thorson to sue Liberace for palimony, a course of action that produces a result far short of the millions he is seeking.
Set almost entirely in Liberace’s lavish mansion, Behind the Candelabra looks great and Soderbergh has done a terrific job in capturing the lifestyle that Liberace enjoyed, along with the vanity and self-doubt that somehow coexisted to drive him to the pinnacle of success. The concert scenes do provide some insight into why Liberace enjoyed such popularity with audiences, but it is his life out of the spotlight on which Soderbergh has elected to focus, to excellent effect. It is so disappointing that a filmmaker as talented as Soderbergh (whose extensive body of work includes the likes of Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Contagion and Magic Mike) feels the need to move away from making movies into other areas of artistic endeavour, which includes television projects, because the industry desperately needs those who push the envelope and challenge the established conventions of the Hollywood production and business model.