Long before Justin Beiber (or even Michael Jackson) began collecting million dollar paychecks, “The World’s Highest Paid Musician” title was once held by none other than, Liberace. Mr. Showmanship, as he was affectionately known, lived by the motto of “Nothing succeeds like excess”, flaunting his wealth and enviable lifestyle both on stage and in real life.
Thankfully, “Behind the Candelabra” is not one of those usual Hollywood biopics, which usually falls flat in the process of painting yet another celebrity portrait. It is rather a tale of Liberace’s secret relationship with Scott Thorson, an animal trainer from Wisconsin, who later became Liberace’s personal chauffeur and lover.
The tight and steadily-paced script, masterfully directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”, “Ocean’s Elven”), explores the complexities of a common gay relationship; a powerful wealthy gay daddy and his kept boy, while exposing the essential elements such as ego, promiscuity, indulgence, jealousy, power struggle and the drug use, played out in their doomed affair which ended in an ugly court battle.
|Douglas as Liberace|
Michael Douglas has made a successful decades-long career playing the alpha male roles. But here, he miraculously morphs into the fur-coat-swirling, jewelry-loving, piano-strumming Liberace. Although his piano-playing scenes are pure work of technology, Douglas as the Vegas veteran, is effectively eccentric, egoistic and extravagant with a slight hint of vulnerability and madness of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”. A certain Jacuzzi scene may spoil the fantasy of those who are still dwelling on his iconic bathroom scene in “Basic Instinct”. One word: Gravity. Nevertheless, Douglas should be writing his speeches by now for the upcoming award season starting with the Emmys in late September.
The same can be said about Matt Damon. Flexing his acting muscles (and a bunch of 'other' muscles for that matter), Damon not only holds his own against the captivating Douglas, his portrayal of Scott Thorson, from a young and naïve small-town boy to a vain and confused drug addict, is pitch-perfect. Debbie Reynolds’s cameo as Liberace’s Polish mother, with accent and all, is just an icing on the cake while unrecognisable Rob Lowe’s supporting role as the creepy plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, is the true scene-stealer. In addition to a few of Liberace's famous tunes, which will hopefully attract a whole new fan base, the HBO film also features the beautiful poignant score by Marvin Hemlich (“The Way We Were”, “A Chorus Line”), sadly his final work.
“Behind the Candelabra” offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of celebrity all the while transporting us back to an era where homosexuality and AIDS were very much taboo. It is interesting, in fact quite amusing to see how people including many of Liberace fans were willing to be fooled or help him mask his homosexuality. In one scene, an ardent older female fan asks Scott Thorson “Are you Mr. Liberace’s son?” as though the glitter man’s campy costumes and outrageous persona weren’t the big reveal.
With so many celebrities coming out and issues such as Gay Marriage being a hot topic these days, "Gay" is becoming a lot less taboo but much more mainstream. While it is still not an ideal world that we live in, we certainly have come a long way.