Most notorious for being the movie that was too “gay” for mainstream Hollywood studios to release, Steven Soderbergh’s take on the tempestous relationship between Liberace and his young protege Scott Thorson is actually a remarkable achievement that manages to work on several levels. As camp, it’s an over-the-top hoot, but it’s also surprisingly affecting and features fine performances by its two leads.
Walter “Lee” Liberace was one of the strangest phenomenons in a strange business. Eccentric and flamboyant, he nevertheless managed to charm the pants off of millions of mature women who clutched him to their bosoms for decades and refused to believe any reports that their beloved might be a little light in the loafers. Liberace, meanwhile, kept giving them what they wanted even as his persona and stage performances became gayer and gayer. Quoting Mae West, he’d say “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”
Behind the Candelabra opens with one such performance, at the showroom in the Las Vegas Hilton where Lee (Michael Douglas) held court for ages, even broadcasting two CBS specials from the room in the late 1970s. Choreographer Bob Black (Scott Bakula, in ’70s gay porn star drag), brings his newest conquest, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, convincingly made up to look twenty years younger), to one of the pianist’s flamboyant spectaculars. Transfixed by the action on the stage as well as the fawning adulation of the audience, Scott remarks, “Don’t they know he’s gay?”, earning angry glances from the blue-hairs nearby.
After the show, Bob takes Scott backstage to meet the legend himself. The sight of this young, blond god sends Lee into a tizzy, and he invites them over for brunch the next day. While giving Scott a tour of the house, he pours his heart out, admitting that he’s profoundly lonely and distrustful of his staff. He feels that Scott is someone he can confide in, and he begs him to take a job as his personal assistant. Looking for a way out of his mundane life with his adoptive parents, Scott agrees.
Of course, it takes no time at all for the relationship to become sexual, and Liberace lavishes Scott with gifts and manipulates him emotionally. Cut to a few years later, and we find a pot-bellied Scott and an aging Lee watching an old move on television together. Liberace decides that it’s time for a “makeover,” so he calls in his trusted plastic surgeon, Jack Startz (Rob Lowe). Lee wants a complete regeneration and, as an added bonus, he wants Scott’s face reconstructed to resemble his younger self, “so you can be my son,” he declares.
Startz also puts Scott on a special diet, which consists of a cocktail of addictive amphetamines. Now the young man is truly hooked, both physically and emotionally. But Scott’s drug-fueled bouts of anger force Lee to find solace in the arms of other young men, and the relationship begins to crumble.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, working from Thorson’s book, do a brilliant job of making us believe that there was an actual emotional relationship, and that Thorson was more than just a “kept boy.” According to Emmy magazine, in an effort to maintain authenticity, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick painstakingly recreated Liberace’s outrageous stage costumes and production designer Howard Cummings used or recreated locations, including tearing out the stadium seating in the actual Las Vegas Hilton showroom and replacing it with the leather-upholstered booths of the era.
Todd Kleitsch and Hiroshi Yada provided the effective makeup and prosthetics for Douglas and Damon, whose surgeries Soderbergh films like violent assaults. Cutting between one of Liberace’s shows and the operating room, he gives us quick, brutal glimpses of bloody skin being peeled back and implants being jammed into chins.
Debbie Reynolds is almost unrecognizable as Lee’s domineering mother, Frances. Dan Aykroyd does an effective, low-key job as Lee’s loyal agent, Seymour Heller. In a film packed with bizarre sights, Lowe’s Startz is easily the most bizarre creation. Wildly overlifted and perpetually underwhelmed, he camps it up for the camera with cat-eyed glee — and gets away with it. Lowe admitted to having migraines as a result of all the pulling, taping and spray painting, adding, “You know, Joan Crawford’s whole career was this.”
Douglas does an amusing impersonation of Liberace with a little Carol Channing thrown in, and he plays the piano convincingly. Though he’s always “on” and flamboyant as hell, Douglas manages to gives us glimpses of a real, sensitive human being hiding behind the mink capes. Damon’s role is even more challenging. He must make the transformation from sweet, naive young animal trainer to jealous, paranoid queen, and he does it very well. The fact that they’re both so committed to their roles really puts the material across.
Behind the Candelabra premieres Sunday, May 26th, on HBO.