Behind the Candelabra is a true milestone for director Steven Soderbergh, as this is the last time (or so he says) that the director will be behind the camera for a feature-length film. Over the span of 24 years, Soderbergh has directed 26 films, several shorts, and one short-lived TV series, so this truly feels like the end of an era. Yet as a swan song, Behind the Candelabra does not necessarily see Soderbergh making his ‘grand’ exit; instead, he tones his style and technical deftness down, allowing Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese to be the stars of the show.
Debuting this past weekend on HBO and seeing a theatrical release around Europe, including its premiere In Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Behind the Candelabra follows the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas), the grand maestro of Las Vegas musical variety, and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a wide-eyed and impressionable young man who becomes, as Liberace says himself, Liberace’s lover, brother, best friend, and father. While at first the relationship seems loving, with Liberace and Scott both nurturing each other’s needs, we soon realize that the relationship is shallow, untrusting and toxic.
Liberace’s desire to attach himself to a young man in order to feel less lonely soon transforms into a form of malignant ownership. In one of the more eyebrow-raising developments, Liberace insists on Scott having plastic surgery to transform his face into one which resembles a younger version of himself. Scott is so pruned and preened by Liberace and his surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz (a sublime turn from Rob Lowe), that he no longer has ownership of his own identity, becoming instead another one of Liberace’s ornate collectibles. Meanwhile Scott, who at first loves his new partner and lifestyle, gets increasingly attached to the bling – all the furs, money, and other perks – that in the end he is a hollow shadow of his former self. Not only that, but his rampant jealousy of Liberace’s interactions with other attractive young men brings the relationship to its true crescendo.
It is crucial that LaGravenese and Soderbergh are not quick to judge either party; rather, they lay it out so that either Scott, Liberace, or both could be seen as the one to blame for the downfall of their fantastically awful relationship. The film’s approach is to recognize both the tragedy and the comedy of this situation, and is so outrageous at times that one has to laugh. At other points, it is easy to find oneself on the verge of tears. The tone is terrifically balanced and when one is laughing, one never feels as if one is laughing at the the characters; there is no moment where one feels the screenwriter or the director are not telling this story with completely sincerity. It is also a testament to the fine performances of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon that the nuances are so clear and powerful. They each pull off some astonishing work here, diving into these roles with absolute aplomb, reaching beneath the layers of prosthetics and costumes to find the emotional core of the piece.
Both actors are so at ease with each other and each other’s physicality that Behind the Candelabra becomes one of the most convincing portraits of a gay relationship that I have ever seen. While the wall to wall opulence is not something one is immediately familiar with, and the sex scenes are a tad more conservative than both the screenwriter and the director have suggested, the frank discussions about sex, sexuality and the workings of a relationship struck me as being completely grounded in reality. As a gay man, it is really quite refreshing to see a Hollywood production that honestly captures a homosexual relationship.
The supporting players – Lowe, Dan Ackroyd, Scott Bakula, and an unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds – are all very impressive, but are really reduced to cameos, to the point of being a little underdeveloped. In the end, they are only really there to provide extra support for the titan performances at the centre. Saying that, no matter how much this film is a double act (and it is) Behind the Candelabra truly is Douglas’ moment in the spotlight. Soderbergh and LaGravenese have offered him the role of a lifetime, and amongst all the jewels and furs, he thoroughly inhabits and illustrates a role that so easily could have fallen into caricature. With Douglas beneath the wig, rings, and clothes, Liberace is truly resurrected. Rarely, if ever, has Douglas been required to give a performance which requires physicality as much as psychology, and it is a true testament to his ability that he pulls it off absolutely perfectly.
For the past decade of his career Soderbergh has delivered films where the form has been the talking point. He has been praised and renowned for his technical deftness and the ease with which he can criss cross between various genres. So much attention is placed on his craft, the fact that he edits and shoots his own films as well as directing them, that his soul and magnificent work with character is often forgotten.
Behind the Candelabra is all about pushing the relationships and the characters to the fore. Soderbergh’s style and rigor as a filmmaker is simply service for the two titanic performances and the beautiful screenplay at its centre. It is a delightful, unselfish sign off to a magnificent, impressive career.
Steven Soderbergh's final film, Behind the Candelabra, is a spectacular portrait of the relationship between the famed pianist Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson.