Though relatively forgotten outside the U.S. until recently, Liberace was once known as Mr. Showmanship. At one point he was the highest-earning performer in America, an incredibly talented and versatile performer with sell-out shows and highly-rated television specials for almost forty years, famed for his gloriously extravagant sets, diamond-encrusted furs, eye-catching suits and his famed grand piano, dressed with the titular candelabras. His influence and legacy would have a huge impact on the entertainers to come; this was before Elton John or indeed the decadence and spectacle found at Madonna and Lady Gaga shows. He even had a profound effect on Elvis Presley whose glamorous and flamboyant Las Vegas shows in the 70s clearly owed a debt to the star and yet, as hard as it may seem to believe these days, the public had no idea he was gay until he tragically died of AIDS in 1987.
A long gestating and cherished project for producer (and friend of Liberace’s) Jerry Weintraub, director Steven Soderbergh (allegedly taking a break for a while after a long, varied and productive output over the past few years) and star Michael Douglas (after Soderbergh approached him with the idea on the set of Traffic, Douglas immediately responded with a spot-on impression of the entertainer) Behind The Candelabra faced difficulties with the major studios in Hollywood, who still in this day and age considered the project “too gay”, HBO finally coming to the rescue and financing the film for a home audience through television instead, but refusing to cut down the scale or spectacle of the production.
Thankfully, despite being snubbed by the Academy Awards due to its lack of cinema distribution in the U.S., this little “TV movie” was granted a premiere at Cannes last month, where it received rapturous praise and has been picked up by a more open-minded distributor in the UK and very much deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Based on former lover Scott Thorson‘s ghost-written memoir of the same name, Behind The Candelabra doesn’t so much cover Liberace’s life as tells the rest of it in anecdotal form during the course of their five-year romance and as such has found a compelling tale all of its own. In 1977, 17-year-old Scott (played with conviction, and clever effects work, by an almost unrecognisable Matt Damon), an orphan who lives with his foster parents in L.A and trains animals for films and television, meets handsome Bob Black, ex-choreographer to the stars, who takes Scott away for the weekend to Vegas, where his friend “Lee” is playing a sell-out piano recital. He soon realises that the “recital” is one of Liberace’s spectacular shows and he’s blown away by Lee’s showmanship and incredible virtuosity at the piano. After the pair are introduced backstage, they find an instant mutual attraction and understanding, so much so that Lee invites Scott to brunch at his home the next day.
Within weeks Lee has flown Scott back to Vegas, initially to deliver some eye medicine for one of his prized pooches, and pretty soon they’re sharing champagne in his jacuzzi, which leads inevitably to sharing a bed. Shortly afterwards, not only does Lee ask Scott to move in with him but also offers him the position of personal assistant, a romantic relationship developing hidden from the public eye. In fact, they become so close that Lee also suggests he adopts Scott as his own son, even requiring he undergoes plastic surgery to better resemble his lover.
Of course, the dizzy heights can’t last forever- Scott is feeling increasingly left out and turns to drug addiction, while Lee loses interest and finds himself distracted by other bright young things, until their relationship sours in the most bitter of ways, tragedy ultimately reuniting them once more before Liberace is gone forever…
Sparing not one crystal or sequin, Soderbergh and Weintraub do their utmost to make the tale as authentic and believable as possible, using many locations, sets and props directly connected to the virtuoso, including his legendary twin pianos and 24ft Rolls Royce (which would drive him onto the stage for his dramatic entrances), filming in Liberace’s L.A. Penthouse and the former Las Vegas Hilton where he performed, even the church where his funeral was held. In fact, the authenticity is taken so far that a few scenes may be unexpected, especially the plastic surgery sequences, unflinching and gory, filmed over Liberace’s piano classics which look like they would fit in just as comfortably in the equally beautifully filmed body modification horror American Mary.
Throughout, the casting is impeccable; Dan Aykroyd plays Lee’s right-hand man Seymour as a no-nonsense, tough guy lawyer, Paul Reiser rivalling him in the dirtier legal games once Scott and Liberace’s relationship sours, Scott Bakula natural as heavily-mustachioed playboy Bob Black, Rob Lowe steals every scene he appears in as a ludicrously face-lifted plastic surgeon and Debbie Reynolds, a long-term friend of Liberace’s, makes a wonderful return to the screen, aged 81, as Lee’s doting and doted upon mother Frances.
But the real revelations are from the two leads. Douglas doesn’t so much perform an impersonation as gets under the skin of Liberace and plays him with relaxed candour and brutal honesty and his physical transformation is remarkable, especially when removed of Liberace’s wigs, bald and deteriorating with the onset of AIDS. Damon manages to pull off the naive teenager faultlessly, gradually changing both in features and character as the drugs and excess take their toll. But together they pull off the greatest trick, utterly convincing the audience that their bond is natural, so much so that their post-coital conversation feels uncomfortably like eavesdropping immediately after they just teabagged each other but it’s the natural warmth that comes across more than anything else.
Not so much a biopic as a character study about a loving relationship, with all its ups and downs, but also as a reflection of how much more permissive a society we are today, even including subtle nudges to the viewer regarding the current issues surrounding same-sex marriage. Despite the seriousness, it is in fact incredibly funny regardless of the oncoming tragedy but never less than entertaining and is perhaps the biggest surprise of the summer so far.