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It may seem a little odd to those of us too young to have been around back then, but from the 50s to the 70s, one of the biggest names in showbiz was an unashamedly kitsch pop pianist whose career, despite his schtick centring around glitter, excess, and a demeanour so flamboyantly camp he made Elton John look like Bruce Springsteen, was dependent on his mostly female fanbase continuing to believe that he was heterosexual. Airing on the HBO cable channel in America a fortnight ago and released in British cinemas last weekend, Behind the Candelabra takes us into the strange world of Liberace.
Rather than a standard biopic telling a life story from start to finish, Behind the Candelabra shows us Liberace from the height of his fame to his death, through the eyes of his partner Scott Thorson. A young bi guy working as a Hollywood dog handler, Scott hooks up with a guy who takes him to a Liberace concert, and is astounded both by the man’s undeniable talent and the fact that his audience appear oblivious to what’s right in front of their eyes. He gets taken backstage and introduced to the man himself, and it’s not very long before Scott finds himself inextricably entangled in Liberace’s life. Initially uncertain, he’s soon seduced by wealth and fame – and perhaps even, deep down, is genuinely in love – but despite the fairytale trappings, there’s very little chance of living happily ever after.
To some extent it’s a tale we’ve heard told many times before. Some aspects are a little reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard, with Scott trapped in a gilded cage with an eccentric old performer, whereas the general plot arc of love-turned-sour could be taken from any number of domestic dramas. However, the film makes it more than clear that for all his egotism, Liberace is genuinely talented, and Scott very swiftly transforms from hesitant naif to being just as monstrous as the performers and promoters he’s surrounded by. Furthermore, despite the phoniness of everything that surrounds them, you do get the impression that the feelings between Liberace and Scott are real; despite their differences in age and wealth and background, there is something that connects them.
The film’s greatest strength is in its performances. It’s a sign of a great actor that they can disappear into a role to such an extent that you completely forget it’s them, and throughout Behind the Candelabra, Michael Douglas is Liberace – if you see this film and you’re not familiar with the real Liberace’s performances, I recommend looking some up on YouTube once you get home in order to appreciate how uncannily spot-on Douglas is with the voice and mannerisms.
Matt Damon, too, is outstanding, portraying Scott with touching sincerity in a role which could easily have been hammy and false. It’s very much these two guys’ story and show, and the rest of the characters are a little flat in comparison, though this is no fault of the support cast – and there is one exception in the form of Rob Lowe’s scene-stealing turn as Dr Startz, a plastic surgeon who’s had so much work done that he looks like an Auton. (And again, I recommend that if you see it, wait until afterwards and then look up the real Dr Startz. If any film could prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, this is it.)
The cinematography is of course fabulous, with the stage shows and Liberace’s private palaces conveyed in all of their lurid, glitter-drenched majesty; the scenes where Scott’s drugged-up state of mind is depicted using wobbly, out-of-focus cameras are a little clichéd, but thankfully brief. The script deftly balances humour with melancholy and, despite its subject, is never itself hysterical or over-the-top. The story is apparently very true to life, though we only have Thorson’s word for it, and the sun-soaked, pastel-shaded atmosphere of 70s California perfectly evoked (the last film I watched set in the same time period, Good Vibrations, felt like it might as well have taken place on a different planet rather than just a different country), and the strength of the performances overcome the predictable elements of the script.
It’s not groundbreaking, and if you’re looking for either insights into everyday gay life in the 70s or sizzling man-on-man action you won’t find it here, but as equal parts tribute and cautionary tale, it’s highly successful. While Liberace might have lived his life by the motto “too much of a good thing is wonderful”, Behind the Candelabra is a good thing, and in just the right amount.a