A flamboyant showman renowned for his extravagant dress sense and a barrage of shows brimming with entertainment value. So it is perhaps a surprise to find that for all the manufactured sheen of his exterior and the mention of his name in the same breath as the likes of Elvis Presley, Liberace’s body of work doesn’t garner sustained interest in the modern era. Despite its non-release Stateside befitting of starving the man of the spotlight, director Steven Soderbergh continues to defy his declaration of ‘retirement’ with this unashamedly glossy and affectionate portrait.
‘Behind The Candelabra’ kicks off in the heat of Summer 1977, as we witness the wholesome beginnings of bisexual wannabe veterinarian Scott Thorson played by a bleach blonde Matt Damon. Sexually ‘adjusting’ with the help of a generously aged acquaintance he meets in a Los Angeles bar (Scott Bakula), we are immediately propelled into the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas as they bare witness to Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his well established stage show.
Instantly taking a shine to each other during a chance meeting backstage, the naivety of Thorson’s youth is accentuated at great length as a passionate yet dysfunctional relationship blossoms between the two. Confined by Liberace’s relentless defence of his sexuality within the public eye as he infamously continued to defy the tag of being ‘homosexual’ as well as the pressures of remaining pleasing on the eyes (enter Rob Lowe’s show-stealing and facially challenged plastic surgeon), Scott’s devotion to his famous counterpart proves as in vain as the business he is now immersed in.
‘Candelabra’ marks Soderbergh’s transition from the shallow objectification of men (Magic Mike) to ploughing deeper into the troubled complexities of male sexuality. Toeing the line between depicting Liberace as an outrageous consumer of colourful excess in a desperate bid to be content and win over a generous fan base yet capture the inner mean spirited diva that threatened to escape if his secret was revealed, the director handles the material impeccably without bias ever creeping in. Whilst not entirely original on the surface, the film offers equally deft insights into the superficiality that is forever associated within the world of entertainment as well as drawing modern day parallels by tapping into the attitudes of homosexuality within such a medium, an issue that sadly still lingers.
Brimming with sequins and an absurdly slick aesthetic, it’s an achievement that its A-list central partnership avoid being ’intoxicated’ by such a luxurious production and remain grounded in their portrayals. Admirably fearless, Damon and Douglas collectively and individually convince as the emotionally tortured pairing. Arguably giving career-best performances, Douglas is simply astonishing here, avoiding the trap of painting Liberace as a larger than life camp caricature and instead emerging for all his eccentricities as a sympathetic figure. Complimenting Douglas perfectly with an understated approach, Damon holds his own as Thorson in a wonderfully assured turn.
Shot with a stifling intimacy and as a result shedding the passiveness that has often plagued recent works of Soderbergh, ‘Behind The Candelabra’ is a fantastic and refreshingly frank biopic that is in turns poignant, hilarious but always entertaining.