Has any superstar disappeared from the public consciousness as fully as Liberace?
The man once known as the world’s greatest entertainer, Elvis before there was an Elvis, is now, twenty-five years after his death, all but unknown to the current generation.
While he may not have been a musician to rival The King, Liberace certainly knew how to put on a show: in 1953, Ripley’s Believe it Or Not named him the fastest piano player in the world and, for almost three decades, he was the world’s highest paid entertainer. He achieved Justin Bieber record sales at about the time vinyl was transitioning to LP. This larger-than-life personality, who once referred to himself as a “one-man Disneyland”, whose fashion sense made ’70s Elvis look tame and tasteful, has since become a relic of high camp.
As such, what can a biopic of him offer to a modern audience beyond beyond nimble fingers and kitsch? For one thing, two impressive performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and his young lover Scott Thorson. Unlike past biopics of musicians, like Ray and Walk The Line, that sought to relate their subject’s full life story, Behind the Candelabra focuses on Liberace’s declining years post 1970 and his relationship with Thorson.
Despite being forty-two, Damon still manages to convince as an early twenty-something pretty boy (still considerably older than the seventeen year-old Thorson was when he first met Liberace), a somewhat guileless ingenue drawn into a world of wealth and sexuality he’s not equipped to deal with.
The first time we see Douglas, meanwhile, he’s playing one-handed boogie woogie on a Las Vegas stage, sat at a rhinestone-encrusted piano behind an enormous crystal candelabra. Talkative, flamboyant and utterly non-threatening – coyly encouraging an enraptured onlooker to “Stare as long as you want, you paid for it” – it’s easy to see why he’s so beloved of the older women in the audience.
Scott is immediately taken by his charm and showmanship, but notes, “I can’t believe they’d like something this gay.” His viewing partner responds, “They have no idea, he’s gay.” And, indeed, Liberace was proven “not gay” in civil court.
Douglas, dark haired and perma-tanned, however, plays the flamboyancy, savoring every deliciously gravelly syllable and knowing smile. Playing a gay has always been considered “brave” in Hollywood, and without the more rugged counterpoint of, say, Brokeback Mountain, Behind the Candelabra goes all out in the camp stakes.
Liberace’s mansion is full of gold leaf and Greek columns, shirtless “proteges” and skittering poodles, as far from Scott’s home on the range as one can possibly imagine. There’s champagne in hot tubs and silk dressing gowns, props Liberace uses to draw in the unsuspecting Scott, make him his confidante and then his paid companion, “someone to talk to, right-hand man, someone to take care of the animals”. Come the very next scene, they’re sharing a bed.
Scott’s adopted parents disapprove for obvious reasons. Scott claims his eyes are open: he obviously has affection for the older man and, if Liberace is using him for sex and companionship, then Scott is clearly getting something into the bargain.
For all his seeming superficiality, Liberace is a deceptively complex figure: a homosexual Catholic who believes God has made an exception for his sins, he envies Scott his bisexuality yet seeks to shape him into a mirror image of his self, quite literally so. Scott becomes someone through whom Liberace, bald and overweight, can regain his youth (watching a TV appearance, he exclaims, horrified, “I look like my father in drag!”). Scott is also the son he never had. There’s a tangled Freudian subtext to all of this yet the initial moments of them in bed together are almost touching.
Trailing ermine across a polished black stage, Behind the Candelabra succeeds where Baz Luhrmann’s recent Great Gatsby adaptation failed, in demonstrating excess as a psychological crutch. Soderbergh’s direction is stylish and non-judgmental: the film doesn’t hold it against Liberace for wanting to buy the young man’s soul any more than it condemns Scott for his willingness to trade it away for the good life, and yes, maybe love. It is what it is.
The film is, at it’s heart, a work of entertainment. There’s plenty of dark humor poking fun at their lifestyle: Liberace’s surgery leaves him unable to fully close his eyes and when it’s Scott’s turn to go under the knife Liberace’s leaning over him, calling him “baby boy” and saying he’ll see him “on the other side”.
Rob Lowe staggers around in a white suit as Dr. Jack Startz, surgeon to the stars, perennially squinting, looking like a cheap ’80s special effect. Dan Ackroyd meanwhile puts in a turn as Dan Akroyd as Liberace’s long-suffering manager Seymour Heller.
The year’s pass on and soon enough, as Liberace himself notes, Scott and he become “a gay Lucy and Ricky”; if Lucy turned to pills and Ricky turned to porn. As depictions of same-sex relationships go, Behind the Candelabra is hardly a salutary one for the LGBT community, but as a study of loneliness and codependency it works. The film is more Whatever Happened to Baby Jane than Walk The Line and I think that sort of originality deserves applause.