Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) finds his life changed when he enters into an incredibly secret but loving relationship with showman Liberace (Michael Douglas). Based on the true story of Thorson and Liberace’s relationship, the film examines the life of one of the most secretive entertainers, and the impact this had on both Scott and Lee’s lives.
Behind the Candelabra screened in Cannes to rapturous reviews, and the good news is that the film is as good as you have heard. Originally made for HBO, the film will not receive a cinema release in the US, which immediately disqualifies it from the Oscars. Roll on the Golden Globes!
Michael Douglas is perhaps the best he has ever been as the enigmatic and charming Liberace. Known as Lee to his friends, Douglas allows the character to be effeminate but never camp, vulnerable and ferocious at the same time. Douglas’s performance makes it obvious that to Lee; Liberace was the performance of his life, used to cover up truths about himself that he felt would not have been accepted. Douglas is subtle and compelling throughout the film and his interactions with every member of the cast are delightful.
Matt Damon captures the starry eyed essence of a 17 year old asked to move in with a massive star. As time goes on though, Damon also allows Thorson to become as much a brute as Douglas’s Liberace, albeit one who the audience sympathises with. Again, Damon allows Thorson to be just effeminate enough to get the point across but, like Douglas, even when he is drenched in furs and rhinestones, he is never camp or over the top. In fact, Damon’s walk as Thorson is a joy to behold, as it is the only hint that he gives the outside world of the secrets he and Lee are hiding.
Star turns are also made in supporting roles; Debbie Reynolds is unrecognisable but wonderful as Liberace’s mother, but it is Rob Lowe, as a plastic surgeon with some questionable ethics, who steals the show. Lowe is comically monstrous throughout the film, his tightly pulled prosthetic face only adds to the illusion, as his presence and influence slowly pull the lovers apart.
Steven Soderbergh has been saying he is going to retire for so long now that it has become a running joke. I mentioned in my review of Side Effects that if that was the film he was going to bow out on, it was a good ‘un. Well, the same goes for Behind the Candelabra. Soderbergh allows tensions to ebb and flow and the tone throughout the film is spot on. Under his direction, Douglas and Damon play their relationship straight, the comedy is comedic, the tragedy is heartfelt and the demons build in the shadows until they have suffused Thorson and Lee’s entire world. The relationships are at once complex and simple and the narrative, while comparatively straightforward, is utterly engaging, although the pacing does falter towards the end of the second act.
Behind the Candelabra is a riveting look at a man who maintained secrets throughout his life, and the damage these secrets did to those who kept them. Damon and Douglas are wonderful together, but Rob Lowe steals every scene that he is in… Like he does in Californication.