“Behind the Candelabra” is apparently the final movie directed by Steven Soderbergh, and he chose to go out with something very stylish and rightfully flashy, given the subject. It’s adapted from Scott Thorson’s memoirs, detailing his time spent with the famed gay pianist, Liberace.
The story begins with Scott (Matt Damon) working as a dog trainer for movies and television. By chance, he hooks up with Bob Black (Scott Bakula) in a bar, who just so happens to know Liberace (Michael Douglas) personally. After attending a show and learning, much to his surprise, that the women in the audience have no idea their idol is gay, he’s ushered backstage to meet him in person. Liberace takes an immediate liking to Scott, and before long he’s hired his services. What his official title is, I couldn’t exactly say, but his duties are all too clear. The rest of the movie follows the rocky and at times disturbing relationship of the two over the course of six years.
What’s undeniably the strongest element of this movie is the acting, and both Damon and Douglas give excellent performances. Matt Damon is convincing and flexes his range as the lost and star struck Scott, who having had a tough childhood allows Liberace to fill a significant void in his life. The overbearing star becomes his father, friend, brother, and lover, practically consuming him in the process. Yet for all his struggles with drugs, jealously, and self image, Damon’s performance is nearly overshadowed by Michael Douglas, who gives one of the greatest performances of his career. He almost completely disappears into the character, giving life to his specific mannerisms and voice. He looks the part, sounds the part, and even plays the piano (even while wearing Liberace’s iconic rings).
The look of the film is limited to mostly interior sets, capturing the claustrophobia of living with the extreme narcissism of Liberace. He’s a man in love with aesthetic exuberance and flamboyance, which is reflected in both his outlandish costumes and lifestyle. His home is no different from the way he decorates the stage during his performances, glittering with gold and diamonds on nearly every surface. Image is everything for him, specifically his image, and he even attempts to mold Scott (via ‘70s era plastic surgery) into a likeness of himself. It’s a hell of a lot creepier than Soderbergh makes it out to be, hardly giving any time to let the impact of the decision, which was made almost entirely without Scott’s input, sink in.
While the character of Scott is explored more heavily, this being his story, Liberace is kept at a constant distance. The insider look into his life is still viewed entirely from Scott’s point of view, and for this you never really get to know him as a human being. Then again, given the way he presented himself, maybe no one really did. We get Liberace’s accounts of various events in his life, some deeply personal, but it’s impossible to tell if they’re genuine or just like the amusing anecdotes he shares with all his fans. We’re given plenty of dirty details, like his sexual appetite for instance, but never a sense of understanding. This is unfortunate, because the dramatic and doomed romance, which is the focus of the lengthy story, goes through a lot of routine beats that have been done before, and many times over. The couple fights, gets jealous of each other, and Scott even turns to drugs. It’s all very dramatic, but equally familiar, made all the more expected from the way we’re introduced to Liberace’s protégé (Cheyenne Jackson) towards the beginning of the movie, who’s at the end of what will soon be Scott’s journey with the man.
Even in death, after all he’s witnessed, Liberace remains the larger than life spectacle to Scott that he always was. There’s no hint at a greater meaning or examination of Liberace the man, making all the glimmer and glitz of what we see no less artificial than the way he presented himself to the public. Though it features powerful and fantastic performances from the two lead actors, in the end it’s a bit underwhelming. It’s not so much a look behind the candelabra as it is a mildly closer inspection of it.