Either his first film from his post-retirement from creating theatrical releases or the first film in a new phase of his career, depending on how you look at it, Steven Soderbergh’s made for HBO Liberace bio-pic Behind the Candelabra (debuting this Sunday night at 9pm, with a free simulcast at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as a part of the Inside Out festival) is both a solid piece of work and something remarkably different from the films he had been producing at an alarming rate for the past few years. Instead of focusing on larger overarching themes (or in the case of the Oceans films, not much at all), this warts and all look at one of America’s most consummate entertainers, his closeted gay lifestyle, his quirks, and his lovers, is a more personal kind of story. Gone is the digital sheen and subtexual talk about systems and motivations. In their place, is a decidedly warmer kind of film.
From 1977 to early 1982, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) – a former Hollywood animal wrangler and dog trainer – dated one of the most closeted men in show business before writing a book about it (in real life, not in the film). Liberace (Michael Douglas) was known as Mr. Showmanship thanks to his penchant for his rhinestoned outfits, bejewelled pianos, and a flair for making all the blue haired ladies in the audience adore him. Known as Lee to his friends, the kitschy icon led a remarkably guarded personal life, at one point even suing a publisher in the UK for saying he was gay that he ended up winning. His manager (Dan Aykroyd) spent millions every year trying to keep the secret alive.
Meeting through a mutual friend (Scott Bakula), Lee took a shine to Scott immediately, as the formerly humble young man immediately gets daggers from those around them. They know Lee better than Scott does and just how expendable their relationship truly is. Scott truly seems to care about Lee, but a mutual paranoia begins to settle in thanks to the older man’s creepy love of plastic surgery, his daddy complex, and a penchant for porn, and the young man’s increasing drug use that everyone seems powerless to stop.
For a story about a man who by his own admission in Richard LaGravanese’s screenplay lived a life of “palatial kitsch,” Soderbergh has crafted a relatively subdued character piece with two leading actors willing to go a bit deeper than simple, surface made-for-TV melodrama. It’s a testament to Douglas’ talent that he circled the role of Liberace for so long even after undergoing cancer surgery. He hasn’t lost a step, and he makes the wise decision of not doing a beat-for-beat impression of an intensely campy man, but instead focusing on moments when the character doesn’t have to be constantly “on.” He was a deeply contradictory man – a devout Catholic who still did poppers, and was technically banging his adopted son since he couldn’t legally marry Scott – and one who lived so lavishly that he could only create monsters in his own exacting image.
That’s a sentiment taken to a literal extreme when Scott is sent to a plastic surgeon/Dr. Feelgood played expertly by Rob Lowe (looking like a cross between Steven Tyler and some sort of Klingon werewolf). Douglas plays so well off of Damon, making the relationship an extremely narcissistic one, almost as if Dorian Gray was sleeping with his own painting every night. If his lover was getting too old, Lee would simply trade up for a new one and create a new work of art. Douglas embodies this by putting the old fashioned ladies man charm he had back in the 80s to perfect and sometimes nefarious use. He’s so vain he probably thinks that every song was written about him, not just one. There’s no one better suited for the role of Liberace at that point in his life than Douglas, and it’s wonderful to have him back on top of his game and in a film worthy of his talents.
Damon, on the other hand, delivers arguably the more wide ranging performance. Although Scott starts off humble and naïve, over the course of only a couple of years he ends up becoming a jealous coke head that no one would want to be around in the first place. It’s a fuller arc compared to the one Douglas has to play, but he works overtime to make Scott’s progression as a person both sympathetic and repulsive. It’s never fully clear if Lee’s wandering eye or just living around so much excess drove Scott to become a bratty child, but Damon’s performance makes such questions almost immaterial because of how well he embodies Scott. He’s assuredly far too old to playing the real life equivalent of the originally far younger Thorsen, but it’s a mature look at a decidedly immature and impulsive young man.
Aside from being a great comeback vehicle for Douglas, it’s an equally welcome return to form for LaGravenese (last seen writing and directing this year’s dud Beautiful Creatures) who turns in a tighter screenplay than he’s been known for as of late. Aykroyd, Bakula, and Lowe also stand to gain a fair bit of recognition in vastly smaller, but memorable supporting roles.
As for the man behind Candelabra, Soderbergh goes stripped down this time out. Gone are the filters and colour schemes of his last few big screen outings. There isn’t very much visual trickery. It isn’t bland, but I guess he figured he had enough flash and pageantry with his subject alone that adding to it would have made it into a piece of camp, which as we learned from Magic Mike he simply can’t pull off without smirking or snarking at it. Soderbergh’s aims here are genuine and it will be interesting to see where he positions himself from here on out. If this is his last film, it’s an intriguingly austere one to go out on compared to the (still admittedly better) greatest hits package he managed with Side Effects earlier this year. If it isn’t, this could be an interesting new direction for him to be going in, especially if he keeps to his promise of doing more television work. The medium seems to really suit him.