Behind the Candelabra Movie Review
This biopic about the pianist-showman Liberace may look almost painfully camp, and sometimes it is, but it's also a remarkably honest depiction of an intimate relationship. In the hands of Steven Soderbergh, the flaming excess is never made the butt of the joke; instead we get a strong dose of gritty humour, dark emotion and even a revealing look into the smoke and mirrors of show business. And the astute performances from both Douglas and Damon continually catch us off guard with their resonance.
It was 1977 when the 57-year-old entertainer (Douglas) met 17-year-old Scott Thorson (Damon). There was an instant spark as Liberace, known to his friends as Lee, offered Scott a job as a companion: on the stage, in his bed and running his household. But their relationship wasn't easy. Lee coaxed Scott into joining him under the knife of a plastic surgeon (Lowe) who reshaped Scott's face to look like a younger Liberace. Afterwards, Scott became addicted to a variety of drugs, which strained their romance to the breaking point. And it didn't help that Lee had an eye for ever-younger boys, all while insisting to the world that he was straight. "People see what they want to see," he said.
While the production design overflows with Liberace's "palatial kitsch" design sensibility, Soderbergh keeps the story and characters grounded, finding humour in unexpected places (Lowe's over-lifted face is hilarious). And despite the outrageous costumes and hair, the actors never camp up their performances, which cleverly holds the story in a delicate balance between sharp comedy and involving drama. In this sense, LaGravenese's script is particularly clever, peppering the dialog with telling details that gives us a remarkably well-rounded picture of the interaction between these men. And it continually resists becoming another stereotypical gay romance, celebrity biopic or drugs odyssey.
Nothing Douglas has done before can quite prepare us for his flamboyant role here, and he gets it just right, showing us the louche, overconfident man who deep inside just wants people to love him. And Damon is even more revelatory as the complex bisexual who moves from doe-eyed naivete to cynical hustler. Their relationship is strikingly layered, augmented by terrific side performances from Lowe, Aykroyd (as Lee's prickly manager) and Reynolds (unrecognisable as his mother). And it's expertly assembled to reveal both the myth Liberace built about himself and the real man beneath all the rhinestones and fur.