Acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh and HBO Films teamed up to for the biopic Behind the Candelabra. Based on the 2013 novel by Scott Thorson, the movie recounts the relationship Thorson (Matt Damon) had with famed American pianist, Liberace (Michael Douglas) from the late 1970s to mid 1980s. Matt Damon and Michael Douglas create two multi-dimensional characters in what could best be described as some of the actors’ finest work, and one of Soderbergh’s finest features.
The whirlwind romance begins in 1977 after Liberace and Scott are first introduced through a mutual friend named Bob (Scott Bakula). Liberace is taken by Scott’s youth; Scott is taken by lavishness and excess – and personalized affection, something vaguely known to him as a child raised in foster care. Together, they navigate a pleasant, loving world that gives way to rage, jealousy, and opposing downward spirals – one born of lust, the other from drugs.
Visually, from its period appearance (1970s, 80s) to its opulent costumes and visual makeup effects, Behind the Candelabra is wondrous. It’s a stunning and “candid” glimpse into the famous, secret life of an American celebrity, and it constantly asks us to consider Liberace’s sexuality. Was he or wasn’t he? It’s the question hanging on to every cinematic moment – from the winks and smiles to the nuanced glances and touches, to the overt sexualization of Damon’s physique, to the mink coats and opal rings. Soderbergh and Thorson’s suggestions are clear, and the performances are equally convincing.
Behind the Candelabra is a great character study. As Scott Thorson, Matt Damon does great work. Damon (and the screenwriter) arcs the character by embracing naivety and subtly, and slowly transforms his innocent, gentle attitude into one marked by aggression and paranoia. He’s an innocent boy and devoted companion who becomes a spoiled brat and drug addict under pressure to maintain his youth and beauty in the eyes of Liberace. As Damon’s character physically and emotionally struggles, Michael Douglas delivers and maintains Liberace’s vivacity. Douglas’ flamboyant performance is strong already, but moments of weakness – of lust and desire, sorrow, or confrontation – enhance the portrayal and show a mere mortal behind the glamorous facade – a mortal who rejects aging through his obsession with youth and beauty .
Damon and Douglas aren’t the only actors to deliver – the supporting cast features Dan Akyroyd as Seymour Heller and Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz. As Heller, Akyroyd excels as Liberace’s no-nonsense talent agent and Rob Lowe gives a transformative, almost robotic performance (in a good way) as plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz. Due to prosthetics, Lowe’s face appears stretched as tightly as possible, making every part of his performance unsettling, in an a way sci-fi-horror fans are accustomed to. Appropriately, this alien-like character is a catalyst for the rift between Liberace and Scott.
Behind the Candelabra is a well-acted and visually appealing portrayal of Liberace and Scott Thorson’s relationship. How substantive Thorson’s claims are about his life with Liberace is unknown, but it’s an interesting consideration and pleasant movie all around. Behind the Candelabra runs runs 118 minutes, is rated TV-MA, and airs on HBO.