I finally saw Behind The Candelabra, the HBO film about Liberace that I first blogged about back in April. The film, directed by Stephen Soderbergh, chronicles the last ten years of Liberace’s life, from 1977-1987, and focusses on the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
Seventeen-year-old Scott Thorson is introduced to Liberace by a mutual friend at his show in Vegas in 1977. Liberace, by then fifty-seven, takes a shine to Scott and invites him to his home, eventually asking him to be his “assistant”. Liberace, while lonely and distrusting of people, is also a libidinous man who gets bored of his conquests after a while, and the viewer knows that inevitably Scott will go the way of all the rest.
Scott moves in with Liberace and his head is quickly turned by the life of sex, wealth, shopping and glamour that he offers. They grow so close and co-dependent that Liberace changes his will and even begins proceedings to adopt Scott. The viewer’s disbelief is echoed by a character who says, “Why would a grown man want to adopt another grown man?” Quite.
The casting in the film is excellent. Damon plays both the younger naive Scott and the older disillusioned and somewhat cynical Scott perfectly. Rob Lowe is hysterically funny as Dr. Jack Startz, Liberace’s plastic surgeon whose face is pulled and stretched so much he resembles a plastic pixie (Rob Lowe describes his appearance in the film as that of a “transgendered Bee Gee“). The revelation in this film is Michael Douglas, who flexes his impressive acting muscles for the first time in a long time and gives a career-defining performance. His Liberace is spot-on: his voice, his mannerisms, his flirtatious manner, his wicked sense of humour. Liberace was closeted for his entire life but when one sees him on-stage one wonders how anyone, anywhere, could have thought he was straight. He was the personification of camp and Douglas could ham it up to the rafters and still not be over the top.
Soderbergh first conceived of the project in 2000 and eventually commissioned a script to be based on Thorson’s book from Richard LaGravenese in 2008. Douglas and Damon signed on immediately, but the project spent years in development as Soderbergh could not get a major studio interested – they all thought the movie was “too gay”. It’s seems astounding to me that even with A-list stars and a respected director, studios were unwilling to participate. (I suppose it shows that not a hell of a lot has changed in the twenty-six years since Liberace’s death. How depressing.) HBO released the film in the US so Behind The Candelabra will be classed as a made-for-TV movie and will not be eligible for the Academy Awards, but if Douglas doesn’t win a Golden Globe for this performance I’ll be shocked.
As Liberace says about Thorson’s childhood during the film, “What a story. It had everything but a fire in the orphanage.” This is also true of Behind The Candelabra so make sure you see it in theatres soon!