Behind the Candelabra: Liberace Biopic

HBO wil show the feature in late May

Artistically speaking, Steven Soderbergh’s biopic of Liberace, “Behind he Candelabra,” is not a particularly significant film, but it’s vastly entertaining.

The acting of the two leads, Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Liberace’s lover Scott, is excellent, and the production values are polished as befit a glamorous performer like Liberace, known for his ultra-lavish costumes and kitschy taste.

Spanning about a decade, from the late 1970s to 1986, when Liberace died of complications of AIDS, the HBO feature offers a glimpse into the “secret” and “double” life of Liberace, as a closeted homosexual, whose main appeal was strangely enough to silver-haired ladies.

The era covered in the feature, and its narrative structure, bear resemblance to “Boogie Nights,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s far superior film, which also dealt with showbiz, focusing on the porn industry.

The tale begins in 1977, in a gay bar in Los Angeles, when a youngster named Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) meets the handsome ex-choreographer Bob Black (Scott Bakula). The two develop a close friendship and on a weekend get-away to Las Vegas, Bob takes Scott to the Hilton, where his friend Lee, better known as Liberace (Michael Douglas), is playing yet another sold-out show. Scott’s ambition at that point is to be a professional veterinarian.

But Scott is instantly awed by Liberace’s flamboyant showmanship and piano virtuosity. When the two meet backstage, there is mutual curiosity and sexual attraction, which leads the next day to brunch at Lee’s house.

Lee has flown Scott out to Vegas to deliver eye medicine for one of his prized dogs. Lee quickly develops a rapport with Scott, sharing his personal problems over champagne in his hot tub. Taken with the attractive youngster, who is charmingly naïve, Lee asks Scott to move in with him and become his personal assistant. Scott agrees, against the better judgment of his foster parents, and returns to Vegas to live with Lee.

Upon his arrival at the mansion, Scott is formally greeted by Lee’s manager, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd). Scott and Lee quickly develop a romantic relationship, and Scott enjoys his lavish new lifestyle as Liberace’s boyfriend.

In contrast to his days prepping animals for television commercials while living in rural California, Scott now spends his days poolside, being served lunch or shopping with Lee for jewelry, expensive suits, and cars. Feeling a growing trust with Scott, Lee makes him the caretaker of his wigs and later introduces him into his Vegas act as the sparkling chauffeur who drives him on stage every night in his dazzling Rolls Royce.

The couple enjoys domestic bliss: Lee loves to cook and Scott loves to eat. Spending numerous nights at home on the couch, snacking and watching Liberace’s old TV shows eventually catch up with them and their waistlines. While watching his appearance on The Tonight Show, Lee is horrified to realize how old he looks.

Plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) is called to the rescue, and assures Lee that he’ll soon look 20 years younger. But Lee’s concerns don’t stop with his own appearance. He brings out a portrait of his younger self and asks Dr. Startz if he can make Scott look like him. He can, but first Scott will have to lose weight.

Thanks to a cocktail of drugs which Startz refers to as the “California diet,” Scott loses 15 pounds in four weeks before undergoing complete facial reconstruction.
Scott questions the wisdom of allowing himself to be remade into Liberace’s likeness and discusses it with Bob. Surveying all he has and all the opportunities that Lee has given to him, he realizes it’s a small trade-off for his luxurious life.

As soon as Lee recovers from surgery, Scott goes under the knife himself. Once the bandages come off, a fan mistakes him for Liberace’s son. Lee is ecstatic, and explores avenues to legally adopt Scott.

Lee and Scott visit with Lee’s mother, Frances (Debbie Reynolds), who says she wants to move in with them. Although Lee bought her a house nearby, she enjoys spending her time in the casino room at Lee’s mansion.

Despite his successful weight loss , Scott remains on the “California diet.” Dr. Startz assures him that it’s perfectly safe, but Scott’s moodiness and dependency cause concern. Lee orders him to stop, at which point Scott secretly begins exchanging jewelry for drugs behind Lee’s back.

Their relationship slowly begins to sour. Scott feels that their social lives have grown stale and longs for diversion from their domestic routine. Lee then suggests that their relationship is in such a good place, they can now see other people. However, Lee soon makes it clear that he doesn’t want Scott seeing anyone else. An argument ensues and the tension between them mounts.

As Scott slips further into his drug addiction, Lee takes interest in a fresh, young dancer of his opening act, The Young Americans. Cary is everything that Scott used to be when he first met Lee and Scott becomes aware of this competition for Lee’s affection.

When Scott’s foster mother dies, Lee consoles him, making him feel he is still a member of Lee’s entourage. But returning to Lee’s Vegas mansion after the funeral, Scott senses something is wrong when he is ignored by the staff. Learning that Lee has replaced him with young Cary, a rampage ensues and Scott destroys Lee’s home. As a result, Lee’s managers forcibly remove Scott, now a drug-addict, out of the condo and out of Lee’s life. A legal battle ensues and Scott’s paternity suit causes a scandal, throwing the relationship and Lee’s homosexuality into headlines nes. They eventually settle in a nasty battle, which leaves Scott only $75,000 in cash and the jewelry given to him by Lee.

Years later, while working at a postal center, Scott receives an unexpected call from Lee. Afflicted with AIDS, he asks Scott to visit him in Palm Springs. A dying Lee confesses that no one has ever made him happier than Scott, reducing the latter to tears. After Lee’s death, his representatives try to convince the public that he died from cardiac arrest, but an autopsy reveals that he had AIDS.

The last scene is surreal and kitschy. In a funeral church in Palm Springs, Scott closes his eyes and imagines what the funeral would be like if Lee had staged it, revealing a magnificent stage awash in spotlights, onto which a glimmering Rolls Royce hearse emerges. A procession of dancers clad in rhinestones and feathers surround the casket. A radiant Liberace emerges in all-white regalia before drifting upward to an elevated piano. Liberace plays one final tune before thanking his audience, which, he notes, has made him the world’s happiest piano player. Scott is the solo member of the audience.

A bright, intelligent director, Soderbergh presents a non-judgmental, highly sympathetic chronicle of two vastly different characters, which, if played by less accomplished actors than Douglas and Damon, would have amounted to mimicry and high-camp.

Playing a challenging role, Douglas shines, nailing the part with all of its ambiguities and contradictions. It’s a tough part, which calls for Douglas’ Liberace to function as a surrogate father-older brother, lover-companion, colleague-businessman, tender and harsh (when it calls for) in all of the above capacities.

What’s missing from the portriat are deeper insights into Liberace as an artist and mass entertainer. Surprisingly, there are not many production and musical numbers that show what was so special about this particular showbiz persona, which was at once a product of its times but also went beyond the social circumstances and norms of the era.

I doubt if a performer like Liberace could have existed in our post-modern era, defined by new technologies and new social media.