Despite a mere $5m budget, Academy Award winning leads (Michael Douglas and Matt Damon), a renowned director (Steven Soderbergh, who a year previously made a film with a similar tone and small budget, Magic Mike which made a whopping $167m at the box office), Hollywood studios turned their backs on Behind the Candelabra. It’s a little too gay for America, they said, leaving premium cable broadcaster HBO to do what they do best – nurturing quality which small minds abandon, in the end premiering to a staggering 2.4m viewers. Fortunately, I managed to see it on the big screen. Behind the Candelabra is an expertly directed true story of two lost lives trapped between mirrors and unhinged reflections of self image, straddling profound sentiments of romance, humour and tragedy upon a shiny knife edge.
Apparently this really is Soderbergh’s final feature film, deciding instead to focus on television. The first thing that needs mentioning is the astonishing attention to detail in all aspects of the production. The film begins with 42 year old Matt Damon playing a convincingly teenage Scott Thorson, thanks to some incredible make-up work which would easily win an Academy Award if the film had received a US cinematic release. The story chronicles Scott’s five year relationship with the much older, ultra-flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas), who originally hires Scott to “work” for him, moving him away from his quiet life living with foster parents and aspirations to become a veterinarian. Liberace instigates a relationship with Scott which somehow manages to feel tender and creepy. The physical character transformation is stunning and upsetting as Scott takes on a new life in Liberace’s arms, amping up the hair and clothes, becoming styled in his lover/father figure’s image and receives plastic surgery from a brilliantly drugged up and disfigured looking Rob Lowe to rebuild his face in the image of Liberace himself, down to the nose and cheekbones. Then there’s Scott’s drug addiction, partly a product of the weight-loss pills he’s put on and partly because of the lifestyle and sense of entrapment he’s chosen. Before your eyes Matt Damon and Michael Douglas morph seamlessly and frighteningly, along with the absolutely stunning set designs and costumes it really is aesthetic perfection as the physical transformations melt into what’s going on inside this cacophony of a relationship.
As sinister as some of that seems, at its core it’s actually really funny. Michael Douglas is a tour-de-force as the extravagant Liberace, who would cast a shadow upon anyone else in a room. He embodies every ounce of the showman’s charisma and sparkle while simultaneously cutting a tragic figure. The film is obsessed with notions of youth and self image as Soderbergh litters the screen with mirrors and shiny surfaces which adds to the film’s sense of tragedy as the physical image and transformation of both men provides a heartbreaking reflection for their confused relationship and struggle with identity. It does begins as a tender relationship, even if Liberace is clearly taking advantage of Scott’s naivety, performed so wonderfully by Damon. The large age difference is played with an awkward humour but there is something tender about the ‘coming of age’ story from Scott’s perspective and Liberace’s loneliness. They both find something in each other that they need. Soderbergh adds his typically gorgeous yellowy/green sheen to the pictures, allowing the camera and colours to do so much work in explaining the relationship’s finer details.
It’s a film wrapped in light touches and complicated, sad lives, building a perfect physical and emotional trajectory, shifting and mixing tones to resonate in new and creative ways. It’s a rare gem of cinematic boldness and excellence, deserving of the biggest of big screen releases.
Review by David Rank
Behind the Candelabra is out on 7th June in the UK. Running time 118 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).