Glitz and glamour galore is how Liberace lived his life. Behind the magnificent candelabra on his grand piano he was a shining star, but behind closed doors he was a lonely aging man who needed to give love as much as he needed to receive it. And for director Steven Soderbergh’s last hurrah, for a while at least, he manages to round up some of the best actors he’s worked with in his career to make his most touching and romantic film to date - a film about love, belonging, and most of all, transformation.
Scott Thorson moved around a lot as a boy, not having his biological mother or father present in his life. In the opening scene we find Scott at a bar in West Hollywood as he’s being approached by a man from across the room, Bob Black, and immediately it is clear there is an attraction between the two men. They go out together to Vegas for a Liberace concert where Bob seems to know his way around and introduces Scott to the sparkling showman. They hit it off and before long, Liberace, who goes by Lee, employs Scott to not only work for him, but to be his trusted companion through a life where one cannot truly tell who his friends are. Lee admires the innocence, honesty and beauty of Scott, and the two become immediate lovers.
At first it seems to be purely about the friendship and sex for Lee, but then he admits that he wants to be seen as more than that to Scott – he wants to be a fatherly figure as well. He even goes as far as to pay for reconstructive sugary to make Scott look less like the man he fell in love with, and more like his own image – at one point, Scott is even asked if his Liberace son by a fan. The different roles the two play with one another only complicates their seven year long relationship to the point where they decide to see other people, but remain together. This causes Scott to use drugs more frequently, adding paranoia to the jealously he’s already been feeling. Lee eventually forces Scott out of his house, and life, which based on the film’s final scene, could have been Liberace’s biggest regret.
Biopic aside, this film in many ways is about transformation. Scott goes from a country boy to living a lavish, gay lifestyle that he could never have possibly dreamed. We see the growth of Liberace from his loneliness to utter happiness that Scott provides him, both physically and emotionally. But it’s the more harrowing transformations that are the most obvious: the plastic surgery to combat an aging face, the drugs to improve on the romance that had once been enough, and the decline of a loving partnership that ended after growing to loath one another. It took these two men together to bring out the best in them individually, but at some point a long the way they lost sight of what once mattered most to them.
Playing the role of Liberace, Michael Douglas does a miraculous transformation of his own and delivers his best performance in years. Not for second does it feel he wasn’t fully committed to the character, or to the man, and alongside Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, the two actors drive this one home. I’m sure both will be up for awards later this year, though not Oscars given that Hollywood didn’t feel comfortable backing this “too gay” of a film. Thanks go to HBO for stepping up to plate and getting behind this remarkable love story and to Steven Soderbergh for his unique and splendid vision of unique and splendid man.
Behind the Candelabra is currently airing on HBO and HBO GO.
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