If Side Effects earlier this year was billed as Soderbergh’s last film, it seems as if Behind the Candelabra may actually turn out to be [EDIT: it was not]. Perhaps it didn’t ‘count’, what with being made for the cable subscription channel HBO, but it holds up well as a cinematic work. By the nature of the central characters’ lives, it’s a bit of a chamber piece, being restricted largely to interior sets — Liberace’s stage at Las Vegas, and his ornately kitsch home — but like all Soderbergh’s films, it boasts an excellent ensemble of actors.
At the heart of the ensemble is a two-hander between Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, and Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and entertainer Liberace (called ‘Lee’ by most), who takes a shine to the young Scott in the late-1970s and moves him into his palatial Las Vegas mansion shortly thereafter. Like many biopics, then, it looks on its famous central character through the eyes of an outsider: at the start of the film, Scott is living with foster parents and working as an animal wrangler on a small-time movie somewhere near Los Angeles. He hooks up with Bob (Scott Bakula) in a bar in the very first shot of the film, slowly resolving into focus, and it’s Bob who introduces him into the company of Liberace.
There’s plenty of broad comedy at the start as Liberace and his entourage (and his mother, played by Debbie Reynolds) is introduced, but even here — as in all the scenes featuring Liberace — there’s a sort of quiet awkwardness suffusing everything, as if no one really knows how to relate to him. A lot of this comes from the focus on Scott: he is an ingenue, certainly, but not stupid, and finds himself frequently tongue-tied. The camera focuses on him, often to the exclusion of other actors in the scene, as their voices on the soundtrack are matched to his blandly confused face. The progression in his character from dazed outsider to embittered cast-off is nicely paralleled with Liberace’s ‘protégé’ at the outset, Billy, who is seen stalking about the mansion grumpily, and scowling in close-up while eating his food (shots largely repeated later in the film, substituting Scott for Billy).
Indeed, the film is tightly structured and filmed by Soderbergh (who as ever acts as his own cinematographer and editor). There are certainly quiet stretches (longueurs even) in the film, but these seem to be reflective of the way the script (and Scott) is trying to get a sense of Liberace in all his outré regalia. Michael Douglas does well in conveying all his moods (loving and sweet for much of the time, but also at times petulant and tempestuous, not to mention manipulative), and the script never judges him or goes for easy laughs at the expense of his lifestyle and tastes. It’s also admirable that he’s not then portrayed as a tragic character exactly, just one who has to work hard to balance the conservative demands of his audience with the attentions of the media as well as the dissipated society he lives among, with all its hangers-on (and Rob Lowe as a very plastic plastic surgeon is a particular delight).
The film deftly controls its emotional register without the jarring shifts of tone that, say, Side Effects displayed — though for a film dealing with pharmaceuticals, perhaps that was a match of form to subject. There are plenty of pharmaceuticals here too (the “Californian diet” gets a hollow laugh), but even when they are fuelling Scott’s paranoiac rages, the main recollection I have of the film is in a mellower register, of a film punctuated by awkward silences. There’s a sense that no one, least of all Liberace himself, really knows what they’re doing or what it all means. Like that opening shot fading in from blurriness, the characters seem to just find themselves in places (quite often a hot tub with a flute of champagne), and the film is hardly championing any vague ’cause’ (it’s certainly not a ‘disease of the week’-style TV movie either). Nobody is hiding their sexuality because, at some level, everyone is trapped in the closet.
This, after all, like so many, is a film about that rarefied and sealed-off entertainment world — whether Los Angeles or Las Vegas — and its nebulous effects. With their fertility conjured artificially from the desert, these have always been productive locations for films about artifice, and more than many, Liberace’s life was one of artifice, whether his flamboyant tastes or his propensity for plastic surgery. Scott’s story stands in for all those earlier stories of ingenues sucked into and abused by the system. Soderbergh’s film isn’t angry about it. It prefers just to quietly look in through the cracks (or should that be, the candelabra).
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson); Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 11 June 2013.