I had been looking forward to Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace film Behind the Candelabra since first hearing it announced. Not because I’m a huge Liberace fan, but there is a curiosity about the flamboyant entertainer known as ‘Mr. Showmanship’.
There had always been such a carefully protected facade built up around him regarding his private life, I always wondered what was really going on. With all the extravagance and glitz Liberace lived in there must be something more going on than what his fans were let in on.
Soderbergh (who has said Candelabra will be his last film – we’ll see) allows us to peak behind Liberace’s opulent lifestyle and get a glimpse of who the man was and his relationship with the young Scott Thorson.
Liberace meets Scott a lonely orphan who is dazzled by this older man’s talents and lifestyle. They soon begin to have an all-encompassing relationship that includes sex, friendship and a familial dependency on one another. It is a strange situation Scott is thrust into and of course he has trouble adjusting to the attention from ‘Lee’.
With the knowledge that he isn’t the first of Lee’s companions, there is a uneasiness that he will be replaced, as Scott had done to the previous ‘house boy’. With the affection he soon feels for this man, Scott is willing to do anything he asks to continue being the emphasis in Lee’s life, even going so far as reconstructive surgery on his face.
Despite the outrageous requests Lee may make, there is a mutual love between these two men. They are both protective of one another and there is a genuine affection towards each other.
But when difficulties arise between the two and Scott no longer is the young man Lee had first met, the benefits of being one of the wealthiest entertainers in the world allows him to have others clean up his problems and eliminate Scott from his life, as if he was just a decorative piece of furniture that he’s grown tired of seeing.
The film features a bunch of top-notch supporting actors. Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd (I haven’t seen him in a while) and Rob Lowe. Damon and Douglas both give very good performances. Damon may be twenty years too old to play the young Thorson, but he looks convincing enough and creates a rich character.
It’s Douglas that will get most of the attention in his role as Liberace. The costumes, makeup and hair offer him assistance to play the part and while he doesn’t look or sound exactly like him, it’s all close enough that we accept his Liberace when he’s pounding on his piano to a sold out crowd.
Douglas doesn’t make his version of Liberace a soulless, manipulative man, which he could have easily become. He has moments of despair, loneliness and isolation. I did come away with a certain empathy for the guy. However, the most effective scenes illustrate Liberace’s ego and his narcissistic desire to always be the center of attention, not only on stage, but also in his personal life. With his wealth and fame he’s acquired that’s an easy thing to accomplish.
The makeup is all extremely well-done. Reynolds is hidden under very convincing makeup as Liberace’s mother. I actually wish we saw more of her actually.
Obviously Douglas is wearing prosthetics to look more like Liberace and Damon gets his face altered for half the film and it was really easy to get lost in the illusion. Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon looks very disturbing with his overdone features. His appearance will probably get the most vocal reaction out of audiences makeup-wise in the film.
The lavish sets and costumes, which all look like a lot of time went into making them, practically disappear into the background as the story begins to focus on these two men and the highs and lows of their relationship. They have similar issues that other couples face (along with ones that are pretty unique) and the movie doesn’t shy away from any of it. It might be taking place in gaudy, decorated rooms, but they engage in arguments that will arise in any long-term relationship.
I’m not sure how accurate all this is. The story is based on the book by Thorson, so it’s told from his perspective. Whether if it’s completely true or not it is still a well done movie.
Liberace was a very unusual entertainer. There truly wasn’t anyone else like him. The fact that he was so popular and earned ridiculous amounts of money still amazes me in a way. There was no doubt he was an amazing piano player, but his overly-flamboyant presentation always looked so strange to me and yet somehow he garnered millions of devoted fans. Las Vegas was the perfect place for him.
His sexual orientation and the fact it was a secret for so long – or at least an unspoken secret – is also something I find fascinating. As Thorson is told by his friend about Liberace’s fans, “they don’t know he’s gay”. It just sounds so incredible. I don’t know, I guess it was just a different time back then or maybe people chalked up the persona they saw as just being showbiz or something and didn’t think much of it.
I’m sure Soderburgh’s film will cast some new attention on Liberace and his life. Hopefully along with all the behind the scenes stories that will be discussed his talents on the keyboard will also get rediscovered. That’s where his talent truly was and rewatching some of his old performances he did put on a quite a show. Those wild costumes didn’t hurt either.
And here’s the real Liberace’s entrance at his Vegas show