Behind The Candelabra reminds me a little of a Scorsese film, with Michael Douglas’ toupe in particular bringing to mind the extraordinary hairpieces worn by the elderly Midwestern crime bosses in Casino. This is Steven Soderbergh’s frequently hilarious biopic about Liberace and his 6-year relationship with the much younger Scott Thorson. It is a world of palatial kitsch, excess and small dogs, Lear jets, plastic surgeons and boogie woogie piano. Everything dazzles, from Liberace and Scott’s white suits to the polished mirrored surfaces of their Palm Springs home and the harsh glare of the desert itself.
Michael Douglas – never an actor I’ve been particularly bothered about – does tremendous work as Liberace, delivering lines like “I personally support the entire Austrian rhinestone business” with more pride than camp. Free from the usual roles he’s more associated with, you get to glimpse Douglas’ intelligence and wit as an actor, and it makes me wish he made more, interesting films like this and less disposable pot/bunny-boiler thrillers. Matt Damon plays Scott with the right degree of youthful naivety and sense of entitlement.
Liberace, then 57, is looking for a surrogate son; Scott, a 17-year-old whose grown up in foster care, is looking for a father figure. This is the nub of their relationship, played out against a theatrical rhinestone-encrusted backdrop. Soderbergh finds much that’s interesting and diverting here, especially in the characters orbiting Liberace and Scott – Rob Lowe, as a plastic surgeon, gets a terrific extended cameo – what did they do to his face..?
Debbie Reynolds is on sprightly form as Liberace’s mother, along with Dan Ayrkoyd as Liberace’s blustery lawyer and Scott Bakula as the mutual friend who introduces Liberace to Scott. The film’s second half darkens, as Scott becomes addicted to painkillers and Liberace drifts into a series of assignations with other young boys, his enormous appetite for sex undimmed by his advancing years and the cost it eventually takes on his life.