Behind the Candelabra

I remember being both fascinated and repelled by Liberace as a child – most likely recalling his cameo in The Monkeeswhere he smashed a grand piano. But it is only now, with the release of Behind the Candelabra, that the memories are reignited. 

It is exactly this ying yang that Michael Douglas captures so magnificently in this tour de force of a performance. Despite being worried at being too thin for the role (Liberace was a right little fatty, addicted to plastic surgery and pretty hairless, resorting to bouffant wigs), Douglas bravely takes on the fur coat of the alternately charming, vulnerable and bullying prima donna with an admirable panache.  

Brave on several counts: one because filming was interrupted in order for him to complete the treatment for his Stage 4 throat cancer. He even refused to wear a wig for the part – perhaps he was celebrating the fact that he had hair after all the chemotherapy? Matt Damon, at 42 playing the 18 year-old Scott Thorson, had to resort to one (and much prosthetics I would imagine) to get the plump and fresh-faced pretty-boy look. I suppose CGI played its part, but I was mesmerised by the physical changes from fat to thin, old to young, and back to old again; also by Michael Douglas’s apparent virtuoso piano-playing, but I daresay that was a cheat too!

Second count: both actors tackle a subject that Hollywood was too scared to fund as a mainstream feature. In his lifetime Liberace vehemently denied being gay and libel suits flowed; even in death his doctor tried to cover up his HIV-related demise, so great was the stigma.  Moreover, contemporary Hollywood often frowns at straights playing gays – and you can’t get much more macho than these two!

So Candelabra ended up being relegated to HBO, thereby denying Douglas the Oscar he so richly deserves. Just to rub salt into Hollywood’s shame, the film surprisingly shies away from stereotyping the life and times of Liberace in high camp. Instead Douglas portrays him as multifaceted as the crystals he uses to embroider his 16ft fox fur  – showman, predator, spoilt child, and sentimental sex addict.  It is a rational and controlled performance, one that captures the all-too human flaws in his character who, in response to good/bad reviews would say ‘I laughed/cried all the way to the bank’. He was a superstar, make no mistake, and he knew it. Indeed in one of his later interviews with Johnny Carson, he said, ‘I don’t cry any more on the way to the bank – I BOUGHT the bank’.

Complementing this larger-than-life character, Damon portrays Scott initially as a shy, animal-loving, rather reluctant rent boy, who succumbs to his sugar daddy with a naivety and passivity that can only augur ill.  Seduced by Liberace’s seeming devotion: ‘I want to be everything to you, Scott. I want to be father, brother, lover, best friend,’yet blind to the fate of his predecessors, he is even so foolish as to be re-modelled in the style of his patron. Rob Lowe plays the creepy plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz, looking more like Jocelyn ‘The Bride of Wildenstein’ than anything else. When he first made an appearance the man next to me gasped in shock! This was when he was not in stitches over the tight script.

Apparently the look was achieved by taping his face back and covering the elastic with a wig (Joan Crawford used this method in her films). Lowe reported it as being ‘really painful’ and giving him migraines. But he sure looked the part! We all know about Hollywood doctors – vide Michael Jackson – and Dr Startz’s diet pills were just the beginning of poor Scott’s downfall.

Soderbergh obviously had fun making this film: the sets are kitsch and extravagant, with faithful recreations of Liberace’s various homes  (the Vegas one is in fact Zsa Zsa Gabor’s mansion, while the Beverley Hills penthouse was filmed in the actual apartment); and also with the casting – Dan Akroyd plays the ruthless manager whose main job seems to be to protect Liberace from himself and to sign the pay-off cheques; and Debbie Reynolds, who actually knew  Liberace, plays his sanctimonious old Polish mother, who must share a huge amount of the blame for how her son turned out.

So while the film is taken from Thorson’s eponymous book (for which he is rumoured only to have received $100,000 and which he spent in two months on cars and jewellery), Soderbergh provides a much more balanced account of the five years Scott and Lee, as he was known to his friends, were together. It is in part a love story and in part a cautionary tale of what happens when love goes wrong, especially when the two lovers live in a never-never land, refusing to grow up and face the real world. For poor old Scott Thorson, the fairy tale ended when Liberace with the inevitability of the rich and famous got bored of his protégé.  A cautionary tale indeed.

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