Steven Soderbergh’s work offers the biggest charge when he sits back and watches as professional commitments and messy private lives loudly crash into each other. Some of the best moments in Traffic are when Catherine Zeta-Jones’ pampered wife goes from bored housewife to cutthroat queen of the cartel or Michael Douglas’ Congressman having to rescue his drug addled daughter while confronting the messy realities of his war on drugs. And Behind the Candelabra is obsessed with the complex ways in which public persona of a talented artist causes him to be something of a controlling tyrant in his personal life.
A long-gestating passion project for Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra is a fitting swansong for the auteur. Not only does it reunite him with Douglas, who gave a great performance in the above-mentioned Traffic and is even better here, but it practically rooted itself in his personal obsessions. It follows the five years in which a man named Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) becomes Liberace’s paid lackee, live-in boyfriend, and eventually spurned lover.
Their twisted romance, from a brilliant script by Richard LaGravanese, is a jaundiced prism through which we view showbiz and its desperation for submission and uniformity. Liberace demands a total acquiescence to his whims and ideals. He is a man who only wants those to who throw themselves at his feet in worship near him, and any slight questioning of his dictatorship is to find yourself cut out from his life. Replaced with a newer, younger, more eager model to bend and contort to his pleasures, or for them. Yet we glimpse inside of these moments the fragile, broken man demanding acceptance from a larger society, a safe haven in which he can completely himself.
If the original plan had gone through to release this a big screen entertainment instead of an HBO movie, I have no doubt in my mind that Michael Douglas would have found himself the proud owner of Oscar number three (he won previously as producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and actor for Wall Street). His clean sweep on the television awards circuit was well deserved. His performance is a marvel of not only capturing the cadence and mannerisms of the subject matter, but crafting a complete portrait of a real person. His narcissism is acidic to any healthy relationship, but there’s still a sympathetic individual and gaudy, entertaining persona wrapped around that damaged core. It’s one hell of a performance, and the better for not resting on easy imitation and avoiding loud, obvious choices.
Matt Damon is no slouch in the film either, having to sell us a naïve youth swept up in the tacky glamour of Las Vegas and the corrosive entrapments of fame and wealth. His Scott is eager to love and appease Liberace, but writing it off as a youth looking for a daddy figure is too simple. By the time Scott’s given himself over to the point of plastic surgery to look more like his lover/sugar daddy/benefactor, we have entered into a warped reality in which normal decisions about healthy relationships, morals, and strength of character no longer apply.
Orbiting them is a strange batch of character actors, and each of them is wonderful in their parts. Debbie Reynolds began life as a megawatt Movie Star, and has now found herself as a consummate character actress. It took me a moment to realize that was her as Liberace’s mother, she’s slathered in makeup prosthetics and a strange accent. She has one scene in which she’s playing a slot machine over and over, eventually hitting a jackpot, and proceeds to belittle and embarrass her son for not being able to pay her the full amount of her winnings. This small fragment is a tiny piece of character building for both of them, giving us a glimpse into where exactly he learned that relationships and profits can be intertwined.
Even better are Dan Aykroyd playing it straight as Liberace’s manager, Scott Bakula as a long-time friend who brings him fresh young boys to seduce and dominate, and Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon. Lowe’s pinched face is a disturbing vision of the lengths one will go to preserve their image, and Lowe plays him as an impossibly attractive devil here to offer solace in the form of habit-forming pills and the tools to eradicate Scott’s identity to appease his lover. The trajectory of the story may become a tad familiar as drug addiction and a life-threatening illness consume the last chunk of the film, but this cast keeps it invigorating and moving along nicely.