[columns]The first time that you see Michael Douglas as Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, he is wearing a silver sequined three-piece suit with a rhinestone collar and lace sleeves, with a painted face and lacquered hair, sitting at a mirrored piano topped with a crystal candelabrum. For those of us who recognise Douglas as the alpha male of Wall Street, seeing him as the flamboyant pianist is shocking and almost comic, but he plays the role with such conviction and accuracy that it is both believable and unbelievably good.[/columns]
The film follows the fabulous and fated secret relationship between the aging showman and his young plaything Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. Pulling the curtain on Liberace’s onstage personality, the film tries to show his personal life as he seduces the seventeen year old Thornton away from his life of foster homes into a life of marble mansions and mink coats. The relationship seems wonderfully fabulous, until Thornton’s drug and alcohol issues combined with Liberace’s penchant for other young men ruins it all. This isn’t a gay love story; it is a very sad and very realistic exploration of the dynamics between an older and a younger gay man.
It is a harsh and true exploration, but an exploration done in such style. You could watch this film on mute and still absolutely love it, simply because of the costume and set design. Your eyes can gorge on the visual feast put forth by costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, who recreated Liberace’s stage outfits right down to the last pearl. Liberace was famously flamboyant and decadent, and this translates stunningly onto the screen. In the film, Thornton takes time to tell a group of fans all about the performer’s coat, made by Anna Nateece from virgin white fox fur, bedecked with $100 000 worth of Austrian crystals and a 16ft train. There are lots of robes, lots of capes, lots of Seventies suits, and at one point, Damon still manages to look indignant while wearing naught but a rhinestone Speedo…
But the film isn’t all champagne and sparkles – it also delves into the shadows cast by the candelabra. We watch as Liberace gets older and more desperate for youth, while Thornton becomes addicted to pills on the ‘California diet’ as well as illegal drugs and alcohol. Rather more unsettlingly, Liberace forces his ‘Baby Boy’ to get plastic surgery – with some pretty gory images from the hospital bed – to look more like a younger Liberace. Damon displays an emotional range that defies his Team America puppet while Douglas serves Liberace’s warped psychological issues – such as his desire to be lover, father and brother to his toy boy – on a diamond encrusted silver platter.
Liberace once said ‘Too much of a good thing is wonderful’. While too much of anything might not be wonderful or good for you, Liberace’s life of sex, surgery and sequins makes for a film that is as glamorous as it is grotesque.
Behind the Candelabra is in cinemas 7th June 2013