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Behind the Candelabra (AF)


Stars: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, Bruce Ramsay, Nicky Katt, Cheyenne Jackson, Debbie Reynolds, Boyd Holbrook, Jane Morris, Garrett M. Brown

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh has been reported as saying this compelling tale of flamboyant gay pianist Liberace’s romance with much younger Scott Thorson is to be his last movie. The good news is, if the report is true, that Soderbergh quits his filmmaking on a high note. The even better news is that moviegoers will be spared George Clooney smirking his way through Oceans 14.

When 18-year-old Thorson, impressively played by blond-haired Matt Damon, whose telling portrayal succeeds most of the time in persuading the viewer he is a teenager when he first meets the glamorous, glitzy piano player, and some 40 years younger than his lover-to-be Liberace.

Liberace, then renowned as a star on television and the stage and only known as a homosexual to his inner circle, happily throws himself into his new romance with Thorson whom he moves into his home after firing his previous live-in lover. The affair is largely one sided, with Liberace having declared, “I want to be everything to you Scott. I want to be father, brother, lover, best friend”.

And for several years, that – or something like that – happens. Liberace grooms Thorson and has him drive him in his white Rolls Royce onto the stage in Las Vegas wearing a furry snow-white chauffeur’s uniform as part of his duties as a companion. He even has the reluctant Thorson undergo plastic surgery so as to make him resemble his ‘father’ and spoils him rotten. But, inevitably, their relationship sours into cocaine-addicted dislike after some years…

Debbie Reynolds, unrecognizable as Liberace’s aged mother and, notably, Rob Lowe as a drug-ridden doctor provide commendable support, and it’s hard to think how (age apart) Damon could be better.

It says much for Soderbergh, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and, particularly, Michael Douglas’s extraordinary performance as Liberace, that Behind the Candelabra, while not pulling any punches in depicting the carnal side of the two men’s relationship, never becomes crude, gratuitous or embarrassing. And high praise is due, too, to the vivid art direction, often appropriately gaudy cinematography and effective editing by Soderbergh’s alter egos Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard.

Douglas, camping it up to just the right level, brings Liberace – or, to more accurate, his unique take on the character – vividly to screen life, flaws and strengths balanced in exactly the right manner. It’s the performance of his career, all the more extraordinary since his previous key roles, notably ‘Gordon Gecko’ in Wall Street and as anti-heroes in Basic Instinct and Falling Down showed little signs of the emotional depth and dramatic range he displays here, notably when ravaged and dying from AIDS.

His performance should have earned him and Oscar.

But that will never happen. Hollywood’s worries about how a mainstream gay romance would play at the box office have resulted in Behind the Candelabra being made as a TV movie for HBO. So the best Douglas can hope for – along with Damon, the film and Soderbergh – is a far less prestigious Emmy.

But that, as they say, is Show Business.

Alan Frank

USA 2012. UK Distributor: EntertainmentOne. Colour by FotoKem.
118 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 2, Swearing 2.

Review date: 08 Jun 2013