I seem to remember certain Steven Soderbergh announcing that “Side Effects” was going to be his last directorial effort. I also seem to recall, how much I loved “Side Effects” and quietly wished he would change his mind. Well then, for once my prayers have been answered (or maybe I just missed the memo), as he apparently changed his mind and directed “Behind the Candelabra” – a ‘kinda/sorta’ biopic about Liberace – a living proof it was possible to cross-breed humans with glitter (not Gary…).
Well, Mr Soderbergh, you have broken your own word and thus you are not much of a gentleman, I must say. Nevertheless, I am certainly glad you came back to your senses and I shall try and ignore your promises that this time you’re done for good.
Clearly, Soderbergh’s attempts at parting with cinema resemble the way I usually eat Pringles. I would usually pop the lid, get a handful and savour the delicious crisps before deciding to save the rest for later. Well, maybe one more… Ok, that one is definitely going to be last… Perhaps one for the road… And minutes later I would wake up to a sudden realization I find it difficult to squeeze my big fat sausage fingers down the devilishly narrow tube in order to fish out what are now the surviving remnants of my Pringle binge. So, if this is how Soderbergh is going to play out his retirement, we can be safe, because he’ll be back in no time with yet another fantastic film.
It turns out it has been Soderbergh’s fleeting dream to direct a film about Liberace’s life since as far as 13 years ago, when he casually pitched this idea to Michael Douglas whilst filming “Traffic”. Fast forward until now and there we are: HBO dished out the funds and Liberace – the human Christmas tree – is now gleefully parading on the big screens… in the UK. The US has seen it on HBO, which we don’t have here in the rainy British Dominion, but that’s not a problem.
The reason “Behind the Candelabra” is not your usual biopic is quite simple: the film covers only the last decade of Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) life and even that would be a bit excessive, because the major arc of this film is the violent and bumpy relationship with Liberace and his much younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), while everything else seems to be sidelined. We meet the two in 1977 when young animal trainer Scott meets Bob Black (mildly camouflaged Scott Bakula) – a producer – in a gay club and the latter introduces him to Liberace after one of his sparkling and glamorous shows. The two quickly develop chemistry and not long thereafter, Scott moves in with Lee(berace) for good. We are then allowed to dip our toes in the decadent lives of Vegas performing artists and by the end of the film we are fully submerged in the sex, drugs, abuse and everything Hollywood is notorious for. By the way, not knowing who Liberace was (apart from the general knowledge of pop-culture, for anything else I was simply too young to remember) I am puzzled at how long he has managed to keep his gay nature a secret. Probably all the credit should go to his agent, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), because compared to Liberace, even Elton John looks macho.
Anyway, the film meanders through the ups and downs of Scott’s relationship with Liberace, who with each minute of the story becomes more and more possessive and very quickly reveals his dark and toxic side that would eventually bring the nature of their relationship from lover-to-lover to overlord-to-slave. In an amazing display of superb acting I got to see that Liberace surely had more than one face – a gentle lover, a caring guardian, an obsessive tyrant, and vindictive asshole; all encased in a body of a piano virtuoso dressed in sparkles.
Continuing on the subject of acting in “Behind the Candelabra”, I have got to give a hand to the whole ensemble for wonderful performances, especially Michael Douglas and Matt Damon who so convincingly embodied the two protagonists in the gayest possible way – and that’s a compliment, I’ll have you know. Also Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula and super-tanned long-haired Rob Lowe (who portrayed Liberace’s plastic surgeon) deserve to be commended for their efforts, as they have all contributed to the powerful picture the film creates.
Other than that, I think “Behind the candelabra” gives us a very important opportunity to peek behind the curtains and see that the same people we’d normally see in full drag, make-up and all, are made of flesh and blood as well, contrary to what certain religious circles would like us to think. All the gay stuff aside (and there’s a lot of it), “Behind the Candelabra” is a very solid drama that takes on a subject of toxic relationships, sacrifices, submission and undisputed dominance. As seen through Scott’s eyes, I saw that what these people had is no different to what you’d see in far too many so-called ‘normal’ relationships. We all know at least one couple with similar issues to the ones shown in this film, where one party would assume full control over the other by slowly tightening the leash around their neck.
This is how Liberace is portrayed in this film – not as a glamorous little icon in make-up behind a piano, but as a vengeful bully who would strip his partner off of any humanity and free will and make him his little boy toy, a doll to be dressed and played with. Sadly, very little is said in terms of explaining how Liberace became a domestic monster, but it doesn’t belittle the film as a whole – it is rather a trade-off for the narrow scope of the film.
In any way, the reason I think Soderbergh has done a fantastic job in “Behind the candelabra” has to do with the fact that underneath the gay coating there’s a real tragedy there. When all is said and done, nobody cares whether two guys are kissing on the screen, because Soderbergh wants us to see past the gender, right where the general problem lies. In the end, “Behind the candelabra” is a story about a sad pathetic lonely little man who was incapable of developing a healthy relationship due to some deep-seated unresolved issues. Words and actions cannot be undone, therefore by looking at Liberace’s choices and the price he paid in the end, we should be reminded to love and respect the people we share our lives with before it’s too late. After all, you can never step in the same river twice…