Whether or not you think you need the sequin adorned veneer stripped from one of the 70’s most ubiquitous icon of entertainment is a debate which becomes redundant within five minutes of Michael Douglas chameleonic performance as Liberace. Behind the Candelabra isn’t the film you might be expecting it to be; scandal is largely left off-screen, and the TV-movie-of-the-week tragedy of his final months is condensed into a single phone-call and touching scene. Instead, the curtains are pulled back to depict a romantic drama featuring two of the most unexpected acting performances in recent memory.
Structured with an Almost Famous style narrative, the through line follows Scott Thornton (Matt Damon), a movie dog-trainer and naïve farm boy, who whilst at a Liberace (Michael Douglas) performance gets introduced to the flamboyant pianist. An instant bond is struck, one which leads to a six-year relationship, taking in a multitude of jealousy, jewellery, and plastic surgery.
And that’s about it; the story is surprisingly sleight, with screen time dominated by Damon and Douglas living a domesticated life with a difference. So we get them discussing work, with Liberace remonstrating over his increasingly unreliable stage protégée, “I can’t get rid of him, he’s under contract for six months. I wish his wife would come and get him”. Or as Scott becomes increasingly disillusioned by his role in their relationship, arguments about the worth of their partnership, “I’m going to put you in charge of my wigs”. It’s funny, wryly observed dialogue, and everyone thrives upon it.
In fact, comedy is the strongest indication of genre for Candelabra, with Douglas spewing his countless retorts with unbridled glee. As the film goes through the plastic surgery sequences it also gets some the scripts biggest laughs. A pre-operation Liberace asking Rob Lowe’s surgeon, “Will I be able to close my eyes?” to which the brazen response comes “Not fully”.
But don’t think that Soderbergh doesn’t hit the dramatic beats as well as the stylistic ones – the retro, Donna Summer accompanied opening HBO logo sets a wonderful precedent for the movies contextual design – because at it’s heart this is a romance with all of the genre signifiers; the flourishes of a new romance and the inevitable descent into conflict.
Damon is excellent as the lost pup caught up in Liberace’s rollercoaster lifestyle, and is unequivocally the heart of the movie, going ridiculous lengths to appease his eccentric partner. He plays Scott as a grounded, likeable rabbit-in-the-headlight, and it’s a performance which grows with the movie. But it’s hard to avoid the shadow of Douglas’ renaissance. Committed, brave, and infectiously funny, he jumps head first into the role, so-much-so that you forget it’s the former Wall Street icon within the first few seconds of ivory tinkling. For them to achieve this level of intimacy against the gaudy backdrop of Liberace’s caricature trappings, is a credit to all involved.