Directed by the legend Steven Soderbergh, Behind The Candelabra, the HBO, made-for-TV movie that got a cinema release here in the UK, is a balls-out, sequinned, camp and delightfully funny biopic about the infamous entertainer, Liberace, and his lover, Scott Thorson, which is set over the course of their relationship up until Liberace’s death in 1986.
It’s no real surprise that Behind the Candelabra has garnered huge critical praise. This is a character piece that relies heavily on some first rate performances from the cast, and boy does it not disappoint. Michael Douglas pitches Liberace perfectly; he manages to gel his flamboyant and extroverted nature with moments of tender emotion and sweet vulnerability. This is in no small part down to the brilliance of Matt Damon, who acts superbly opposite Douglas, and brings both light and moments of shade to the film and their on-screen partnership. Damon is a chameleon who can seamlessly morph into any character; The Talented Mr Ripley, The Informant and The Departed, to name just a few stand-outs, and Behind the Candelabra is no different. He physically and emotionally portrays the passing of time with a class and skill that is difficult to do, embodying the prosthesis and acting above the make up, meaning it never wears him; Leonardo DiCaprio in J.Edgar is an example of just how difficult this can be to accomplish successfully.
Stylistically, Behind the Candelabra is beautiful to behold. Soderbergh, who often does his own cinematography under the alias Peter Andrews, has created a gaudy and gorgeous world that these two characters inhabit. We are catapulted into 1970s Vegas in a haze of glitz and gold. The direction embraces the mood on screen and, from the beginning, Soderbergh utilises the visual eye candy with close up shots of diamonds and fur to draw the audience into, not just the look of opulence, but the feel of it too. This empathetic approach to the mood and style runs all the way through the film; as Scott loses his shine, so does the aesthetic of the film.
Overall, Behind the Candelabra is a fantastic watch. There are some great supporting performances- especially from Rob Lowe – and the story was engaging and punchy. Despite the limitations with the source material – a book written by Thorson himself – it manages to avoid bias. If anything Liberace is the one who gets off rather lightly. This is more a film about Thorson’s need for love, family, ownership and his battle with his own demons. This worked though. Ultimately, Liberace kept everyone at arms length, so from his point of view the film could have felt unfinished and shallow. As it was this film was a delight to watch and is worth seeing for the performances and chemistry between Douglas and Damon alone.