Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon star as Liberace and his put upon lover in Steven Soderbergh's final feature

There is a wonderfully knowing scene midway through Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s 2005 political drama, in which iconic American newsman, Edward R Murrow (played by David Straithairn) ploughs his way through a vacuous interview with Wladziu Liberace.

Happier doing battle with crazed communist-hunters like Senator Joe McCarthy, Murrow – who is barely fulfilling his contractual obligations – asks Liberace, with a straight face, about the prospects of his settling down with a nice girl and some kids. ‘Mr Showmanship’ plays along with the question and offers up a few platitudes.

That Liberace’s homosexuality was known to almost everybody personally connected with him was one thing, and yet he was notoriously litigious in the face of press suggestions that he was anything other than a straight bachelor throughout his life.

Viewed through a modern prism, Liberace’s sexual orientation might be rather obvious to most of us. Murrow’s questioning, however, is typical of the way in which the pianist was viewed by the American public for most of his career: a benign, strangely asexual figure with eyes only for his mother. It is a blind spot which looms large over Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s final directorial project.

Based on the memoirs of the same title by Liberace’s former driver, bodyguard and lover, Scott Thorson, the film sidesteps any lingering doubts about Liberace’s personal life by relating events about their time together from Thorson’s point of view.

Rejected by Hollywood for being ‘too gay’, HBO stepped in to set it up it for television broadcast in the US and for a theatrical release internationally. The ‘too gay’ label may sound unfair, but this is indeed a film in which Liberace’s existence is painted as not so much one of suppressed sexuality but of open and readily enjoyed promiscuity.

Given his outrageously ostentatious stage presence and public image, there is a danger that any characterisation of Liberace could descend into farce. It is a relief then that Michael Douglas turns in a hugely accomplished, nuanced and, crucially, serious performance as the ageing star.

Initially polite and charming yet predatory (witness the way in which he quietly leers at Matt Damon’s Thorson within minutes of meeting him), Douglas’s Liberace is never still, never satisfied with his lot. A man of contradictions, he is a devout Catholic who has reconciled his religious beliefs with his sexual preferences.

His revealing transformation into a cunning, cold operator – hinted at in the early stages – is remarkable. He was famous for the love of his mother, whose framed portrait takes pride of place in his opulent mansion (complete with the almost constant sound of yapping dogs in the background). However, the implication is that this forms part of a broader, more cynical business plan to appease his army of elderly female fans. 'They have no idea he’s gay.' whispers Thorson’s friend in the opening minutes.

Just as impressive is Damon as the movie’s protagonist. While the plot fails to delve too deeply into his background or the motivations for tying his fate to Liberace’s moody whims ­– beyond the obvious financial gain – Damon nonetheless proves himself, once more, as perhaps the most versatile leading man working in American cinema.

With such versatility comes an everyman quality, important in the context of Damon’s character. In the beginning he is an ordinary man, comfortable in his own skin and happy with his sexuality. By the end he is a shell, scarred by drug abuse and, most creepily, plastic surgery courtesy of a brilliantly unsettling Rob Lowe.

Driven by jealousy and trapped by Liberace’s controlling manipulations, Thorson is left to mourn the loss of his once promising life. In one pitiful scene he eats a meal with quiet resignation in his benefactor’s dressing room as Douglas charms a handsome young man in the background – an eerie reflection of the leading pair’s first encounter.

Shot in the style that made Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series so good to look at – all warm lighting and sun-kissed vistas – Behind the Candelabra is a further testament to the director’s ability to mine mature drama from almost any subject. If indeed this is his last film, it is a quality entry in an admirably diverse pantheon.

Behind the Candelabra runs in Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast from June 7 – 20.