The splendour of Behind The Candelabra lies in Steven Soderbergh’s ability to give weight to both Liberace and Scott Thorson, almost equally. The entire story is told from Scott’s point of view, but it doesn’t make Liberace any less interesting or sympathetic. He isn’t a character in the background, giving meaning to Scott’s tale; he is a fully realised individual, complete with ups and downs, feelings and emotions. Behind The Candelabra is Scott’s story, but Liberace is just as important.
When he begins his relationship with young Scott (Matt Damon), he showers him with gifts. Jewellery, tailored suits, brand new cars. The world is their oyster to share. His house is furnished to look like a museum — or even an elaborate mausoleum — and when he takes Scott on a guided tour, Scott is just as in love with the house as he is with his host. When I say “in love with”, I really mean it. From the moment Scott lays eyes on Liberace playing the piano with one hand while he serenades his audience, he knows he’ll be getting into his pants in no time. Any other person — or rather, any other straight person — would look upon the man and his house and instantly know that he was gay, or at least have a really big suspicion that he was. But not Liberace’s crowd. And not during the ’70s. Gays did not exist back then. They were swept under the rug, forgotten. So imagine the kind of life Liberace led. He knew who he was on the inside. He knew the kind of man his mother accepted him to be. All the lavish decorations and all the generosity was about as far as his coming out could take him. If you didn’t get the hint by then, he wasn’t going to help you any further. Everything was bottled up inside, kept secret. So for all his flamboyancy and smiles, he was an incredibly lonely man leading an incredibly sad life.
This is where Scott comes in. The knight in skin tight trunks. The importance of Scott rests on the importance of Liberace, and then as the movie progresses, it works the other way. Scott is in his teens, and he is pulled into a world that is larger than himself. His mother is mentally ill, and his foster parents have brought him up to be a good hearted man, loving of animals. He is a small town boy. He cannot handle the big world, but he is swept up in Liberace’s storm, and is almost given no choice in the matter. Liberace wants, Liberace gets. Liberace sees you as his new boyfriend, you better be ready. Liberace wants you to undergo plastic surgery to look more like him, you do it, or you risk not having Liberace at all. There is a give and take thing happening here, and we are reminded of it every time the two quarrel.
The quarrels are necessary. They remind us that every good thing will come to an end. Liberace and Scott’s relationship comes to an end because their quarrels lead to severe heartache. Liberace fools around with other, much younger boys, and Scott becomes a drug addict. At one point, he almost gets institutionalised. They grow apart, and then further apart, and then Scott sues Liberace. He gets $75,000 for his troubles, plus a few cars and a couple of dogs. His lawyer says it’s because of the drugs, but Scott thinks he’s being swindled. No matter, the case is settled, and the two never hear from each other again. Until Liberace’s on his deathbed.
Behind The Candelabra is a wonderful movie with heartbreakingly perfect performances from its two leads. Michael Douglas, as Mr. Showmanship himself, is a revelation. I have never been a follower of his, but here, he is riveting. He manages to make a man I know almost nothing about seem like my next door neighbour, if my next door neighbour lived in a mansion filled with stuffed animals and every ornate decoration you could think of. Liberace was a ruthless man. But he was also a sad man. Douglas — in what I can foresee being his most memorable role — plays both sides with ease. At times we want to hug him and let him know that everything will be all right, other times we want to kick him in the face. But kicking him won’t be so easy, because Douglas does something special with the role: He emphasizes his loneliness so effectively that we know it’s the reason behind his uncompromising attitude.
Matt Damon is the star, though. His performance is not showy and attention-seeking, like Douglas’ is (but Douglas has to be). He shines in silence, in the way he reacts to certain things. His eyebrows twitch with agitation when Liberace gets on his nerves, and his face undergoes more emotional transformation than physical transformation. There is a great scene where Scott, fresh from his plastic surgery, tries to have an adult conversation with his lover about hanging out with new people, getting to see the world. It blows up into an argument and both men are heated. And then Liberace goes over to kiss his way out of a bad spot, and we can see Scott’s expression morph through his implants from anger to annoyance, and then to pleasure. It’s in scenes like this that Damon is a triumph.
Come awards season, Behind The Candelabra will been long forgotten. Douglas and Damon will probably never get the recognition they deserve. But is it about the recognition? Did they act in this movie to snub their noses at Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal? Or did they simply want to tell the story of two troubled men, caught up in each other’s love, bound for disaster, but never failing to remain in each other’s hearts? There is a resounding melancholy that rides through Behind The Candelabra. By the time it ends, we still don’t know what’s behind it. A lonely star, or a misguided boy?
Best Moment | Liberace’s introduction. Soderbergh films it cleverly. We hear Liberace before we see him. When we do see him, he’s out of focus, in the background, playing his piano on stage. And then we get a close up.
Worst Moment | Nope.