I’m not sure when it happened, but somehow HBO Films has become the preeminent source for great biopics. In recent years they’ve done well received films about Temple Grandin, Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector. The trend among these films being that the’ve all brought out the absolute best in their stars. Behind the Candelabra is no exception, as Michael Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace may be the best performance of his career.
Steven Soderbergh, who claims this will be the last film before a lengthy hiatus, takes helm and directs with a sharp eye as usual. The story (adapted by The Fisher King’s Richard LaGravenes) comes from a tell-all book by Scott Thorson, Liberace’s former driver, lover and the film’s primary subject. The film explores with little restraint the rocky relationship between Liberace and Thorson against the backdrop of decadent 70s excess. Matt Damon at his best plays Scott Thorson, a naive bisexual man who leaves his home at the urging of producer friend Bob Black (Scott Backula) only to meet master showman Liberace (Michael Douglas) after one of his performances. The two quickly form an intimate emotional and physical relationship but quickly find themselves struggling with Scott’s drug addiction and Liberace’s tendency to sleep with other men.
Before I go any further I have to talk about Michael Douglas. The way he disappears into this character with such finesse and class is an absolute joy to watch. Not only does he capture the cheeriness of Liberace but the lying, egotistical darkside that dwelled underneath the surface. Honestly, I really don’t like Liberace after seeing this movie. His disregard for others feelings makes him a difficult personality to sympathize with. Yet, Douglas works his magic. Liberace is the kind of character you hate to love.
Damon is also great if it weren’t for the fact that he has to share the screen with Douglas. Both are deserving of whatever TV acting awards exist these days. Additionally, the rest of the cast is a unique ensemble of eclectic characters including performances by; Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Renyolds and Rob Lowe as a scary plastic surgery obsessed physician.
I only wish the story of Thorson and Liberace wasn’t so grim. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when an entire movie focuses on the painful process of a breakup. We watch Thorson struggle with deep physical and emotional scars, some of which never heal. It can be a difficult experience but a rewarding one as well. If you get the opportunity I’d recommend Behind the Candelabra, it’ll really tickle your ivories.