Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘Behind the Candelabra’ a glitzy and disquieting deconstruction of a hidden relationship in Hollywood

Behind the Candelabra
Liberace (Douglas) basks in the spotlight

Behind the Candelabra

Written by Richard LaGravenese

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

USA, 2013

Steven Soderbergh thoughtfully details the purported destructive indulgence of Liberace’s most intimate relationship in Behind the Candelabra. A film replete with the salacious dirt and glamorous high living of a legendary celebrity, this project is perfectly tailored to Soderbergh’s nuanced flair for revealing the conceits behind success.

It isn’t difficult to believe that living such a loud life under constant public scrutiny could take its toll and lead Liberace’s story to reckless places. These places entertain as much as they convey a deep restlessness and melancholy that comes with the drive to be in the spotlight at any cost. Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, a sweet young man unaccustomed to fame and fortune who is drawn in by the magnetic talent of Liberace. As the flamboyant Liberace, Michael Douglas discards his hyper-masculine onscreen persona that has been cultivated over the decades in such roles as Gordon Gekko (Wall Street) and Jack Colton (Romancing the Stone). What emerges from Douglas is a kindly father figure whose soft-spoken musings about loving his dogs and collecting pianos mask his immense sexual appetite that threatens to overwhelm any meaningful long-term relationship he tries to have. Over 40 years younger than Liberace, Thorson doesn’t seem to mind becoming the entertainer’s latest boy toy at the price of his autonomy. The mutually beneficial arrangement gives Scott access to previously unfathomable luxury while Liberace is able to absorb his lover’s vigor. As caring as Liberace first appears, he soon turns into a two-faced monster who doesn’t care what havoc he wreaks as he guides Thorson away from his interests and anyone else’s attention. Having embodied the rogue agent of Jason Bourne, Damon is deftly made to play a completely pliable and submissive man whose every action is controlled. Soderbergh has done well to cast two men known widely for self-possessed characters. Here, they are co-dependent and mostly defined by their romantic interaction with one another instead of what they have accomplished in the world at large. Liberace’s fame is already established at the start of the story, so he is redefined by the exploration of this secret relationship. His talent remains untarnished by this version of events but Soderbergh’s up-close analysis of his questionable actions is an amendment to his publicly glorified gentleness and points to a master manipulator who hid his faults behind charity. Damon and Douglas surprise the audience by staying away from overt stereotypes of gay men and instead let private interactions speak to how their off-kilter power dynamic works until excess endangers the quiet affection that first brought the couple together.

Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra
Soderbergh doesn’t shrink away from showing Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) in bed together

Obsessed with youth and staying sexually active, Liberace constantly consumes people and things in order to keep an anxiety riddled void in his life at bay. While remaking Scott in his image is a move to take intense speculation off of the couple, it is also an uncomfortable statement about Liberace’s extreme narcissism that he is able to have sex with someone who is made to look just like him. Rob Lowe plays a minor role as the couple’s plastic surgeon with a distorted face and demeanor that is a hilarious, albeit terrifying, red flag for what his procedures will bring into their lives. Even though Thorson’s side of the story stems from a book written by him, great care is given to staying sympathetic to Liberace and acknowledging mistakes were made by both of them. There are real moments of mutual adoration between Thorson and Liberace but aside from terrible greed, their relationship is buried by societal standards that the consummate showman rigorously maintains while in public. Behind the Candelabra is insistent on conveying that this relationship is like many other relationships and is sexually explicit in its realistic depiction of the time the men spent together. The fact that their union was buoyed and felled by fame is what brings their interactions to light. 

Soderbergh goes out of his way to visually revel in all the opulence Liberace loved and amassed. The director’s flashy and elegant presentation of materialistic wealth is magnificently displayed but rendered empty by events exacerbated by Liberace. Cars, chandeliers, elegant pianos, rare furs, and all the young men in the world can’t satisfy his desires. The ultimate loneliness that stems from his irrevocably engorged ego is delivered by Soderbergh with an energy that exudes the desperation that Liberace’s hidden life ultimately left as his legacy.

— Lane Scarberry

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