Saturday, June 01, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

It’s 26 years since the flamboyant American pianist and entertainer Liberace died from an Aids-related condition. Most people in Britain under 40 would have little more than a hazy idea of who he was, or the extent of his fame. From the vantage point of today, it’s hard to explain the sheer magnitude of his celebrity or to account for his astonishing success.

Yet in his four-decade heyday he was a household name (pronounced, as everyone knew back then, ‘Libber-AH-chef’) - and from the 1950s to the 1970s he was the world’s highest paid entertainer, outstripping Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, all of whom now live on in much more vividly in our collective memory.

This is hardly surprising. His fame – outside America, at least – was almost totally dependent on his live shows. He recorded albums of piano music, but they are rarely heard today on radio. He never had a Top 20 single in Britain. In the 1950s he tried film acting, but thought better of it after starring in the flop Sincerely Yours, playing a pianist stricken by deafness. These days there is not much to remember Liberace by.

All that is about to change. Behind the Candelabra, a film about Liberace, has just had its world premiere in Cannes, where it was received with wild enthusiasm by festival-goers and critics alike. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it stars Michael Douglas as Liberace in the final years of his life, and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, a young man who became his lover and moved in with him for five years. It’s a candid, touching, funny portrait of a gay relationship. Ironically, Liberace’s identity as a gay man was something he tenaciously fought to keep secret.

Behind the Candelabra is smartly scripted and directed – though, as Liberace and Thorson's relationship sags, the film's pace does slightly, too. It picks up again for a poignant coda in 1987 when Liberace (who by then has Aids) summons Thorson to his deathbed. "With his gaunt face and wasted body, he looked like a scarecrow," Thorson remembered. Throughout the movie, Michael Douglas does a fabulous job of underpinning Liberace's artifice with vulnerability. In his last scene, he looks as heartbreakingly frail and faded as ET in the medical tent. What a shame that this film didn't get a theatrical release in the US. If it had, Douglas could be clearing his mantelpiece right now in anticipation of next year's best actor Oscar. Interestingly, according to Thorson, only two celebrities came to Liberace's funeral in Palm Springs: Dallas actor Charlene Tilton, and Michael Douglas's real-life dad, Kirk Douglas.

The flamboyant pianist is seen through the wide, adoring eyes of his long-term lover Scott Thorson (Damon) whose memoir the film is based on. Before meeting Liberace (Douglas) in 1977, he is fresh-faced and fairly innocent, to the point that he is reluctant to embrace his homosexuality. He calls himself bisexual, though as Liberace later comments, he's never been seen with any women. Evidently, it wasn't love at first sight with Liberace either. When brought backstage at a show in Vegas, Scott shifts nervously under the old man's gaze (there's a 40-year age gap) and he flinches at the prospect of being touched when Liberace contrives to have him share his bed. Soderbergh plays this situation brilliantly for comic effect and, crucially, without demonising his star.

Douglas is truly arresting as Liberace; complex yet childishly simple. He flounces around in fur and rhinestones, but behind all that - and the candelabra on his piano - he is clearly lonely and, in a way, a stranger to himself. He attempts to buy love when he offers Scott a job (and has him quit his veterinary career), but later on, he also tries to buy his silence. Liberace never came out publicly. The ups and downs of their relationship are both extreme and everyday. Control issues come to the fore, but they're made more pronounced by Liberace's spending power and the drama queen antics - though it's mostly Scott storming out of rooms in shiny knickers. If he got into this for the money, it's not the reason he stays. He grew up in foster care and, absurdly, Liberace offers to adopt him.

After Side Effects, supposedly his final work for the cinema, Steven Soderbergh has now apparently performed his post-swansong. Behind the Candelabra was commissioned for HBO television but is shown here in the Cannes festival competition as a standalone feature-length drama: a bizarre anti-Pinocchio parable in which the power of loneliness and toxic love transform a handsome young man into a deeply unhappy, plump-nosed, cleft-chinned latex doll. It's the true-life story of the flamboyant pianist Liberace and his young companion and chauffeur Scott Thorson, taking us from the couple's ecstatic first meeting backstage in Las Vegas in 1976 to Liberace's death from an Aids-related illness in 1987.

The film is mesmeric, riskily incorrect, outrageously watchable and simply outrageous. Unlike ITV's Vicious, which stars two famously gay actors, Behind the Candelabra does not offer any extra-textual liberal assurances in its casting. Michael Douglas is very funny as the great man himself, a primped and toupéed peacock of the ivories whose undoubted technical genius at the keyboard means he does not need to rehearse, and whose excess energy and artistry is channelled into chasing after young men. Matt Damon is Scott, the pert animal trainer and would-be veterinarian who wins Liberace's heart by artlessly offering to treat his blind poodle, Babyboy. Dan Aykroyd plays Liberace's glowering manager, Heller, and the recipient of his antisemitic wisecracks. ("No you can't come for dinner, we're having pork!") And Debbie Reynolds plays the only woman in Liberace's life, his elderly mother, Frances.

Passion. Possession. Infatuation. Betrayal. These are the hallmarks of any unhealthy and dramatic relationship. And despite the glitz and glam of Steven Soderbergh‘s Behind the Candelabra, none of these emotions feels fresh or surprising despite the talent of the lead actors and the colorful figure of Liberace. The strange relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is rendered inert by a dramatic trajectory that’s been laid out within the first ten minutes. The love affair isn’t doomed; it’s predictable. At best, Behind the Candelabra makes out love to be as shiny, entrancing, and as fake as Liberace’s public persona.

The story runs from 1977 to 1986. Liberace has been famous for decades, and “Mr. Showmanship” is one of the stars of Vegas as his skills as an entertainer, with his rhinestone-encrusted costumes and piano, dazzles audiences. Scott attends one of Liberace’s shows, is absolutely entranced by the performer, and is brought backstage by one of Liberace’s friends, Bob Black (Scott Bakula). Liberace quickly takes a shine to Scott, who has worked with animals on movies, and is able to restore sight to Liberace’s poodle. We then follow the intimacy and destruction of the couple’s relationship as Scott becomes jealous and turns to drug abuse while Liberace grows distant and begins looking for a younger model.

The relationship would hold some dramatic weight if its path wasn’t neatly laid out by Liberace’s relationship with Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), a handsome backup pianist who angrily sits in a corner when Scott meets Liberace. As he angrily chomps in the foreground, we know Billy has had the kind of relationship with Mr. Showmanship that Scott is about to have. And if it wasn’t clear enough, Liberace’s houseboy Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay) tells Scott point blank that he isn’t the first and won’t be the last. Scott is simply the latest plaything, and Soderbergh hopes that we’ll find something fascinating in Thorson’s relationship with Liberace.

To be sure, Liberace is an odd duck. Aside from the usual trappings of fame that can make one paranoid, insecure, and create a feeling of victimization, Liberace wants to be Scott’s entire world. The young animal trainer easily gives himself over to the Vegas entertainer because Scott is too naïve to realize that he’s become Liberace’s human pet. The relationship is made abundantly clear as he gives Scott the same nickname as the poodle, “Baby Boy.” This isn’t love. It’s ownership, and makes Scott a possession that’s destined to be discarded because he isn’t a “dumb animal.”

For his final film (for now, at least), Steven Soderbergh turns fairy godfather, granting liberace’s wish “to be a movie star”.

Laying bare the homosexuality he hid from public view, it’s hardly the red-carpet treatment the fiercely litigious pianist dreamt of. Nor is it the fantastically kitsch biopic that some anticipated. Rather, it’s a witty, classy study of relationships, sex and stardom.

It’s based on the memoir of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a teenage animal handler who’s taken backstage (ahem), at a Liberace concert. Wowed by the superstar (Michael Douglas), Scott soon becomes his live-in lover, and will do anything for love (but he won’t do that).

Following the wax and wane of the couple’s affair, the story doesn’t take too many unexpected twists. But when the man at the centre delivers it with such élan, it hardly matters.

It’s a deceptively complex role – Douglas is playing a gay man pretending to be a straight man performing a camp revue twice nightly in Vegas – and he modulates accordingly. His stage patter is brilliantly stilted, his offstage seductions significantly smoother.

The lack of vanity required to play such a vain man is remarkable; the 60-something liberace is secretly bald and paunchy, and so, here, is Douglas.

By contrast, despite an expertly sculpted torso, Damon’s part isn’t quite as meaty. Fortunately, Damon is a master at doing a lot with a little, often at his most watchable when being watchful. It’s a quality that serves him well here, and means he isn’t wholly upstaged by Douglas.

Both leads get an excellent assist from top-spec CGI, making the 42-year-old Damon’s cheeks peachy and rejuvenating/aging Douglas to startling effect.

Old-school tricks have their place too: a floppy wig hides Rob lowe’s Marlene Dietrich facelift, his taped-up features giving his plastic surgeon a gleefully sleazy squint.

US studios passed on the project, fearing a hard sell in the red states, but they needn’t have worried too much; Damon and Douglas don’t hold back, but the camera adopts a relatively coy stance (odd, given that full-frontal friendly HBO green-lit it).

If Steven Soderbergh is truly done with feature films we should be thankful he left us with three great films, one after another, before his departure. With Magic Mike, Side Effects and now Behind the Candelabra that's three films in a row that most directors could not achieve the likes of over the course of a career, let alone the rest of Soderbergh's oeuvre from Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Traffic.

Behind the Candelabra says as much about us as a society as it does about its two protagonists in a story that's surprisingly dark at times, just as it is emotionally rewarding, entertaining and even humorous.

Tracing events from 1977-1986, the story follows the life of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) as he goes from being a Hollywood animal handler to the dazzling lifestyle and palatial estate of famed Las Vegas entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas).

Growing up an orphan, moving from house to house, Scott is looking for someone he can depend on and he wants desperately to feel loved. When Liberace offers him the opportunity to live with him as his personal assistant he doesn't hesitate, knowing full well it's less a job than it is a ruse for the relationship that would eventually blossom and span five years, which is believed to be the longest, loving relationship Liberace ever had with anyone.

Conversely, Scott also fulfills Liberace's needs as a loving partner in a relationship he can successfully keep private under the guise of Scott being an employee and, at one point, even being confused for Liberace's son. Equally perverse and telling, the moment that summed up their relationship for me came as Liberace tells Scott he wants to be his "father, brother, lover and best friend." The idea of such a relationship is absurd, but the way the film treats it seriously and without false or mocking behavior makes it easier for the audience to relate, and enter the world rather than look at it as a curiosity.

Douglas and Damon are extraordinary. Douglas is charming, captivating, perverse and sad as a character whose image is everything and the desire to never grow old has him constantly searching for the Fountain of Youth, be it those around him or a plastic surgeon's knife. Damon, as Thorson, must first play the wide-eyed school boy and slowly transform into the paranoid lover, a role both men play to some great effect.

Soderbergh has surrounded his two leads with a strong supporting cast, the best of which include Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's manager Seymour Heller and the most entertaining being Rob Lowe as his plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz. Lowe's performance and character is a great example of how Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, adapting the story from the book written by Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, manage to tell both a touching and emotionally rewarding story, but also one that entertains.

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