After premièring to acclaim at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh’s directorial swansong Behind the Candelabra (2013) arrives on a format that is, by and large, an offshoot of the medium it was made for. Turned down by every major mainstream filmmaking studio for simply being “too gay”, Soderbergh turned to a company that has become synonymous with the production of artistically liberating and critically lauded forms of entertainment: HBO, a cable service known for high class television and notable made-for-television movies. Marrying the director with such a reputable establishment bears predictably enjoyable fruit.
Behind the Candelabra is a biopic of virtuoso showman, pianist and entertainer Liberace, a man who, in the heights of his success, was the highest paid musician in the world. He lived a life of dexterous excess (powered by the mantra “too much of a good thing is wonderful”) that was safeguarded by a steady stream of high income, glamour and deep secrecy, surrounding himself with young men and suing anyone who alluded to his private homosexuality. The film begins in 1977 with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a teenage animal handler who, through a chance hook up at a gay bar, meets Liberace (an atypical, but no less superlative, Michael Douglas), who is instantly enamoured with his young and innocent new acquaintance.
Playing out over the ensuing five years, from their initial encounter to Liberace’s Aids-related death in 1987 when his secret was finally revealed to a strangely unsuspecting world, Soderbergh’s film – which is based on Thorson’s candid book of the same name – promptly goes behind the curtain and beyond the façade, charting the instant, affluent highs of Scott and Liberace’s complex relationship and the slowly escalating lows of its ruination. Scott, whose complicity with, and subsequent benefiting of, “Li’s” hold over him – which becomes subtly disturbing but nevertheless remains passionate – eventually becomes the victim of various physical and emotional manipulations and a reliance on damaging narcotics.
With an insatiable taste for fresher models, the famed performer’s desperation to continue to slurp from the fountain of youth, however artificial that fountain becomes, has damaging effects on those that fall for his instant charms and generous wealth. Though based on Thorson’s book, Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay is not an attack on Liberace mounted on Scott’s side, quite the contrary in fact; through Soderbergh’s characteristically (and impeccably) well judged and smooth approach, his final film is merely an observation of this most outré of relationships, one that shakily meets patriarchal devotion with carnal attraction (“I want to be everything to you Scott; father, brother, lover, best friend. Everything”).
There’s a refreshingly tasteful stance throughout, with Soderbergh proving that his technically efficient approach to filmmaking will be greatly missed. Equally impressive are Douglas and Damon, who approach two markedly different characters with a sincerity and restraint that, in another film, would have been drowned out by overtly gauche and clichéd surroundings. Behind the Candelabra is a deft and quite remarkable feat not merely because of its confluence of supreme talent, but because it proves that a maverick of the big screen can successfully forge a fortuitous relationship with the small. This, in itself, is a tell-tale sign of positive things to come in an industry where thinking outside the box is rarely a viable option.