Liberace was a larger-than-life pianist and entertainer whose love of excess and flamboyance was legendary. Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to capture the essence of the great showman begins towards the end of Liberace’s career in 1977 when he began an affair with Scott Thorson, whose 1988 memoir is the film’s principle source material. By focusing on the final decade of Liberace’s life through the eyes of a close companion, Soderbergh avoids any pretence of presenting a definitive portrait of the man. Instead we see Liberace the way Scott saw him – as a lover, a showman and as an aging man reflecting on his life and career, and starting to become vulnerable. More importantly we see what Scott loved about him and what Scott hated about him. The result is far more complex and engaging than traditional biopic approaches. However, Soderbergh’s real masterstroke is how well he takes the audience on the journey of initially finding Liberace’s world absurd and comedic, to ultimately feeling empathy for him.
Matt Damon portrays Scott as a curious mix of worldliness and naivety. He is introduced working as a dog wrangling assistant on a film set suggesting both an earthiness and an awareness of how the entertainment industry manufactures illusion. And yet, he is dazzled by Liberace’s mystique and personae, not noticing the evidence around him that he is not the first young man to be taken in by Liberace and unlikely to be the last. Scott is also clearly comfortable with his sexual preference for men and yet defensively claims to be bisexual (despite all evidence) and is astonished when told that the vast majority of Liberace’s mostly elderly fan base has no idea that their matinee idol is gay. Possessing both boyish charms and whimsy with the sexual desires of a grown man, Scott is an ideal conquest for Liberace who wants to be his ‘father, brother, lover and best friend’.
Liberace’s mystique and the impression he has on Scott is suggested when the audience shares the way Scott first sees in him concert. As Scott first enters the room where Liberace is performing, Liberace is just a shimmering figure in the background on the stage, his music filling the room. Every edit takes the camera closer and closer to Liberace until we finally see the man being played beautifully by Michael Douglas. And then Soderbergh and Douglas treat the audience to the Liberace experience of his astonishing piano skills, showmanship and banter with the audience. Intercut with shots of Scott’s delighted face, the sequence successfully communicates how seeing Liberace in concert is a transcendent experience for Scott.
When Scott visits Liberace in his changing room crosscutting medium close-ups are then used to convey a different set of expressions passing between the two men. Just as Peggy Cummins was instructed by Gun Crazy (1950) director Joseph H Lewis to look at her co-star like she was a dog on heat, Damon and Douglas appear to have received similar direction from Soderbergh. The sexually charged glances the pair exchange are just the beginning of an intense onscreen chemistry that both performers work with exceptionally well throughout the film to convey Scott and Liberace’s tumultuous relationship.
For a large portion of the film, Soderbergh keeps the audience feeling unsettled about the nature of the arrangement Liberace has with Scott. The beginning of the relationship is highly dubious with Scott staying the night under the pretence of convenience and then waking to discover Liberace being sexual with him. There are plenty of other episodes that raise doubts about the balance of power between the two men. Scott was both Liberace’s employee – later being incorporated into his performances – and his lover. Liberace wanted to adopt Scott as his son despite their sexual relationship and later in the film Scott struggles to explain why this was not a problem for him, suggesting that he never stopped to think about the situation either. Most alarming is Scott getting plastic surgery to look more like Liberace, evoking the actions of James Stewart’s obsessive lover character in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). Liberace is controlling and predatory, yet Scott is also framed as complicit and willing. Often this dynamic is played for laughs, which Soderbergh seems to do deliberately to make the audience feel uncomfortable.
The inevitable deterioration of the relationship is heavily signposted by the earlier scenes with Liberace’s former disgruntled lover/protégée Billy Leatherwood (played by Cheyenne Jackson and based on Vince Cardell), not to mention the overt reoccurring motif of Liberace’s home being full of dog shit from the many dogs he owns – the same dogs that first gave Liberace the excuse he needed to invite Scott to his home. As the pair, and by default the audience, start to examine the nature of their unconventional relationship, the black humour that stemmed from the grotesque materialism of Liberace’s world transforms into something more serious, which is when the film becomes most compelling.
Sexual conservatism and denial of human rights to same sex couples is brought into the discussion by the fact that despite living like a married couple, the pair are never legally or publically recognised as such, with Liberace always hiding his sexuality and Scott maintaining that he is bisexual. An addiction narrative is also introduced into the film where Scott’s addiction to dieting pills (supplied by the equally terrifying and hilarious Dr Jack Startz played by Rob Lowe) is contrasted to what could be interpreted as sex addiction for Liberace.
Most engaging is how the film represents the agonies of aging and later illness, and what that meant for Liberace. While his opulence and vanity are initially played for comedic effect, later scenes reveal how much appearance and showmanship meant to Liberace. His glamorous exterior and persona is exposed to be a lavish form of protection for a vulnerable man. Soderbergh takes the audience past the point of sniggering at Liberace’s excessive materialism to appreciate why appearance was so important to him.
The ability with which Soderbergh takes the film from uncomfortable comedy to a point of sincerity and poignancy is masterful. Certainly, without the journey from mocking to understanding that Soderbergh takes the audience on throughout the film, the end sequence would not have worked. However, in the context of what has come before it, Behind the Candelabra concludes in an extraordinarily touching and heartfelt way. It also provides a fitting resolution to a clearly difficult relationship that involved a complicated and larger-than-life person, and somebody who went from being star struck to somebody very bitter and hurt. Most satisfyingly, the films ends suggesting that beneath the glamour, excessiveness, cynicism, materialism, addiction and pain, there was a love story between two people who in their own way made each other happy and gave each other comfort for a period of time.