Behind the Candelabra

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA.Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, and Debbie Reynolds. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong themes and sex scenes). 119 min.

This American drama film is about the last ten years in the life of pianist, Liberace, and the affair he had with Scott Thorson. The film is based on Thorson’s personal memoir, “Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace”, published in 1988.

Bisexual Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), worked as an animal trainer, when his current partner, Hollywood producer, Bob Black (Scott Bakula), introduced him to Liberace (Michael Douglas), the legendary pianist. Liberace was attracted immediately to the younger man. Impervious to a trail of rejected personal assistants, Liberace hires Scott and they embark on an intimate affair that lasted for five years. As their relationship continued, Scott realises that Liberace is trying to mould him into a younger version of himself, even to the point of wanting to transform him facially with the help of a drug-crazed plastic surgeon (Rob Lowe). Scott rebels, and retreats into drugs, and his relationship with Liberace is affected. As arguments between them increase, Liberace’s promiscuity destroys what is left of his relationship with Scott, and he throws Scott out. Later, dying of Aids, Liberace asks Scott to come to his bedside where they affirm their attachment to each other. The film concludes with Scott attending Liberace’s funeral, and imagining that Liberace is playing his piano one last time.

Debbie Reynolds has a cameo role as Liberace’s elderly Polish mother, Frances, who prefers not to think too much about the kind of person her son has become. And a sentimental musical score suitably enhances the film’s overall mood.

It is hard to reconcile Michael Douglas’s aggressive heterosexual persona in “Fatal Attraction” (1987) with his role here as the extravagantly gay, homosexual pianist. Douglas’s performance as Liberace is outstanding, as is Damon’s performance as Liberace’s lover. The impact of the movie is reinforced by the flamboyant set designs and flowing costumes used to bolster Liberace’s image as a musical showman. Douglas plays Liberace to the hilt, and the performances of both he and Damon are thoroughly attention-getting. Liberace says in a controlling way that he loves Scott as a “father, brother, lover and best friend”, but turns Scott aside when his sexual appetite moves him to other men. Scott is confused and bewildered by all that is happening. Totally accepting of the world around him, he enjoys the attentions of Liberace, but reacts with anger when time has run his relationship out.

The movie is thoughtful, but curiously detached. It is a film about intense physical attraction that is provocative, but relatively passionless, and Soderbergh explores the reality of Liberace’s life, as well as its unnaturalness, with a very steady hand. However, he creates for the viewer a bizarre world of opulence in which two troubled people co-exist. Scott and Liberace experience the difficulty of forging a lasting relationship together, and struggle with their personal search for love and acceptance. Both face issues of attraction and rejection, and experience the stresses of fading youth and the onset of age. The film is about facing consequences that people create for themselves, but it stays cautiously away from presenting Liberace and Scott as individuals, who live and breathe their privileged existence in a totally natural way.

The film contrasts effectively the fashionable world of on-stage performers with the flaws and imperfections of the people who step off the stage to inhabit life. Acknowledging the film’s brilliant team of make-up stylists, the facial transformations of Liberace and Scott as the years go by are amazing. Liberace never fails to look as if he comes alive as a great performer in the lights behind the candelabra on his piano.

This is a stylish, entertaining, film about celebrity loneliness. Its sexual scenes are not very explicit, though the message is never lost about the physical side of the relationship that existed between Scott and Liberace. Beneath the hedonistic life-styles, which the film dramatically projects perhaps too glamorously, Soderbergh depicts two vulnerable people, who have tried unsuccessfully to belong to each other.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Roadshow Films.

Out July 25th 2013.

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