The prospect of doing a film based on flamboyant performer Liberace is fraught with booby traps, and frankly, when I heard that HBO had scheduled Behind the Candelabra for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend – when many channels schedule repeats and other less-than-stellar programming – I started to fear that this high-profile project starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as, respectively, the bedazzled piano man and his most well-known companion, Scott Thorson, was going to be a misbegotten same-sex remake of Mommy Dearest, with sequins.
Not to worry. Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and his screenwriter, former Oscar nominee Richard LaGravanese (The Fisher King), have delivered a film that embraces its inevitable camp elements while never losing sight of the humanity of its principal characters.
It certainly helps that the production, which would fit comfortably on any movie house screen, seems to be staggeringly authentic in its physical details. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick reconceived many of Liberace’s onstage ensembles, which were as remarkable for their weight as their glitz, to be more camera-friendly and wearable for Douglas, but beyond that, there seems to be little if any fudging. Soderbergh filmed in Liberace’s actual Los Angeles penthouse (redecorated in period detail for the film), and the musician’s matching pianos, separated after Liberace’s death, were reunited on the stage of the Las Vegas Hilton, where the current audience seating area was gutted and “re-remodeled” to look exactly as it did while Liberace played there. The silver Rolls-Royce Landau that Thorson drives onstage during one scene is the actual vehicle Liberace incorporated night after night in his Las Vegas act. And the list goes on.
But all those cosmetic details would have counted for little without the presence of Douglas and Damon, who are a remarkable double act. I’ll go on record right now and say that if Douglas doesn’t win an Emmy for his performance I will be stunned, but Damon is just as good, and has the good sense to know when to defer to his colleague.
The film opens in 1977, when the teenage Scott, an aspiring veterinarian, is picked up in a gay bar by handsome choreographer Bob Black (Scott Bakula). While it’s never spelled out, the implication is that Bob is informally pimping for Liberace, because very soon he’s spiriting Scott away to Las Vegas, where the pianist is playing the Las Vegas Hilton.
After the show, Bob takes Scott backstage to meet the performer, but the atmosphere in the room in tense: Liberace’s current “protégé” Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson) fumes and rolls his eyes as Liberace works his charms on Scott. We can tell this is a scene that has played out many times before. And we also know it’s going to play out again before the movie is over.
Liberace – or Lee, as he calls himself to his intimates – and Scott initially bond over the pianist’s cherished dogs, but it’s not long before Liberace, nearly 40 years Scott’s senior, mounts a full-court seduction of Scott, while throwing Billy out of his mansion. It’s a collision of two worlds. Liberace, in his late 50s, is a devout Catholic and world-famous celebrity who is independently wealthy and keeps his adoring and very conservative older fans happy with elaborately spun fictions about how he never has found the right woman, but currently pines for Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie.
“People only see what they want to see,” he’ll later tell Scott, and he counts on that.
Scott, by contrast, is naïve in many respects, having been raised largely by two affectionate foster parents on a Southern California ranch, but once Liberace offers him a job as his new companion, Scott jumps at the chance, telling his protesting guardians that he knows exactly what he’s getting into. He also seems to have very few hang-ups about his sexuality, and as time passes he will struggle to understand why Liberace insists on keeping him sequestered away from the public.
As expected, Liberace showers Scott with extensive bling and a fancy wardrobe, but as recompense, he wants to control Scott. “I want to be everything to you,” Liberace says. “Father, brother, lover, best friend.”
That creepy combo platter takes an even weirder turn after Liberace catches himself on a 1979 telecast of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and is horrified by how old he looks (“I look like my father in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte!“ he shrieks to Scott). He immediately books an appointment with celebrity plastic surgeon Jack Startz (a hilariously mummified Rob Lowe), then drops a bombshell: He also wants the doc to remake Scott’s face to resemble Liberace’s.
It’s Startz who starts Scott on a life-threatening combination of drugs – sorry, “vitamins and natural energy boosters” – that sends the formerly clean-living Midwesterner on a downward spiral, while his controlling partner indulges his libido via porn and promiscuity, leading to a devastating moment when Scott, waiting to make his entrance during one of Liberace’s Las Vegas shows, sees his obvious successor – a handsome young member of The Young Americans – literally waiting in the wings.
The cast also includes a completely unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds in a delightful turn as Frances Liberace, the performer’s Polish mother, and Dan Aykroyd as Seymour Heller, Liberace’s very protective manager. They’re both splendid, but make no mistake, it’s Douglas and Damon who elevate Behind the Candelabra to truly memorable status under Soderbergh’s assured direction. You may start out laughing at this dysfunctional relationship, but you’ll just as likely get a lump in your throat watching the scene near the end where the AIDS-stricken Liberace summons Scott, now banished from his home, to his bedside to make sure he’s still healthy.