BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA
Behind The Candleabra
Fearing the homosexual subject matter may not appeal to a mainstream audience despite being about the world’s highest entertainer in the nineteen fifties, Liberace, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candleabra was unable to secure a cinema release in the United States and instead aired on the HBO television channel. Fortunately outside the States and with a notable acclaimed showing at Cannes, Europeans are proving themselves to be a more receptive audience and yesterday the film hit British cinemas.
Featuring three amazing performance, each worthy of Oscar nominations at its core, from Michael Douglas as the famous pianist Liberace-christened Wladziu Valentino Liberace and known simply as ‘Lee’- Matt Damon as his lover Scott Thorson and Rob Lowe as the creepy plastic surgeon with the immobile face, Dr. Jack Startz.
Based on the exposé written after Liberace’s death from complications arising due to the Aids virus in 1987 by his former lover and ‘employee’ Scott Thorson it focuses on the rise and decline of their relationship. Beginning in 1977-the film opens to the strains of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ surely as much a sign of the future as much as Liberace was a remnant of the past- when the couple assumed their relationship. Thorson was 17 at the time Damon playing him, although in rude health, is a less sprightly 42 thus not playing up the forty year age difference quite as obviously as could be expected. Rather than this the film unexpectedly turns out, despite Thorson’s opportunistic nature and Liberace’s controlling, egotistical and manipulative tendencies as a rather tender love story which sours.
After a couple of years of bliss things start to derail when Lee sees himself on TV and realises the ageing process has left him looking ravaged and seeks the services of top Hollywood surgeon Startz- a suitably and almost unrecognisably creepy Rob Lowe- to give him back his youth. At the same time he decides in an unbelievably conceited move to have Scott remodelled into a younger version of himself and this is when problems set in as part of the process is a Hollywood diet to lose weight fast: cocaine and amphetamines all washed down with a river of alcohol.
Inevitably addictions follow as Scott’s drug use escalates and Lee’s penchant for younger men- Thorson was barely out of his teens when he was required to have surgery to look more youthful-also apparently an addiction reveals a roving eye and a wish for a new fresher faced model.
This leads to a break up wherein everything Scott has been promised is removed ungraciously and he finds himself homeless, virtually friendless and, with an escalating drug habit, also in financial straits after a relatively paltry payoff of $75,000.
Like a true lover scorned Scott them reveals Liberace’s proclivities to the press in an act of revenge and a desire to tarnish the unbelievably still pristine reputation. All is not well in Lee’s world however and a final emotional re-uniting on his death bed- Douglas at this juncture as the ailing star in the final stages of Aids is unrecognisable as himself- and it is an emotionally telling scene with the tenderness which had previously existed flickers into view briefly. Not before one last typical drama though.
In a last ditch attempt to conceal his sexual nature and cause of death his body has to be hijacked on its way to the morgue as a false autopsy report was delivered and suspicions are aroused. This made global news at the time and in a world still reeling and not fully understanding the nature of the illness it was a sad state of affairs for a man who had done everything to conceal his true self and whose reputation was forever blighted.
It is hard to imagine in today’s tell all society that such a secret surrounding such a monumental star could remain so for such a long time but, in truth, how much has really changed. There are few Hollywood A-List stars who have come out as gay- at least not while their careers are in the ascendant- neither are their many premiership footballers or other notable sports figures ,so perhaps the stigma attached to homosexuality still persists even in our more understanding society no matter how enlightened it believes itself to be.
Behind The Candleabra however is an extremely brave piece of filmmaking which chips away at the gaudy and glitzy façade to reveal the vulnerability, insecurity and precariousness of the relationship at its core At times the pace does flag and it is overly long but throughout the performance are outstanding and this is what really carries the film to a higher level and makes it so worthwhile.