Despite featuring Hollywood heavyweights Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra, just released in UK cinemas, was deemed 'too much' for release in US theatres. It premiered on pay cable channel HBO at the end of May, where it is still showing.
Director Steven Soderbergh came up with the idea for the film in 2000, which is based on Scott Thorson's 1988 memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace. Douglas and Damon signed on in 2008 as Liberace and Thorson, respectively. But as no Hollywood studio wanted to finance it, it was picked up by HBO and shot on a budget of $23 million over thirty days in 2012.
The film is not a complete biography of both of them, but focuses more on Thorson's relationship with Liberace. It was a secret relationship, as Liberace tried to pass himself off as straight to keep up his appeal with his legion of female fans. It was not until after their relationship ended (1982) that Scott sued Liberace, filing a $113 million palimony lawsuit against him. They settled out of court for a measly $75,000.
Liberace died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 67, after reconciling with Thorson earlier that year. Liberace's doctor said his death was caused by heart disease, though later, the Riverside, California coroner stated there had been a deliberate attempt to hide the actual cause of death, and it was ruled that the star died due to complications of AIDS. In life and even in death, Liberace did not want to make it known that he was gay.
Michael Douglas plays Liberace to perfection, with the flamboyance and flair of the man himself. And Damon is perfect as Thorston, with blonde hair, a handsome face, a muscular body, and a touch of youthful innocence.
Behind the Candelabra starts out as we see Thorson, living with his adopted parents in California, going to see Liberace perform in Las Vegas with a mutual friend, Hollywood producer Bob Black (Scott Bakula). Going backstage after the show, Thorson is introduced to Liberace, who immediately takes a liking to the young man. Liberace invites Thorson over to his opulent and luxurious home, inhabited by a soon-to-be former live-in lover, a few maids, a few dogs, and a very effeminate male servant wearing tight white jeans, who offers Thorson pigs in a blanket while holding the tray near his crotch.
Liberace's interest peaks even more when Thorson tells him that he likes to be around animals and wants to be a veterinarian. One of Liberace's dogs is sick, so Thorson offers to get some medication that will cure the dog. And this kicks off their relationship. Soon enough, Liberace asks Thorson to move in with him, to become his right hand man, companion, chauffeur, stage hand, and most importantly, lover.
During their tumultuous six-year relationship (1977-1983), Liberace has Thorson undergo plastic surgery so he looks more like him, and goes under the knife himself so he looks younger. (Rob Lowe plays the plasticky plastic surgeon in a performance you will likely not forget!). He also has Thorson appearing with him on stage, as well as selling souvenirs to the fans. Being with one of the world's leading entertainers and living the millionaire lifestyle of expensive clothes, flashy jewelry, while realizing that Liberace still has an eye for the cute, younger boys, causes Thorson to turn to drugs. His dependence on cocaine and erratic behaviour helps bring on the end of their relationship.
If it weren't for Douglas' and Damon's performances, this film could have wound up as just another film for a gay audience. But they both completely pull off their roles, especially Douglas, who has experience playing a gay man (he was in an episode of Will & Grace where he played a gay cop who takes a liking to Will). Douglas is Liberace, right down to his lisp, his facial expressions, his on stage presence, and his eyes. His whole demeanor is Liberace.
And indeed, Douglas and Damon do kiss each other in this film, many times, and they have several scenes where both are in bed before and after a sex session, and they have quite a few naked hot tub sessions as well. (Luckily we don't get to see Douglas's arse, but are gifted with a few scenes of seeing Damon naked from behind.) A very sharp, not-too-serious, and semi-dramatic by screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, with surprise appearances by Debbie Reynolds as Liberace's mother and Dan Ackroyd as his manager, round out an exceptionally good film.
As Liberace says in the film, "I love to give people a good time."
Appropriately, Behind the Candelabra is a good time.