Published Oct 24, 2013Though Behind the Candelabra, Stephen Soderbergh's biopic about the love affair between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and younger pretty boy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), is a linear, ostensibly traditional narrative, it's also exceedingly politically conscious. Acknowledging, but not dwelling upon, the fight for legalizing gay marriage in the U.S., this story is also one of economic critique.
Scott (a small town boy living with foster parents) has minimal future prospects until a chance meeting with Liberace — while visiting Las Vegas with his dancer friend, Bob Black (Scott Bakula) — lands him in a mansion, living with the famed pianist as his (not so) secret lover. He's immediately thrust into a world of designer clothes, superfluous jewellery and complete excess (food, relaxation, whim travel, etc.), acting as a dress-up doll and sex toy for a man with more wealth than he can reasonably manage or conceive of.
Their relationship has an implicit imbalance that stems from generational, social and economic divides, which, in its own way, fulfills their respective needs for ego-based and parental validation. It forces Liberace to assume the control he requires, while Scott indulges in submission. But surrounding the establishment of relationship dynamics and the gradual escalation of these unsustainable attributes to an eventual boil, Soderbergh and the entire art direction, costume and design teams have created an immersive universe, authentically depicting the visual and vernacular feeling of late '70s Vegas.
Excessive gauche decor, self-portraits, bombastic colour schemes and a multitude of modernist art pieces line every room of Liberace's home, while his outfits — those that he become known for during his 40 years on the stage and screen — are packed with aesthetic minutiae at every seam. Since both actors slide into their roles with eerie, initially startling acuity, turning in some of the greatest work of their careers, there's a sense of overall authenticity that inspires partial awe.
Strangely, but cleverly, this technical acumen and sense of aesthetic perfection mirror the basic gnawing conflict at the heart of the film. Liberace, a man living his life surrounded by mirrors and self-portraits, running to the plastic surgeon to battle the inevitability of aging, slowly pushes Scott beyond the point of reason. After finding a morally ambiguous method of helping him lose weight, Liberace convinces his boy to get plastic surgery to more closely resemble his sugar daddy. Beyond the astounding sense of vanity associated with that request, the creepy, incestuous implications and exaggerated role-playing lining its psychology loom in the margins of the film.
It also speaks to the nature of capitalist folly. Without any boundaries, Liberace was placed in a position of ultimate power, able to make love a proprietary act. Scott, indulging in every reckless whim of his love and obeying his rules, has the added stress of making his owner happy, which, when mixed with recreational drug use, has a compounding negative effect that leaves Liberace feeling it might be time to trade in his play-toy for a newer, lower maintenance model.
Money, for all of the tacky, occasionally laughable indulgence it affords this affair, is ultimately everyone's undoing. In acclimatizing himself to the lifestyle Liberace affords him, Scott renders himself powerless to the needs of economic viability. Though it's not the freshest message within the lexicon of greed-concerned cinema of late, it's an interesting way to position a mostly standard and straightforward biopic about the life of a conflicted celebrity, one forced to live his extravagant life in external denial, perpetually fighting potential media leaks about his sexual preference.
The Blu-Ray includes only a brief, exceedingly superficial "Making of," which talks a great deal about Liberace as a showman preceding people like Elton John and Lady Gaga. It's an oddly on-the-nose observation that doesn't have much to do with the actual movie. (HBO)