‘Behind the Candelabra’ HBO, debuts May 26, 9 p.m. Multiple airings to follow
Scott dreams of becoming a veterinarian but quickly becomes content with his place in Liberace’s fascinating new world – hot tub romps, furs, a house beaming with opulence and servants.
Over the years their relationship deepens and takes some odd twists. Liberace sees himself on late night TV and shrieks at his appearance (“I look like my father in ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,’”) and opts for extensive plastic surgery. He also cajoles Scott into surgery as well, via Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe), wanting him to look more like a younger version of himself.
At one point Liberace tells Scott that he wants to be his entire family – his father, brother, lover, and best friend – and shares his plan to legally adopt Scott, who is currently in the hands of foster parents and responds enthusiastically to the idea of finding a true home.
Soderbegh shopped this film around to studios (who all passed) before he landed the project on HBO. (Ironically, “Candelabra” will be playing theatrically around the world after its Cannes debut this week). That he has gotten two A-listers in the central roles speaks to the reputation he has developed in the industry.
Both actors fully commit to the physical and emotional challenges and there’s a realness to the relationship Liberace develops with Scott, even when it gets trickier and more complicated.
Scott claims to be bisexual although he is never seen with a woman. He is something of a prude sexually, whereas Liberace has a robust sexual appetite. (Drenched in sweat after an evening encounter, Scott marvels at one point how Liberace can go at it four times in a day at his age.)
Yet the relationship does go sour, with Liberace embracing an open sexuality and Scott getting more dependent on drugs as he realizes his personal and professional lot is merely being Liberace’s latest boyfriend.
After a robust first hour the film gets a little heavy-handed with the eventual break-up and some melodramatic moments. Ultimately Thorson sues Liberace and the case makes the tabloids, although Liberace never admits to being gay. Yet the two do make peace of sorts before Liberace dies.
Even if they’ve taken some historic license, Soderbergh and scriptwriter Richard LaGravenese evoke the late ‘70s and ‘80s impressively. Just as astute as the period detail – the clothes, Liberace’s mansion, Scott’s goofy bangs — though, is the mood of the time.
Despite his outrageousness, Liberace kept his gay affairs private. Scott is utterly shocked in Las Vegas when a friend tells him no one knows Liberace is gay; the entertainer keeps a heterosexual appearance with beards such as figure skater Sonja Henie.
Around the time of their split, AIDS has become a national scare, and a newspaper article alludes to the death of Rock Hudson from the disease in 1985, shortly before Liberace dies of AIDS a year later.
Some of the supporting characters (Scott Bakula’s Bob Black and Cheyenne Jackson’s Billy, Liberace’s ex) don’t have much depth, but one who definitely does is Startz, played by Rob Lowe with a suede tan and a face that barely moves. It’s Lowe’s best work in years. Dan Akroyd and Debbie Reynolds are quite strong too, if almost unrecognizable, as Seymour Heller, Liberace’s manager, and Frances, Liberace’s mother.
Although Scott’s age is not specifically stated, Damon is way too old for the character, who would have been a teenager when he met Liberace for the first time. Yet Damon makes a convincing Thorson, especially as he deals with the later challenges the relationship brings and the inevitable jealously when Liberace turns his attention to a younger showboy.
Yet “Behind the Candelabra” is likely to be remembered most for Douglas, whose Liberace is far more than a caricature. Of course, the actor has his funny moments dealing with Liberace’s extravagance but he never condescends, taking the character and his world seriously.
In his private world, Liberace is unapologetic about who he is and what he wants. True, there is something a little disturbing about a man Liberace’s age preying after teenage boys, but in Douglas’s portrayal, the affection for the men in his life, particularly Scott, is never in question even when he (and others) realize that it will waver. Douglas’ Liberace is a man in love with love and life.
Soderbergh has claimed “Candelabra” is his last film as a director, shortly after this year’s “Side Effects.” It’s too early yet to tell how serious that declaration is, but if so he’s bidding adieu on a high note.
Top photo: ‘Behind the Caldlelabra’ stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon fully commit to the physical and emotional challenges that come with playing not-so-secret lovers Liberace and Scott Thorson. (Photos by Claudette Barius/HBO)