Worth the candle
Film Review: Behind The Candelabra (15A, general release, 118 minutes) 4 STARS
Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe.
It would be impossible to imagine a character like Liberace existing these days, but, back in the 1950s and 60s, he was one of America's biggest entertainers.
A former concert pianist with a gift for populism, he formulated an act based around "classical music with the boring bits left out", which involved him tinkling the ivories in absurdly blingy costumes accompanied by a small orchestra. He had an army of female fans and was referred to as one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors, but it turned out that Liberace wasn't a bachelor by accident.
Steven Soderbergh's witty, enjoyable and mainly sympathetic film is based on a memoir by Liberace's former lover, Scott Thorson, who was a naïve 17-year-old when he and the then 57-year-old artist first met. Thorson was one of a string of younger lovers Liberace acquired and later dispensed with, but he was probably the most serious. The pair were together for more than five years, and lived like husband and wife until Thorson discovered to his cost just how emotionally ruthless Liberace could be.
Behind the Candelabra has – no doubt deliberately – the tacky feel of a 1970s mini-series, and is entirely dominated by Michael Douglas's extraordinary and very brave portrayal of Walter 'Lee' Liberace. The pianist lives in a self-absorbed bubble, in a vast Las Vegas palace of kitsch that he invites the young Thorson (Matt Damon) to share. Liberace seems sweet to the point of sentimentality but is also profoundly controlling.
He talks of adopting Scott as his son, but this is merely a prelude to asking Thorson too undergo plastic surgery so that he and Liberace will look more alike. The excess and vulgarity of Liberace's lifestyle is tellingly evoked, and Douglas's portrayal is intelligent and commendably un-vain. And there's something tragic about Liberace's terror of exposure, and about that fact that had he lived just a few decades later, he and everyone around him might have had a much easier time of it.