This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
Before watching Steven Soderbergh’s recent directorial piece, all I knew about the late Władziu “Walter” Valentino Liberace was confined to reports of his ostentatious lifestyle and passing references on “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”. The 2013 biopic and HBO original ended up offering a lot more insight into the man who was both a genius and a destructive force to one of his last, yet his most famous ex-lover, Scott Thorson. “Behind the Candelabra” boasted lavish scenes rich in colour and spirit during his 118-minute run, yet maintains a darkly powerful undertone which reminds the viewer that not all that glitters is gold.
The film opens in 1977, with a teenaged Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon) in a noisy, seductively-lit club. Across the island bar table is a man (played by a barely recognisable Scott Bakula) who had been staring at him from a distance. The latter makes the approach, and introduces himself as “Bob”. The true nature of their relationship is masked with a great degree of nebulosity in the duration of the film, but Bob Black remains consistent in Scott’s life.
With a life-long ambition to become a veterinarian, Scott works as an animal trainer on film sets. He has also maintained a steady, yet warm home life with his well-intentioned yet concerned foster parents, Joe and Rose Carracappa (played by Garrett M. Brown and Jane Morris, respectively). They are aware of Bob’s numerous connections with the show business industry, and do not seem to express any reservations when Scott drives off with him to see a show. There, Scott sees Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) for the first time. He finds himself entertained by his stage presence, and impressed by his piano playing. Bob takes Scott backstage after the performance to introduce him to the star, who immediately takes a liking to Scott’s youth and solid build, despite the jealous soon-to-be-ex-protégé, Billy Leatherwood (played by Cheyenne Jackson), having a meal within earshot. Shortly after, Liberace invites the two to his palatial home. An instinctual comment about Liberace’s partially-sighted poodle, Baby Boy, punctuates the latter’s interest, and he then conducts a private home tour to disarm the young boy. After a couple moves to make Scott comfortable, Liberace offers him an assistant job and introduces him to his personal manager, Seymour Heller (played by Dan Aykroyd) but as the chemistry between them becomes more apparently, they both knew that it was going to be more than just a contractual, professional relationship.
Scott moves in, and things quickly heat up between he and his older lover, who he know calls “Lee”. Between accented interludes of food, shopping, and sex, Lee demonstrates his trust in Scott by confiding his innermost secrets to him. One of his most intimate divulgences is one about religion, and how, as a gay man, he is able to maintain faith in an institution notorious for its long-held homophobia. Lee had barely escaped with his life when exhaustion combined with being poisoned by his own clothing landed him in the hospital. However, during his convalescence, events that led to his recovery had convinced him that God loves him exactly for who he is. Who knows if there a political motive behind it, but if anything, it is my favourite scene.
The abundance of wealth, material goods, and copious amounts of exposure soon come within reach of Scott. Lee lavishes Scott with countless gifts, while continuing to have him work. However, his dark side emerges after his vanity forces himself to get rid of the visible wrinkles he sees on a live broadcast of one of his television appearances, and he asks his plastic surgeon, the blinky Dr. Jack Startz (played by Rob Lowe), to make a couple adjustments on Scott. The intention is to create a younger version of himself through his adonis, and eventually adopt Scott as his own son. As loving as the gesture appears to Lee himself, it sheds light into the controlling and manipulative nature of Lee. Frustrated, Scott becomes increasingly dependent on drugs, mostly to shield himself from the reality of his other half’s addiction to adult films, but the increasing promiscuity with younger men, and the gradual dissolution of their relationship upon the arrival of the vibrant Cary James (played by Boyd Holbrook) would be the wedge that would eventually drive the men apart.
While I didn’t completely enjoy it, there should be an emphasis that there is a difference between that and the fact that it was an excellent film. “Behind the Candelabra” is, in short, heavy, and borderline overwhelming. But, perhaps, that’s the point. I think my sympathies immediately gravitated towards Scott Thorson from the very beginning, even after reading about his proclivities towards a life of crime in the years following Walter Liberace’s death. Yet, I also found myself wondering how someone as young as he could have such a depth of understanding of the plights of a man almost five decades older. Nevertheless, the top-tier acting tied the entire production together beautifully.
The casting choice is a well-thought-out combination of accurate physical resemblance and strength of talent. Those flanking the credits were names attached to faces with distinct features, what with veteran actor Michael Douglas as Liberace, the piercing features and versatile talent of Matt Damon as Thorson (whose character only managed to have good hair in the last twenty minutes of the film), the timeless and seemingly omnipresent Scott Bakula as Black, the accessible badassery of Dan Aykroyd as Heller, and the chiseled Rob Lowe as Dr. Startz for, well… just look at the guy! It is just unfortunate that all but Thorson have since died, and due to his current incarceration, none are able to witness the unveiling of this superb piece. Hopefully, one day, he does.