Appearances are everything in the glittering world of the Steven Soderbergh-directed Liberace biopic Behind the Candelebra.
From the extravagant multi-layered crystal-studded costumes that Liberace, masterfully played by Michael Douglas, wore at his twice nightly Las Vegas shows to the self-described “palatial kitsch” of his homes and apartments and even the plastic surgery that kept him superficially youthful (surgery which, by the way, was also forced on at least one of his lovers), Behind the Candelabra is informed at every turn by the star’s need to inhabit his larger than life glittery persona at all times.
This imperative to portray the approved image, a robustly heterosexual one in which acclaimed Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the purported love of his life, assumed almost gospel-like importance for the emotionally-fragile Liberace, who craved the adulation of everyone from his fans to an unending succession of young lovers and went to great lengths to ensure that both he and everyone close to him upheld the ideal that underpinned it all.
It was all the more important in an age where homosexuality had barely peeked out of the closet and where the mom and pop middle America fans who adored his over the top flamboyance would not be so forgiving of his dalliances with a succession of young strapping man with star complexes.
Based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who was involved in a five year romantic relationship with the star entertainer from 1977 when he was just 17 , the movie takes a surprisingly unflinchingly look at the demands that the upholding of this heteronormative ideal placed on both Liberace and Thorson whose relationship bore the brunt of a lifestyle sculpted for show rather than substance.
There is no doubt the two men cared deeply for one another but neither were able to provide what the other one truly needed, emotionally hobbled by childhoods that simply didn’t prepare them for the maturity needed in an adult relationship.
It’s here that the script by Richard LaGravenese and the subtle direction by Soderbergh truly shines, rendering neither man as truly bad; simply flawed creations of emotionally-deficient upbringings.
Liberace for his part, grew up the stern unyielding thumb of his mother, Frances (an almost unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds) whose love came at a price – his unstinting devotion to the piano playing and showmanship that would come to dominate not just his public life, but even his times behind the walls of his gated compound where even then he was still on show.
Watching the interaction between mother and son, it’s easy to see where Liberace’s manipulative relational style came from.
Everything came with a price, underlined most beautifully by a scene where his mother, playing a slot machine in his living room, suddenly hits the jackpot.
Rather than simply accept the token payout Liberace cobbles together from the spare change he, Scott and his maid have on hand, she sweetly but firmly demands a cheque for the amount she’s won, and her steely resolve leaves you in no doubt she will get her way.
It isn’t until Frances dies that Liberace feels he is “free at last”, admitting as much to a shocked Scott who expect his lover to be broken by his loss.
Unfortunately it’s too late to free Liberace from his inner demons – a need for new fresh young playthings, a libido which drove him to unsafe sex in adult bookstores (a lifestyle which ultimately killed him via AIDS in 1987) and a fierce drive to make everyone in his inner circle, most particularly Scott, bow to his every whim and demand (including forcing Scott to get plastic surgery to look just like him, a storyline which at least provided some much needed humour with Liberace’s plastic surgeon, the perpetually surprised Dr Jack Startz played by Rob Lowe stealing almost every scene he is in).
Scott, initially at least, comes across as a innocent abroad, a man to yet out of his teenage years and aiming to become a vet after a lifetime spent in foster homes – his most recent stint with Joe (Garrett M Brown) and Rose Carracappa (Jane Morris) is clearly the one where he feels at home – and in the care of neglectful mother with issues.
This lack of stable emotional engagement has left Scott vulnerable to the entreaties of faux father figures and he quickly falls for Liberace who offers him a job looking after his dogs along with all manner of other tasks, who soon becomes his lover declaring that he wants to be “father, brother, lover, everything” to his latest conquest.
Oblivious to the bitterness of Liberace’s lover before him, Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), he immerses himself in a world that promises everything he has ever lacked, most particularly the ever attentive love of a father figure, a role which Liberace, who claims to have always wanted children and even offers at one point to adopt Scott, inhabits with alacrity.
Unfortunately so desperate is Scott for unconditional fatherly love that he becomes resentful in reasonably quick order when Liberace begins to indulge his rampaging sex drive and need for fresh pretty young men.
He sublimates his sense of betrayal in drugs, alcohol, and half-baked attempts at a song writing career, ultimately falling prey to that which has claimed everyone else who draws close to Liberace – his overwhelming need to be in control at all times.
That real affection remains for Liberace, even after the lovers part ways and become embroiled in bitter protracted legal dealings over patrimony payments, is clear but Soderbergh, whose work has always taken a dim view of happily ever after love stories, strongly suggests that isn’t love so much as the temporary fulfillment of codependent needs.
This is not a tale of true, enduring love even if scriptwriter LaGravenese intended it that way.
It is more of a cautionary tale from Soderbergh about seeking what you need in all the wrong places (even if they appear to be perfect at first), of the dangers of excess in all its forms, and how even the purest of intentions (both Liberace’s and Thorson’s) can be corrupted by inner demons allowed to roam free.
Behind the Candelabra, though sumptuously appointed throughout reflecting the extravagence of the man it profiles, is a stark reminder that even love can fall victim to gaudy excess and untrammeled desire and that the most enticing of appearances can mask a darkness within.
It all comes down in the end to whether you are prepared to see it or not, something neither Liberace for all his success otherwise, or Thorson, could do, a blindness that ultimately doomed both them, and the relationship that, briefly and brightly, held them together.