Having announced his retirement from directing, Academy award winner Steven Soderbergh has managed to cheat his announcement by producing a made-for-TV film based on the life of Liberace: Behind the Candelabra. Released in cinemas outside of the US, this biopic examines the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his young chauffeur Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
World-renowned Las Vegas showman Liberace befriends a young Thorson and moves him into his palatial mansion. Initially a little sceptical, he finds himself wowed by the entertainer until their lives become surrounded by co-dependency and neuroses. Eventually the passing of time leads them toward Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) and some drastic plastic surgery.
What Soderbergh is able to achieve in Behind the Candelabra is nothing sort of sensational. Initially we are treated to a look at the flamboyant lives of the rich and famous, who spend their lives wrapped in opulence and grandeur. But as the cracks start to appear, he deftly keeps the action contained to the mansion, creating a claustrophobic feeling and allowing the two leads to spark off each others performances, and what performances they are.
Michael Douglas, perhaps not the obvious choice to play Liberace, is primped and coiffured within an inch of his life, and while his performance may seem over the top, old footage of the man himself suggests that Douglas may be underplaying it somewhat with nuance and in the latter stages a surprising amount of sentimentality. Damon meanwhile continues to show his incredible depth in his central role of the anti-Pinnochio, a man who slowly becomes more and more plastic as the youthful good looks disappear. It’s a tragic reminder to the audience of the dangers of plastic surgery.
Everything in Behind the Candelabra is dressed up and laced with gold leaf and marble. Yet Soderbergh is able to create a vacuous sense of nothing, perhaps as a reminder to his audience that when tragedy strikes it’s not the possessions that support us, but rather those we hold dear. As cautionary tales go this has to be the glitziest and most glamorous. It’s wry, witty, acerbic, tragic, engaging and reverentially sentimental and is underpinned by two incredible performances. Behind the Candelabra also proves that Soderbergh’s decision to retire may have been premature and if we’re lucky, there’s plenty more to come from the director.