I once visited the Liberace museum in Las Vegas – it was an extraordinary place, full of his costumes, ornate pianos and super-blinged up cars, and run by very old ladies. I suspect the building also housed 90% of the world’s rhinestones. It’s closed now, which is a real shame – though I think there are plans for a new one, and hopefully Behind the Candelabra will give this a bit of momentum, because there are glorious things in that museum that clamour to be let loose on the world, not locked away in boxes.
Soderbergh’s hugely enjoyable film was made for tv by HBO as the US thought it was too gay to finance as a feature, but happily it’s had a theatrical release in the UK so we get to enjoy the glitz, the glamour and the plastic surgery in full big screen glory. For a while it runs as a camp lookysee at Liberace’s exuberant lifestyle, which is worth the ticket price on its own. But it develops into the very touching tale of a likeable man who had everything except love.
It’s adapted from Scott Thorson’s book about his secret life as Liberace’s lover. Together for five years (from when Thorson was 17 and Liberace 57) there was undoubtedly much affection between the two, but raging insecurity and jealousy on both sides meant that Thorson’s time in the spotlight was always going to be limited, and his drug addiction didn’t help.
Liberace never seems to have been sure whether he wanted a son or a lover and his attempt to have Thorson remodelled into a younger version of himself was the ultimate vanity, though choosing a plastic surgeon who looked like he’d been stuck in a windtunnel for 20 years might not have been the wisest move (Rob Lowe has to be seen to be believed – and in a film full of fabulous performances he stole every scene he was in). Both men craved the love of a family: Thorson spent his childhood in care and Liberace was driven to succeed by a supremely pushy mother (Debbie Reynolds is superb too although completely unrecognisable) so neither of them had any reference points for a happy family life, and neither knew quite what to do when the opportunity presented itself. Liberace’s solution was to try to adopt his lover which raises all sorts of Operation Yewtree type questions these days.
Michael Douglas plays Liberace as if they were separated at birth, clearly relishing every minute and staying on the right side of parody. As his young lover, Matt Damon does young, dumb and full of you know what perfectly, giving Thorson just the right amount of naivety to let you sympathise with him when things go wrong, without feeling that he was entirely hard done to by a man who was endlessly chasing perfection. And probably put up with the drug taking and thieving much longer than he had to.
With costumes (and make-up) to die for and driven by a cast clearly having the time of their lives, this is not to be missed.