Behind the Candelabra

Fascinating/meandering
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Steven Soderburgh
Starring: 
Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe
The Setup: 
Biography of Scott Thorson's years with Liberace.
Discussion: 

So this is among the last of Steven Soderburgh's films, and it was seen as too gay for a theatrical release in the States, as it received in other countries, despite the presence of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It opens with the old HBO logo to start the 70s feel off right. We then meet Damon as Scott Thorson, who at the time was wrangling dogs on movie productions and hoping to become a veterinarian. He has a friend in Scott Bakula as Bob, who takes him to Las Vegas to see Liberace and go backstage to meet him. They are invited to brunch, where Scott is told to call Liberace "Lee," and meets his dogs, one of whom is sick. Scott says he can get medicine to help. In the background of all this is Lee's current boyfriend, who is obviously bitter and sick of hearing Lee's schtick. Soon after returning home, Scott is called by Lee and flown up by private jet to bring the medicine. Next thing you know, they're sharing a hot tub.

Lee asks Scott to work for him as his assistant. They sleep in the same bed, but Lee promises to "stay on his side," and Scott, supposedly mostly straight up to this point, flinches when Lee moves, thinking he might be coming on. But soon they are having sex, and Scott moves in as the previous boyfriend is moving out. Soon they are hanging out nude after having sex, and this is where one of the main content pieces of this film comes out: That it will portray their affair with frankness and without flinching from its gayness, or the difference in their ages, or their real intimacy with each other. Douglas and Damon also commit to their parts and there is no timidity of straight-guy reservation about them kissing or lying nude together, which makes the whole thing seem contemporary and strikingly new.

Soon Lee is buying Scott rings, cars, furs and suchlike, and appearing onstage in the role of his chauffeur, driving a Rolls Royce onstage and opening the door for Liberace, wearing a gold-studded driver's uniform. Lee's current house assistant is brusque with Scott, and tells him he's just the next in the long line of Lee's lovers. That assistant is fired. Lee says that he wants Scott to have plastic surgery to look like him, and there is talk of his wishing to make Scott appear to be his son. They take him to Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon, and did you ever thing you'd see the day where Rob Lowe would be among the best things about a movie? He appears as a creepy plastic surgery devotee, looking like Christine Baranski but with a face pulled tighter, and his skeezy appearance and performance make all of his appearances a highlight. He should totally get a spin-off series.

Scott has the surgery, and for the remainder of the film has these creepy boyish plump cheeks. Lee also has the next of his several face-lifts, and can no longer close his eyes fully. Lowe tells him this will "let him see everyone admiring how great he looks." The movie includes unsettling shots of him sleeping with eyes partially open. Soon Lee wants to legally adopt Scott as his son, so Scott will supposedly inherit Lee's wealth after he dies. Scott is taking diet pills prescribed by Lowe, and soon starts being more free with the taking of cocaine and other drugs. Before you know it, they're squabbling over whether Scott can go out (he can't) or whether Lee needs to be watching porn every time they have sex. Ah, relationships.

SPOILERS > > >
By 1981, they are bickering constantly. Scott has started stealing rings and such from Lee in order to pay for his drugs. They are almost always outlandishly dressed, and the camera continues to sweep around, taking in their insanely opulent surroundings, making that a big part of the content. Soon they're in the hot tub (as they often are) when Lee turns to Scott and says "I think our relationship is in a good place. So I think we should start seeing other people." Things don't get better from there. Lee is commonly heard to say "all I do is give and give and give." Before you know it, Lee has his eyes on a comely blond, and Scott is in the position of the first boyfriend, sitting and drinking bitterly at a distance.

Eventually Scott, all hopped up on drugs, is fired and evicted from the mansion. He sells his story to the National Enquirer. Forward to 1984, when Scott is working in a mailbox shop and suing Lee for what he sees as his due. He finds that the adoption and will mean nothing, and he is urged (by a very good Paul Reiser) to accept $75 thousand as "the best he'll get." By 1986, Lee is on his deathbed with AIDS, and he calls Scott to see him one last time. He tells Scott he loved him more than all the others. He dies, his condition reported as heart failure, as he tried to maintain publicly until the end that he was straight. The county won't accept the death certificate, and he is exhumed for an autopsy that concludes he died of AIDS. The film ends with Scott seeing a vision of Liberace on stage performing "The Impossible Dream" and floating up off stage.
< < < SPOILERS END

It's a Steven Soderburgh film, which means not much of a cohesive statement is made and it is interesting but meandering, and if you start to wonder what the point of it all was, you're left to just take what you can from it. Is it about the snares of fame? About the state of gayness in the late 70s and early 80s? About daddy-son gay relationships? About drugs? All of these things and finally none. Which is not to say it isn't engaging and worth watching, you just might get to the end and say "was there a point to all of that?"

What you do get is a very realistic, completely unapologetic view of a gay relationship, covered with complete frankness, and acted without a trace of self-consciousness. Both Douglas and Damon are fantastic, and neither step out of their roles for a moment, or betray a shred of irony. Douglas especially is amazing as he commits to the role with relish and is completely convincing, even as you sense he might be having the time of his life. Some of the elements you might suspect there'd be some tiptoeing around, like physical intimacy and kissing, or the verging-on-creepy daddy-son nature of their relationship, are just presented objectively. The other main content of the film is just to let the camera swing around and take in all of their outrageous surroundings and encounter all of these off-kilter characters, especially Rob Lowe, and Soderburgh, as usual, is content to just let them all pile up and create a portrait as they shake out, make of it what you will. Most people I know were quite enthusiastic that I should see it, yet no one thought it was ultimately that great a film or had much to say. Which is ultimately my reaction: if you're gay, or interested in fame, you should see it, although one might have hoped it would leave more than just an interesting impression.

Should you watch it: 

If it interests you and you like seeing good performances.