Hollywood studios refused to pay for Behind The Candelabra as despite the presence of Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s 11) and having a relatively low-budget, they thought it was too gay to become a success. They’re probably kicking themselves now as HBO stepped up to the pay for it and had a huge hit with it on US TV, while distributors in other countries took it to cinemas and saw healthy box office.
The studios even missed out on awards kudos, as the film recently won 11 Primetime Emmys. It probably would have had a shot at some Oscars, but the fact it debuted on American TV makes it ineligible.
The film follows the relationship between aging pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and the much younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Scott has had a difficult upbringing but when the young country boy meets the famous Liberace, he finds a mix between a father figure and lover. The two are soon inseparable, despite their age difference and Liberace’s insistence that his adoring public always believes that he’s straight.
The happiness can’t last though, as Scott’s increasing dependence on a variety of substances, as well as Liberace’s libido and obsession with pretty young things, starts to cause a rift. Early on Scott is told he’s just the latest in a long line of young men who’ve come through the palatial doors, but he lasts longer than most expect.
The basics of the story aren’t exactly new, but Behind The Candelabra manages to make it feel fresh and surprisingly funny. With a figure as outlandish as Liberace – with his camp manner, rhinestones, furs, OTT mansions and obsession with image – it would have been easy to make a film that presented him as a freak, with Scott turning into one too the longer he stays with the musician. However the movie never forgets that it’s about people – they are not the freakshow, they just live in one. Liberace himself is presented as a surprisingly innocent character, which is both one of his greatest strengths and his Achilles heel.
There’s an intimacy and rather sweet domesticity to the early stages of the relationship, where you can see why they would fall for one another despite their massive age difference (and it should be remembered that while Damon is 43, the real Scott met Liberace while he was in his teens). The film finds a large source of humour in the world these people live in and how while they basically want the same things as everyone else, how they think they’re going to achieve it has become warped by the money and sycophancy they’re surrounded by.
Scenes such as when the couple decide they need plastic surgery are far funnier than you might expect, largely because the reasoning is kind of sweet and somewhat understandable, while what they do is completely over the top. This section of the movie also benefits massively from Rob Lowe as a surgeon who’s screwed up his own face but still believes the knife and drugs are the way forward – he’s hilarious.
The script cleverly weaves together how fame, money, sexuality, upbringing and personal flaws come together to bring the couple happiness and to tear them apart. At times Scott and Liberace are their own worst enemies, while at others they both seem rather lost and as if they just need to open their eyes to see what they have.
It’s a movie that’s entertaining, funny and sometimes moving. It may also surprise some people that despite the fact Liberace lives in such an extreme and faintly ridiculous world, they’ll see a surprising amount of themselves in him – even if they won’t react to things in the quite same way that he does.
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon give excellent performances, giving their all to the roles. When some actors ‘play gay’, you can feel them winking at the camera to say they’re not really into guys, but Damon and Douglas treat the relationship they’re creating as very real and very complex. Like many of the better recent gay-themed movies, Behind The Candelabra is grown up enough to realise the characters’ sexuality informs who they are and how they act, but that they are more than just their gay-ness.
And if you’re a Matt Damon fan, you’ll be pleased to hear there are a few good butt shots of the star (see, my sexuality really does inform who I am)!
Let’s hope this shows Hollywood that it’s worth making gay-themed films and that they can be about gay people without it solely being about the fact they are gay. And as a result they can find commercial success.
Overall Verdict: A funny, sometimes moving and extremely entertaining movie. Behind The Candelabra is a film that remembers no matter how unusual someone’s life is, we’re all human underneath.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac