LIBERACE always bowed down at the altar of excess.
No doubt the flamboyant entertainer would have approved of the bouffant hairstyles, outlandish fashions and gaudy decor - referred to as “palatial kitsch” - festooning Steven Soderbergh’s handsome biopic.
Based on the autobiography of Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson, Behind The Candelabra exposes the tormented showman behind the fur-lined and sequin-bedecked myth. Soderbergh’s film traces the men’s relationship from a fortuitous first meeting in 1977 to Liberace’s death bed in 1987, when the entertainer attempted to keep his HIV status secret from fans and the gutter press.
Richard LaGravenese’s script unfolds in chronological order, peppered with tart one-liners (“After cooking and sex, I think shopping is the reason to get up every day”), gifted largely to Michael Douglas as the fleet-fingered musician, who sued anyone that dared to suggest he was gay.
It’s a tour de force portrayal, far removed from the actor’s Oscar-winning skullduggery as Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, that would be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination had the film not been conceived for US cable television.
Behind The Candelabra opens in a gay bar where Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) meets choreographer Bob Black (Scott Bakula), who takes Scott to Las Vegas to enjoy a sold-out performance by Liberace (Douglas).
At Bob’s insistence, Scott abandons rural Wisconsin for the bright lights of the big city, where he is taken under Liberace’s wing and encouraged to explore his sexuality.
“I want to be everything to you, Scott: father, brother, lover, best friend. Everything!” the pianist squeals.
The relationship deepens and Liberace incorporates Scott into his act as an on-stage chauffeur and assistant.
Bizarrely, the pianist pays plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) vast sums to mould his lover into a younger version of himself. The pressures of fame weigh heavily on Scott and the relationship flounders, causing Liberace to quip cattily: “I can’t stand it when you have a face like that, especially after all the money I paid for it.”
Echoing the sentiments of Liberace (“I love to give people a good time”), Behind The Candelabra trades biting wit, romance and heartbreak to lay bare the emotional bonds between Scott and his famous partner.
Damon has the less showy and more difficult role and he rises to the occasion magnificently, barely puckering his glossed lips when Liberace glimpses himself on the The Johnny Carson Show and caterwauls: “Oh my Christ, I look like my father. In drag!”
The white hot glow of Douglas’s performance distracts from the sluggish pacing of the film’s final third and the broad sketching of peripheral characters.
However, the glitz and glamour are intoxicating and Soderbergh’s film swishes tantalisingly close to Liberace’s favourite and over-used superlative: “Fabulous!”
My rating 8/10
Behind The Candelabra is now showing at Empire Cinema, Robin Park, Wigan - book your tickets on 08714 714 714