Behind the Candelabra

A macabre Hollywood love story in the tradition of Sunset Boulevard.

Matt Damon and Michael Douglas in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra"

Matt Damon and Michael Douglas in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

Photo by Claudette Barius/HBO

After you’ve seen Behind the Candelabra, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special.

I wish I could summon up Simon Doonan’s enthusiasm for Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s HBO biopic about the affair between the uber-fabulous pop pianist Liberace and his 40-years-younger lover and houseboy, Scott Thorson. (Hell, I’d be happy to summon up Simon Doonan levels of enthusiasm for anything.) While the lead performances are exceptional and the décor and costumes to die for, for me Behind the Candelabra never lived up to the promise displayed in its first half. This seductively opulent movie—much of it filmed inside Liberace’s actual mansion, with the showman’s glitzy original furnishings painstakingly recreated—invites us in with a grand wave of its ermine sleeve, then leaves us trapped in the mansion without quite enough to do.

Of course, that’s more or less exactly how Liberace (Michael Douglas) treats Scott (Matt Damon), a young hunk who, when they meet backstage at one of Liberace’s Las Vegas shows, is working as an animal trainer for the movies and living with his foster parents (Jane Morris and Garrett M. Brown), after a troubled childhood bouncing from home to home. (The movie blurs Scott’s age a bit; in real life he was a less-than-legal 17 when he and Liberace met, but even this movie’s superb makeup team can’t make the 42-year-old Damon look much younger than his early 20s). Scott and “Lee” (as Liberace is known to his hermetic inner circle of mainly paid employees) begin a five-year relationship that’s a disturbing mix of the sexual, the professional, and the parental. (“I want to be your father, brother, lover, and best friend,” Lee murmurs to his beloved in one particularly smothering pillow-talk session.) In addition to putting Scott on the payroll as a personal assistant, Lee outfits him in a rhinestone-encrusted chauffeur’s costume and has him drive onstage every night in a Rolls Royce. The two of them sip Champagne together in a bubble bath and go on extravagant shopping sprees for matching floor-length fur coats. When he’s going under the knife for a spruce-up face-lift, Lee insists that Scott get some face work done as well—in order to look more like the young Liberace. For some of us, this might be a red flag in a relationship, but Scott sticks around the mansion, being ritually humiliated by the staff and eventually developing an addiction to the “diet pills” pushed on him by Lee’s louche, perpetually drunk plastic surgeon (hilariously played by a scenery-munching Rob Lowe, whose scarily snug facial skin I can only pray is the work of the aforementioned canny makeup team).

Lowe’s grotesque comic turn aside, most of Behind the Candelabra isn’t played for camp at all. Though Michael Douglas’ Liberace is as swishy as they come, he never comes off as a tragic drag-queen stereotype; he’s nobody’s victim. If anything, the movie playfully affirms the pleasure Lee takes in material and sexual excess: “Too much of a good thing … is wonderful,” he coyly tells a rapt audience in the closing fantasy sequence, and Soderbergh seems to agree. Even Liberace’s status as a closeted gay man forced to live a lie in public is treated without tendentiousness or sentimentality. In bed with Scott, Lee mocks the tabloid rumor he himself started about his undying love for the ice skater Sonja Henie: “Please. Those thighs?”

Though the vast power differential between them dooms Lee and Scott’s relationship from the start, there are moments of real love between the two. The movie’s best scenes all come in the first hour, as the two men loll around in the bathtub and in bed, making unwise promises and revealing (strategically) their innermost selves. Douglas and Damon so fully inhabit their roles that the audience soon habituates to the novelty of seeing two such traditionally macho actors cast as gay lovers. The stunt-casting factor fades, and we start to experience Behind the Candelabra less as a gay-themed drama than as a macabre Hollywood love story in the tradition of Nathanael West or Sunset Boulevard. (There is an oblique reference to the same-sex marriage issue, though, in a scene where Liberace considers legally adopting Scott as a way to ensure his future financial security.)

In the second half, as Scott spirals into addiction and is forced to pawn the jewelry Liberace gave him while Liberace ponders a new model of boy toy, the plot arc starts to feel familiar from too many movies about the rich going off the rails. (There’s even a scene where a furious Scott destroys a roomful of precious artifacts, à la Citizen Kane). The movie loses focus, spending too much time on addiction clichés like an out-of-focus montage meant to suggest Scott’s inner experience (we get it, he’s high). By the time Liberace re-enters the picture, he’s become the object of Scott’s bitter palimony lawsuit, which occupies the last quarter of the movie without bringing us much new insight about either the men’s relationship or what happened between them legally (though Dan Aykroyd, as Liberace’s seen-it-all manager, brings some snarly comic relief to this draggy last act).

Even if Behind the Candelabra never fulfills the mirrored-piano promise of its early scenes, it’s more than worth seeing for the superb performances of Douglas and Damon, who vault over the taboo about typically macho straight actors playing flamboyantly gay characters like it ain’t no thing. Douglas, in particular, turns what could have been a mincing stereotype into a beautifully subtle portrait of a lonely, gifted, narcissistic artist; it’s the most I’ve ever seen Douglas transform himself physically and vocally for a role, yet he never overplays it. The casting of hetero leading men like Douglas and Damon in what’s sure to be one of the flaming-est mainstream movies of 2013 isn’t just a stunt on Soderbergh’s part; it’s a statement. When Jason Bourne and Gordon Gekko can visit a gay-porn emporium together in matching ermine coats, we know our society must be making strides toward progress.