If, like me, you’ve been kept up at night wondering, “What does Scott Bakula look like moustachioed and shirtless?”, the answer is waiting for you in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra… And the answer is glorious. Liberace is a celebrity I’ve only ever known as a sketch show punch line, so going in, I was more interested in Behind the Candelabra as director Steven Soderbergh’s supposed final film before retiring from the medium, than I was in its subject. Which lead to an awesome surprise… Liberace is an amazingly interesting, tragic and compelling character.
The story of a years long affair between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Behind the Candelabra is at its core, a cautionary tale built on a famous Liberace quote, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful”. The movie wastes no time getting to the relationship. Racing through their initial introduction and quickly moving the story along to Damon’s live-in status with Douglas, it also wastes no time mapping out what’s to come. No sooner has Damon become comfortable with his lavish new surroundings, than the houseboy who’s seen it all is letting Damon know he’s just the latest in a long line of inevitably replaceable playthings. But before the unavoidable comedown, the first half of the film focuses on two people very much in love, enjoying a life of extravagance and indulgence. The second half gives us the flips side, focusing on two people falling (and eventually completely fallen) out of love, in a lot of ways caused by that life of extravagance and indulgence.
Douglas and Damon are both note perfect in the leading roles, but they’re almost outshone by some of the supporting players. The afore mentioned Bakula is clearing having fun every second he’s on screen and Dan Aykroyd is in form rarely seen these days as Liberace’s manager, that makes you almost forget Blues Brothers 2000… Almost. But the MVP of Behind the Candelabra is, without a doubt Rob Lowe, as the plastic surgeon and distributor of his personally developed and fully pharmacological “California Diet” (patent pending). If I was told Behind the Candelabra 2: The Legend of Liberace’s Gold was in production and consisted of nothing more than Lowe’s stretched face and dead doll’s eyes staring blankly into the distance, I’d be in the cinema opening day.
Will this be Soderbergh’s swan song? For a filmmaker so prolific, he’s had to compete with himself for an Oscar, I’d be very surprised if it turns out that way. But if it is, Behind the Candelabra is an impressive, lavish and more than satisfying end to an eclectic, sometimes brilliant (sometimes, not so brilliant) career. He really has gone out in style. Gouache, tacky, golden jewel encrusted grand piano, over the top style.
One great little added bonus, I finally get the “I wish my brother George was here” joke from the Warner Brothers short Three Little Bops, that has puzzled me my entire life.