Behind The Candelabra debuts Sunday night at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) has traveled to Las Vegas with his friend, the well-connected Bob Black (an amusingly laid-back Scott Bakula). The two have mostly made the trip to take in the sights and be together. As two non-straight men in the 1970s (Thorson is bisexual; Black first meets Thorson in a gay bar), they’re both bound by a code of conduct that requires they live their lives via secret signals and handshakes. Yet they can see gay culture all around them, surfacing briefly in places where the mainstream doesn’t yet know to look for it. This is how the two end up at the piano-playing spectacular that is Liberace’s show.
How, Scott wonders, can this huge audience of Vegas vacationers be so entertained by a man who is so obviously gay? Oh, Bob replies, they don’t know he’s gay. Scott reacts in bewilderment, but when one of the two calls the performer an “old queen” loud enough for an older woman sitting in front of them to overhear, she turns and gives them an angry look. For mainstream American culture to embrace Liberace as it has, the man must be straight, someone who just hasn’t met the right woman yet. So straight Liberace shall be, and he’ll employ an army of people both to maintain that image and to feed his secret appetites. For many years, one of those he’ll employ will be Scott.
Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra is, like many Soderbergh films, made up of a great many things. There are elements of wry comedy here—particularly from a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe—just as there are heartbreaking moments of relationship drama, scenes where Scott and Liberace (Michael Douglas) tear each other’s throats out. Yet what’s most impressive about the film is how it creates a sustained argument about the progress of the gay rights movement in the United States. With no actual, legal connection between Scott and Liberace, the two are forced into ever more complicated convolutions, and when the relationship inevitably crumbles, Scott has no legal protection when the pianist takes everything. This is a story about two men who were in love, then gradually fell out of that love, but it’s also a story about how the lack of legal protection for them (as well as Liberace’s terror of how society would react if he were outed) hounded them every step of the way. It’s pitched between quiet, intimate scenes with Scott and “Lee,” as he likes to be called, lounging around, enjoying each other’s company, and that old woman’s stare, with everything that hides behind it.
The temptation with Behind The Candelabra is to read the whole thing as a monster movie. Scott is taken up to Liberace’s palatial estate, and he’s drawn slowly into the older man’s life of luxury and excess. Yet there’s a darker side to this as well, a vampiric sense that Lee is going to suck everything good out of Scott and leave him as a husk on the side of the road. Early in their relationship, Lee tells Scott that he wants to be everything to him: “Brother. Father. Lover. Best friend.” Throughout the film’s first hour, Lee goes out of his way to try to make each part of that equation come true. He has plastic surgery to make himself look younger (and forces Scott to get plastic surgery that he’ll look more like Lee). He tries to legally adopt his young companion. The two have sexual encounter after sexual encounter, until the glow begins to diminish.
And, to be sure, there’s an element of Liberace zeroing in on another young conquest that he will eventually tire of. When Scott and Bob first go over to Liberace’s estate, another young man, Liberace’s “protégé,” Billy (the unexpectedly hilarious Cheyenne Jackson, who gets very little to say but conveys so much with a glance), stalks about the house, tossing glares at Lee and Scott as they tour the home. Soon enough, Billy is on his way out, and Scott is on his way in, but the implication is always clear: Lee will eventually decide he wants someone else, and Scott will be sent back to the life he came from. Lee frequently attempts to assuage Scott’s fears with certain legal protections—like Scott owning his own Las Vegas area home—but they’re the sorts of protections that can—and will—disintegrate at a moment’s notice. It’s all a façade.
If that was what this film was about, however, it would be a much lesser one. Though the film is based on a memoir of the same name by the actual Thorson, the film’s version of Scott comes off as equally monstrous. He becomes addicted to drugs and will soon do just about anything, sell just about any present, to keep those drugs coming. There’s a mercenary element to his relationship with Lee, too, and at all times, there’s a sense that he’s keeping himself just a touch distant from the older man, even as they fall into a deep love. (The latter portions of the first hour are incredibly tender, particularly when one considers that these are two movie stars inhabiting a highly unlikely pairing between one other hugely famous person and a much younger man.) The approach suits Soderbergh’s direction, which keeps a detached, almost journalistic feel, holding the relationship at arm’s length and examining it like one of the many baubles lined up in Liberace’s home. The two men build each other up, but they also destroy each other, and once Scott realizes the spiral he’s caught in, he becomes ugly and desperate, while Lee becomes ever so slightly condescending, attempting to stay above it all.
Damon is terrific as Scott, a man who seems intent on keeping his distance but ends up falling in love with Liberace anyway. By the time his life is falling apart, Damon turns Scott into a wounded animal, limping directly toward the thing that wounded it, teeth bared. At every turn, Damon is matched by Douglas, who gives one of the best performances of his career, work so vital it’s been easy to forget he’s capable of something so good. It would be easy to make Liberace an elven mischief maker, given his public persona, and Douglas more than captures that element of the man. But he also finds something deeply hurting and mournful inside the man’s soul, and he turns him into someone who’s in need of things he can’t quite describe. He longs for children, for a companion, for someone to talk to. But he’s also so famous he has no choice but to become a little paranoid, certain to drive anyone who gets too close away after a time. Yet he keeps trying, able to keep from truly engaging with this central part of himself. Even if the rest of the film were a catastrophic failure, Douglas’ performance would be worth seeing it for.
Fortunately, the rest of the film is excellent. Soderbergh makes a few strange directorial choices here and there—Scott’s addiction is perhaps over-literalized when Soderbergh shoots him through hazy filters, and there’s a gloriously ostentatious climax that doesn’t quite work—and there are many characters who turn up around the periphery who could have used a bit more fleshing out. But Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay handily fills in key moments in both the rise and fall of Scott and Lee’s relationship, while also vividly suggesting the cheeseball world of the pianist and all his hangers-on (most notably Dan Aykroyd, as a manager whose sole task appears to be making sure that scandal floats away from Liberace before it even suggests itself).
This is purportedly Soderbergh’s final film (for at least a little while), which makes it all the stranger that it’s debuting on HBO, instead of in cinemas. (There’s certainly more than enough here to make for a feast of a film.) If, indeed, Soderbergh stays away for several years following this film, he chose a good one to go out on. As in many of his films, the story is told less as a cause-and-effect narrative than as a collection of incidents that add up to something with a crushing emotional weight. The film works like memory, the early scenes passing by like the snippets one might recall years later of just how one got into that relationship that ended poorly, before the later scenes allow Scott’s first meetings with Liberace to have their full weight. And then, just as in memory, the film seems unable to look away from the true devastation, the way that things fall apart, and the mind is left turning them over and over, wondering if there was ever anything worth preserving there in the first place.