Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra has long been seen as the director’s swansong. The film aired on HBO in the US, but it was thankfully granted a cinematic release in the UK.
Soderbergh’s film is an intimate and often funny portrait of the relationship between Michael Douglas’ Liberace and Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson (it’s based on his memoir). It’s a small and confined drama – in fact Richard LaGravenese’s script often feels like a play as the action is played-out in close quarters. We get to live with these men and share their lives together.
Michael Douglas delivers a fearless performance as Liberace. If it’s not the best performance of his career, then it’s his most emotionally naked. He touches on moments here that are not only the culmination of his work as an actor, but also his life as a man. Douglas’ recent health troubles make the last act of the film even more poignant and there are moments here that ring emotionally true. This is a role that Douglas needed to play, and he gives it his all.
Matt Damon is equally impressive as Thorson, throwing raw passion and powerful paranoia into scenes with great fervour – this is without a doubt his finest screen moment. The now middle-aged actor may not be able to pass for the young man that Thorson was when he first met Liberace, but he brings a naiveté to the character, something he is able to build on as the film progresses.
The supporting cast hits the right marks also. Debbie Reynolds has fun as Liberace’s sharp-witted mother, while Dan Aykroyd plays it straight as the pianist’s over-protective manager. However, the standout is Rob Lowe in an eye-watering role as Liberace’s plastic surgeon. He plays it for laughs but there’s demonic side to his character when Damon’s Thorson joins him in a Faustian pact.
Behind The Candelabra isn’t Soderbergh’s flashiest movie, he plays things very ‘straight’ visually. There are few cinematic flourishes– he knows that the performances are the focus here and he stands back and shoots things in such a way that you are drawn in.
Soderbergh’s going out on a cinematic high with Behind The Candelabra. He ditches the usual biopic format, deciding to focus on Liberace’s later life. He discards the star’s successful early years, showing him at his lowest emotional and creative ebb (when he was performing two shows a day in Las Vegas). It’s a clever move, even if we never do get to see the full illumination behind the candelabra.