At least three different films are competing for the same slot in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, one about glamour and kitsch, one about marital fatigue and one a sort of vampire tale. Unfortunately, the middle one gets the most time and a lot of solemnity and the third vanishes almost as soon as it appears. The first is by far the most interesting and Soderbergh knows this, since he makes a forlorn attempt to rescue it at the end. The question is why he allowed it to slip away for so long.
The beginning is very stylish, the pace is fast, voices are heard before we see their owners or settings, we shift from a gay bar to a movie set to a modest California home; a young man, Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon, is taken to a Liberace show in Las Vegas, meets the great man backstage and is invited to lunch the next day. Thorson is star struck, dazzled by Liberace’s piano playing, especially when he doubles the tempo in his boogie-woogie number, but also wowed, as thousands were, by the glamour of an excess of everything so spectacularly enjoyed by the owner of it all. ‘Palatial kitsch’ is Liberace’s name for the style of his rambling, cluttered mansion, and the man who introduces Thorson to the master says he’s a sort of Ludwig II. Thorson says ‘Who?’ and is told: ‘Oh, he was the Liberace of Bavaria.’
The star takes on the young man as secretary/chauffeur/bodyguard alias lover, and the honeymoon is launched. The year is 1977, and while Liberace is still a name – as late as 1986 he could pack Radio City – his real heyday was twenty years back. When he appeared in the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman series on television in 1966 it was as a myth rather than a contemporary. He died in 1987.
In the movie the performances keep pace with the glitter and the hokum for a while. Michael Douglas as Liberace acts up onstage and off, twinkles with a coy kindness that is all self-admiration but quite fetching even so; Damon is bewildered and wary and captivated in just the right proportions, and his shift from baffled gay guy into trinketed and tinted toy boy is beautifully done. Both actors, throughout the movie, manage to hang on to flickers of this engaging and iffy romance, this sense that stereotypes of the right ritzy kind can be loved and can make you happy. But then Thorson, standing on stage as the driver of the white Rolls-Royce that is also part of the act, and practically a pampered prisoner the rest of the time, can’t enjoy any of this in the way Liberace enjoys his celebrity, long, trailing white fur coat and his own jokes. The relationship sours, of course, and by a curious compulsion that besets gifted actors and talented directors in mainstream theatre and cinema, everyone gets interested in the supposed reality rather than the supposed show, committed to the deep, sad, boring truth of the personal relationship. As if campiness couldn’t also be true, and as if an invented identity, especially one that allows you to love yourself so much, were not a significant achievement. And so the film sinks into petty niggling and tantrums, glimpses of Liberace’s interest in pornography, Thorson’s prudish, disorderly objections, the final quarrels, the threats, the broken vases and trashed furniture, the lawyers.
In the meantime, though, we have been treated to what I have called the vampire tale. Liberace needs plastic surgery to take a few years off his appearance, and does come to look like a plausible simulacrum of a younger man if not the real thing. On stage he jokes that he doesn’t look bad for a man of 35. And for the man of 60 that he is at this point, he looks terrific. There is nothing strange or creepy here yet, except the doctor doing the surgery, marvellously played by Rob Lowe. He smiles endlessly in a genial, sinister fashion, as if he were Dr Mabuse rather than Dr Startz, and he never opens his eyes to make them more than slits. We have a theme here, since as a result of the doctor’s skills, Liberace’s skin looks great but he can’t close his eyes, and there is a remarkable scene where he snores with them open: a new, domestic representation of the undead. Meanwhile Liberace has suggested, no insisted, that Thorson also have surgery to make him not only look younger and gayer but also more like his patron. This remains an idea rather than an achieved image – neither Damon nor Douglas ceases to look like himself in this movie, that’s how we know they are acting – but it’s dramatic enough, and becomes part of Thorson’s distress. He feels he has given his own face away. Lowe is not helping, since his slimming pills have turned Thorson into an addict; but of course helping was never part of his plan, and his beaming pleasure in the weakness of others is a pleasure to watch, as long as we remember we are at the movies. He also makes Liberace’s delight in his toys, his pianos, cars, furs, houses and rhinestones, seem innocent, almost childish, the amiable follies of a man who managed to make the sort of money we all dream of making.
But this predator story, about possession and loss of self, quickly tilts back into the squabbles, the story of the lovers getting tired of each other, and we have to wait for a piece of plot to get us out of this extended static situation. Finally, Thorson’s foster-mother dies, he goes to the funeral, and when he comes back everything is different. Liberace has a new pet boy, no one wants to see Thorson, it’s all over but the screaming, weeping and the financial settlement.
The biopic goes very dark with Liberace’s final illness, and apparently follows the facts closely here. His last doctor – not the grinning Rob Lowe – certifies ‘cardiac arrest’ as the cause of death, but the Riverside County authorities regard this as a cover-up, and an autopsy identifies the cause as pneumonia associated with complications caused by Aids. The movie reminds us of the death of Rock Hudson in 1985, and of the changed visibility of the condition in these years. No open comment is made about this topic, but both the perceived need for the lie and the cruel insistence on the truth clearly belong to a world that understands itself poorly.
It is at this point that Soderbergh registers the need to return to the glamour, and he does so in such a fumbling fashion that you feel he must have abandoned his interest in the film some way before the end. Thorson attends Liberace’s funeral, and as the priest says ‘Let us pray,’ we see, notionally through Thorson’s moist eyes, a version of Liberace’s Radio City show, white suit, large chorus, and ascension to the rafters in the style of Peter Pan. As Douglas disappears into stage heaven, the camera returns to the church and the end of the service. The star’s real apotheosis was elsewhere and we have seen it: palatially kitschy immortality. This is bad enough, but Douglas doesn’t even get to play (or pretend to play) his piano in this scene. He sits at the keyboard and talks his way through ‘The Impossible Dream’ from Man of la Mancha. There is no doubt a historical precedent here, but it could have been abandoned. Liberace was funny in his shows, willing to laugh at the audience’s adoration of him, mocking himself while delighting in everything he mocked, and to replace his pretend mush with real mush is a sad betrayal.
A better memorial is the anecdote Douglas tells in the movie about the candelabra he always had on his piano. It was his personal signature, a trademark somewhere between gothic and chintz, and he lifted it, he says, from A Song to Remember, a 1945 biopic about Chopin. It’s significant that he remembers Merle Oberon, who played George Sand, and not Cornel Wilde, who played Chopin. She was more glamorous, but obviously Liberace had to be Chopin. It wasn’t the case that, as he once said, he played classical music with the boring bits left out. He converted classical music itself into something like Ludwig II’s castle. Just watch the video of him on YouTube, as he gets up in the morning, has breakfast and prepares to leave the house, sporadically playing a few bars of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto on instruments large and small set up in every corner and cupboard in the house. Now you know what the music is: a habitat and a game for showbusiness royalty.