STARRING: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Dan Aykroyd, Cheyenne Jackson, Nicky Katt, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, Boyd Holbrook
DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh
Is it possible for a movie to be “too gay” for mass audiences? Especially for a Michael Douglas/Matt Damon film directed by Steven Soderbergh that seems primed for awards consideration? A movie so good, it premiered at Cannes, despite being a TV movie? Well, the truth is that Steven Soderbergh couldn’t get any studios to bite on Behind The Candelabra, so he went to HBO. And HBO is enjoying all the free publicity for what is arguably one of their best originals of all time.
Behind The Candelabra is based on the book written by Scott Thorson, who in the movie is played by Matt Damon. Scott chronicles his great romance with Liberace (Michael Douglas), from the moment his current boyfriend introduces him to the piano great. Scott, only 19 at the time, falls immediately for Liberace’s charm, and is seduced into Liberace’s flashy lifestyle. Liberace leads Scott into his life, almost like a lion would with a gazelle. Slowly, Scott is picked apart, turning to drugs, and having his face reshaped to look more like Liberace, all with the promise of being Liberace’s forever boyfriend (and in one creepy segment, also his son).
But somehow, in some segments, Liberace and Scott manage to seem like a real married couple, despite all the insanity. Liberace really does care for Scott, and Scott adores Liberace. It’s a doomed relationship, for sure, but you find yourself oddly pulling for these two, hoping they’ll mend their differences. In the end, when Scott is alone and has nothing, Liberace reaches out to him one last time, and that final goodbye is the most powerful moment in the film, because of all the hard work they’ve put in leading to this point. Sure, Liberace may be a sex crazed maniac, and Scott was a drug addict, but these two complete each other.
None of this would be made possible if it wasn’t for the astounding acting by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Douglas slips seamlessly into Liberace’s soul for this spot on performance. I had to go back and youtube some Liberace to make sure, but Douglas does a fantastic job mirroring the mannerisms, and sounding like Liberace. Balancing the line between being a complete creeper and an endearing, loving partner seems to be easy for Douglas. It must have something to do with Damon’s acting as Scott. Tasked with trying to act 19, and going from being a naive teenager, to a naive lover, to a naive drug addict, Damon attacks the role with explosive intensity. Even in the small quiet moments, Damon’s stare cuts through your TV with precision. You can always feel Scott’s emotions through the entire film. Really, it’s Damon at his best too.
Backed by a surprisingly good supporting cast, including Rob Lowe in a role that should win someone a makeup award, as well as Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Cheyenne Jackson, and Scott Bakula, Behind The Candelabra is the kind of quality filmmaking that can really change the game in terms of the projects attracted to the medium. What Steven Soderbergh, in his final directorial effort, understood about Liberace is the ultimate truth in all of us. All Liberace wanted was to love and be loved, he just lived in an entirely different world than the rest of us. And for a brief moment, Scott lived there too.
FINAL GRADE: A